The Minnesota Golden Gophers held on for a disastrous win over the Colorado State Rams on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, dropping their record to a depressing 3-0 as they head for almost certain doom in Big Ten conference play. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from a gut-wrenching victory that has left Gopher fans searching for answers in the tragic wake of an undefeated non-conference schedule.
The offense — for the most part. The Gopher offense is averaging 39.6 points per game, and I would point to a loaded backfield and an improved passing game as big reasons for that. The Gophers’ running back corps was at full strength on Saturday, with Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, and Kobe McCrary combining for 197 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback Mitch Leidner also contributed 50 yards on 10 carries, with one touchdown. Leidner made one mistake in the passing game — that ill-advised interception before halftime (his first turnover of the season, I might add) — but continues to look good through the air. With KJ Maye gone and Rashad Still sidelined due to injury, Drew Wolitarsky has noticeably stepped up his game and become Leidner’s go-to target in the passing game. Wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Brian Smith have also emerged as viable receiving options.
Steven Richardson. The defensive tackle wasted no time making his presence known, barreling through the Rams offensive line to sack quarterback Collin Hill on the first play of the game. Richardson would finish with seven total tackles, including four tackles-for-loss. Gopher fans should’ve seen this coming after Richardson had a monster game against the same Colorado State team last season.
Tai’yon Devers. I think the embedded Tweet speaks for itself.
There are hits on the quarterback, and then there are Tai'yon Devers hits on the quarterback. O-U-C-H. https://t.co/cs5ZwE7QFv— Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) September 24, 2016
Antonio Shenault. Starting at cornerback in place of the suspended KiAnte Hardin, Shenault looked lost at times against Indiana State. But he was much improved after the bye week. Senior cornerback Jalen Myrick allowed the Rams’ their lone passing touchdown, while Shenault led the defense with ten tackles and one pass break-up against Colorado State.
The defense. Who would’ve thought the Gophers would close out the non-conference schedule with good feelings about the offense and troubling concerns about the defense? Yet here we are. Having re-watched the game, I’m not too down about the pass defense. Damarius Travis nabbed the Gophers’ first interception of the season and aside from a 29-yard pass on an illegal fake punt -- I’ll take “Interior Linemen More Than Six Yards Downfield” for 500, Alex — the secondary allowed 182 passing yards. Not bad. The run defense is a different story. The Gopher defense allowed 158 yards on the ground and were gashed for runs of 13, 18, 19, and 21 yards. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel went with a 3-4 front for much of the game and the Gophers struggled with their run fits, allowing the Rams to run all over them at times. Missed tackles were also a problem. The Gophers have much to clean up on this side of the ball.
Weird Stats from the Game: The Gophers held Rams starting running back Dalyn Dawkins to 12 rushing yards on 11 carries. Change of pace backs Izzy Matthews and Marvin Kinsey combined for 83 yards on 15 carries, with one touchdown. In total, the Gopher defense collected 14 tackles for loss but allowed 15 plays of 10 yards or more.
The offensive line. The Gopher offensive line was alternately good, bad, and ugly on Saturday, so their final grade ends up somewhere in the middle. The line has been solid in pass protection so far, but allowed their first sack of the season on the most inopportune drive of the game. The Rams brought consistent pressure all game long and could’ve had more sacks if not for Leidner being able to escape the pocket. The Gopher offense racked up 243 rushing yards against Colorado State, but that was almost in spite of the offensive line. Gopher running backs were constantly getting hit at or behind the line of scrimmage. Credit Smith, Brooks, and McCrary for being able to find running room when it often appeared there was none to be had.
I understand Vincent Calhoun was out at right guard recovering from a toe injury -- he is expected back next week — but the Gophers have to be able to play better up front moving forward, especially as conference play begins.
The jet sweep with Drew Wolitarsky. Please stop.
Gopher fans’ trust in Tracy Claeys’ depth charts. I didn’t think there was anything particularly ugly in the game, so I thought this was a good spot to point out how meaningless those Tuesday depth charts actually are. The Gophers opened the game with a 3-4 defense that saw Steven Richardson (a back-up on the depth chart) starting alongside Hendrick Ekpe and Andrew Stelter on the line. The four linebackers were Cody Poock, Jack Lynn, Carter Coughlin, and Kamal Martin, the latter two having both been listed as second string in the two-deep. Duke McGhee also started at the safety position opposite Damarius Travis, rather than listed starter Kunle Ayinde.
I also remember several commenters pondering whether Tai’yon Devers was in the doghouse after being absent from the depth chart for the first three games. Well, ponder no more after yet another strip sack from the freshman. Claeys did mention in his postgame comments that Devers will be more of a pass rush specialist until he can add size to stop the run. Think of him as this year’s Julian Huff.