The Golden Gophers closed out their non-conference schedule with a 34-3 victory over the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders, who were without starting quarterback Brent Stockstill. Minnesota has a bye week before opening up conference play at home against Maryland, but before we turn our attention to the Big Ten, let’s break down how the Gophers fared against the Blue Raiders on Saturday.
Kobe McCrary. With Shannon Brooks held out and Rodney Smith MIA after getting his bell rung before halftime, senior running back Kobe McCrary was forced to carry the load, and he made the most of it. McCrary bulldozed the Blue Raider defense to the tune of 107 rushing yards on 23 carries with 3 touchdowns. With Brooks and Smith, it’s easy to forget that McCrary is also a very capable back, and Saturday was a good reminder.
I should also note that Smith was having a heck of game before his departure, rushing for 107 yards on 16 carries in just two quarters of action.
Robb Smith. One of the biggest concerns I had regarding the coaching change was whether the Gophers would be able to maintain the tremendous strides that had been made on the defensive side of the ball under Tracy Claeys and Jay Sawvel. I’ve had enough nightmares from the 2006 Insight Bowl and the historically bad defense in Tim Brewster’s first season at the helm. But defensive coordinator Robb Smith has put those concerns to rest — for now, at least — with an impressive start to the season.
Granted, the true test will come against Big Ten opponents, but the results so far are difficult to ignore, even against mediocre competition. The Gophers are 10th in the nation in total defense (239 yards per game), 4th in rushing defense (59 yards per game), tied for 39th in passing defense (180 yards per game), and 3rd in scoring defense (8 points per game). Minnesota’s defense has also held all three of their opponents scoreless in the second half this season.
The Gophers have also been stellar on third down. The Blue Raiders were 3-for-14 on third down, and Minnesota is tied for 18th nationally in third down defense.
Turnovers. Head coach P.J. Fleck has said on more than one occasion that “the ball is the program.” And that is true on both sides of the ball. One of the biggest keys to Fleck’s turnaround at Western Michigan was turnover margin. The Broncos were 107th in the nation in turnover margin in his first season, but were tied for 1st nationally last year. That has carried over to Minnesota, and turnovers on defense loomed large against Middle Tennessee State. Safety Jacob Huff blew the game open with a 67-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter, and linebacker Thomas Barber made an incredible interception on a tipped pass in the third quarter. The latter opened the door for a 16-play, 56-yard touchdown drive that consumed 8 minutes off the clock and effectively put the game out of reach.
The Gophers are currently tied for 18th nationally in turnover margin, having turned it over twice but collected three fumbles and three interceptions.
Nate Wozniak’s 50-yard catch and run. Considering the 6’10’’ senior tight end had all of 215 career receiving yards prior to this game, Wozniak rumbling down the sideline for 50 yards was a sight to behold. If you predicted Wozniak would have more receiving yards than Tyler Johnson against Middle Tennessee State, go buy a lottery ticket.
Conor Rhoda. I can already here the furious rebuttals being typed out in the comments, but I was not impressed with Rhoda. With his chief competitor stepping away from the program, I was hoping to see Rhoda take another step forward and alleviate some of the concerns at the quarterback position. That didn’t happen, in my opinion. Even with good pass protection, Rhoda struggled. He was 11-for-18 for 122 yards, which is even less impressive when you consider that 50 of those yards were on that late game 50-yard pass to Wozniak. I continue to have concerns as to whether or not Rhoda and the passing game can carry the offense when Big Ten defenses are able to limit or shut down the rushing attack.
With that said, it was also a noticeably conservative game plan, especially in the passing game. Rhoda rarely challenged the Blue Raiders’ secondary down the field, with the majority of the passing plays being short or intermediate passes, often behind the line of scrimmage. To his credit, he also hasn’t had a turnover since his interception against Buffalo. So Rhoda was maybe more “Meh” than “Bad,” but I’m sure that caveat won’t stop people from overreacting.
Injuries. Starting center Jared Weyler didn’t dress for the game. Shannon Brooks was held out due to a banged up shoulder. Rodney Smith exited with what appeared to be a concussion before halftime and did not return to the game. Cornerback Zo Craighton went down late with a knee injury. Tight end Brandon Lingen limped off the field with an ankle injury. The Gophers need to get healthy. They don’t have the depth to withstand a multitude of injuries. Hopefully the bye week allows them to heal up.
Third down conversions. The Gopher offense did not convert a single third down in the first half and finished the game 3-for-14 on third down. That’s not going to cut it against better competition. Of the five third downs Minnesota was unable to convert in the first half, all but one were third and long. The offense simply hasn’t been able to recover after going backwards (or nowhere) on first down.
That first half offense. The trouble started when the Gophers couldn’t convert on 3rd and 3 in the red zone and settled for a 24-yard Emmit Carpenter field goal at the end of an impressive 12-play drive to open the game. On their next four offensive drives, the Gophers accounted for 37 yards, one first down, one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and one field goal. Conor Rhoda was 3-for-8 with 18 passing yards during that stretch. The ineffective offense Head coach P.J. Fleck was especially critical of the first half offense in his postgame press conference, describing their play as “undisciplined.”