Greetings Gopher Faithful! Week eight is in the books! It was the Gophers’ second conference victory of the season! Let’s get to it...
Today's win by the numbers pic.twitter.com/VFDt5yXdU3— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) October 23, 2016
#1 Rodney Smith (RS. Sophomore - RB)
I’m beginning to run out of things to say about Smith. In this particular contest, he saved the game from plummeting into complete Gopher misery by taking a kickoff to the house like it was no big thing. 22 carries, 111 yards, a 27 yard reception, and a kickoff return for a touchdown. Just another day in Mr. Smith’s neighborhood.
#13 Jonathan Celestin (Junior - LB)
Celestin has seemingly been everywhere on the field the last three games. He had 12 tackles, including 1 sack as a TFL and has contributed in all aspects of the defense. He’s been prominent in stopping the run, defending short throws, and continues to highlight the depth of talent the Gophers seem to have at the LB position this year.
#95 Hendrick Ekpe (Senior - DL)
Finding a true third “star” was hard but I’ll give a slight hat tip to Ekpe, who had two sack, three TFLs, and six total tackles to help the defense do just enough to secure the victory on Saturday. He made a few plays when they were desperately needed in the second half of the game when things were about to get really hairy. It wasn’t pretty but here we are anyways.
Ekpe has a career high two sacks and three tackles-for-loss today!— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) October 22, 2016
The first quarter made things look like all was sunny and well in Gopher Town on Homecoming weekend. Outside allowing Rutgers a semi-plodding drive that led to a field goal, the Gophers had three offensive possessions and three touchdowns. Things couldn’t be going much better when the quarter ended with another Rutgers possession soon to end and the score reading 21-3 in favorite of Minnesota.
The second quarter quickly reminded us that we were watching the Gophers and that nothing would come easy. The quarter included two offensive three-and-outs, allowing Rutgers to drive 55 yards for a touchdown and being fortunate enough to snuff out a even longer 83-yard drive that was ended on an interception in the end zone. Gopher faithful were getting frustrated.... and the the frustration was only beginning...
The third quarter was a busy one. It started with a lightening quick Rutgers drive that resulted in a touchdown. Minnesota answered with a field goal of its own. The Gophers forced a punt... but unfortunately, two Gopher receivers collided during the ensuing possession and Mitch Leidner threw a poor pass that resulted in a pick-6. When Rodney Smith returned the following kickoff back for a touchdown, it seemed like the Gophers would weather the storm, hunker down on defense, and finally put the Scarlet Knights away. Minnesota even forced a turnover the next possession. But the inability to convert on 4th and 1 from the Rutgers 10 yard-line would be another turning point in a game full of turning points.
The fourth quarter began in the midst of a 90 yard Rutgers drive that ended in a touchdown that brought the Scarlet Knights back to only a two-point deficit. After exchanging punts, the Gophers, once again, couldn’t convert an essential 4th and 1 situation, however, this time, it placed the opposition in strikingly dangerous field position. This wouldn’t become immediately evident because Rutgers would go three-and-out and punt the ball away. Unfortunately for Minnesota fans’ and their poor hearts, Drew Wolitarsky thought it a good idea to try to catch a punt by moving his arms and not his feet. The ensuing fumble gave Rutgers the necessary proximity to the goal line to go three-and-out but be in field goal possession. Their kick was a true and the Gophers found themselves trailing the laughing stock of the Big Ten with just four minutes remaining on the clock. But Rodney Smith wasn’t about to allow Homecoming weekend to become a depressing affair of Gopher faithful wallowing in self-pity. He was the driving force behind the possession that brought the Gophers upon the Rutgers 10 yard line with just 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Emmit Carpenter’s chip shot was true and the Gophers escaped with the win, if not their dignity.
It was ugly. No doubt about it. Poorly played game. Worst game of the season for the Gophers according to S&P+ (just a 22% performance percentile). The only way to put lipstick on this pig is that they won. If you can say you played your worst game of the season and still walked away with more points than the other team, consider yourselves lucky and quickly move on. Don’t think twice. Just diagnose the mistakes, then throw away the tape and look ahead to the next team on the schedule. Just ask Ohio State and their fans how it feels to lose their worst-played game of the season.
While the defense played like hot trash after the first quarter, I think it’s also fair to say that Rutgers has found a better option for their offense in quarterback Giovanni Rescigno. He wasn’t spectacular or anything but he was able to allow the Rutgers offense to move the ball with both his legs and his arm. He had two picks, both of which were pretty poor throws, but he was definitely better option than whoever it was leading the offense against Michigan and Ohio State.
I don’t understand what happened to the offensive play-calling diversity shown in the first two drives the rest of the game. The first two drives were an excellent combination of runs, short yardage passes, and medium level routes that this offense should be running and finding success with. After that, it seemed like the offense went into a bit of a shell and refused to show anymore creativity. It’s possible they had schemed up the first few drives very deliberately leading up to the game but it was disappointing to be teased by such proficiency only to watch such sucktitude the rest of the game.
The Gophers don’t have the quality depth necessary to handle situations such as the restraining order saga that is currently playing out in Hennepin County courts. In order to defy projections, a team has to have a few breaks go their way in order to avoid roster attrition. The Gophers, as currently constructed, don’t have the depth to lose a large quantity of players to injury or legal problems. That’s just the way it is when you are not bringing in big-time recruiting classes and rank in the top 50 in S&P+ as oppose to the top 25.
Let’s look at the season from an S&P+ type view. I hate that we lost to Penn State and Iowa. We were in both games and had control of both at some point in the fourth quarter. It’s infuriating that we didn’t win one or both of those games. But....
Penn State is up to 16th in S&P+. So that certainly isn’t a bad loss especially considering Hardin was missing for the game. Iowa is 42nd. Since we’re now 39th and had home field advantage in that game, it’s definitely one that we should have had. It will go down in history as a huge mystery as to why the coaching staff only ran Rodney Smith 11 times in that game.
But before this season started, we were ranked 38th in S&P+. Now, we’re at 39th. Things haven’t changed much. We are favored to win three of the last five games. That would give us 8 wins. Most people thought we’d get around eight wins. I had us at 9, thinking we’d beat Iowa and lose at Penn State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
I understand some of the frustrations with the team. But college football is a volatile, complex, system with many moving parts and cogs. A team can look like world-beaters one day and chumps the next. Miami (FL) was ranked 10th in the country but just a few fleeting weeks ago. Now, they’re 1-3 in conference play and only ahead of Duke in their division.
What the Gophers have done on the field thus far this year has been frustrating, sometimes pleasing, infuriating, mind-boggling, and at time, hard to comprehend. But keep in mind that things can change in the blink of an eye in college football. In 2013, Minnesota had just gotten walloped by a mediocre Michigan squad by 29 points, were 0-2 in conference play, and people were beginning to wonder if Jerry Kill had the goods or not. Well, the Gophers proceeded to win four straight conference games, including beating a ranked Nebraska team and Penn State.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, things can change quick around here. Be wary of jumping to conclusions before letting a season play out.
The Gophers head to Urbana-Champaign to attempt to spoil Homecoming Weekend for the Fighting Illini. Let us hope to avoid a repeat of the 2014 Homecoming Game in Chambana.