Well, another season of Gopher Football has come and gone. But instead of sulking into the offseason, Gopher fans have reason to be optimistic after a strong finish to head coach P.J. Fleck’s second year at Minnesota, capped by an impressive 34-10 victory over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Mohamed Ibrahim and the Minnesota Movers. Ibrahim was, at one point, the Gophers’ third-string running back. Then Shannon Brooks was lost for the season after tearing an ACL during offseason workouts last winter, and Rodney Smith followed suit two games into the season. Couple that with the fact that Ibrahim missed three games this season due to injury, and suddenly his 1,160 rushing yard season seems even more remarkable. The Gopher running back capped by his redshirt freshman season with an exclamation point, rushing for 224 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia Tech to earn the title of Quick Lane Bowl MVP. He also did so behind a Minnesota offensive line that was dominant despite the absence of three-year starting left tackle Donnell Greene, opening the door for true freshman Curtis Dunlap to crack the starting five and offer Gopher fans of their offensive line for the foreseeable future.
The Gopher run defense. Through his first four games as defensive coordinator at Minnesota, Joe Rossi has proven to be particularly adept at neutralizing the perceived strengths of opposing offenses. He limited Purdue to 145 passing yards (well below their season average of 317.8 passing yards per game) and held Wisconsin to 170 rushing yards (well below their season average of 227.4 rushing yards per game). The Quick Lane Bowl was no different, as the Gopher defense smothered the top-ranked rushing attack in the country to the tune of 206 rushing yards (well below their season average of 334.9 rushing yards per game).
This was accomplished, I might add, without starting linebackers Blake Cashman and Kamal Martin and starting defensive tackles O.J. Smith and Jamaal Teague. (Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story asserted that Martin, Smith, and Teague were suspended from the bowl game due to a violation of team rules. Martin did not travel with the team, but Smith and Teague did and were not medically cleared to play, per “sources.” We apologize for the error.)
Credit to Julian Huff, Gary Moore, and Boye Mafe, specifically, for stepping up. Rossi and his crew were able to keep the Yellow Jacket offense off balance all night long, utilizing a variety of different formations and pre-snap shifts to make life difficult for Georgia Tech.
Joe Rossi.— Carter Coughlin (@Cmoe34) December 27, 2018
Tyler Johnson. The junior wide receiver now owns the single-season school record for receiving yards (1,169) and touchdowns (12). He came up six short of the single-season school record for receptions, finishing with 78 on the season. Against the Yellow Jackets, Johnson looked the part of the one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten, if not the entire country, hauling in four receptions for 57 yards and two touchdowns.
And for those losing sleep over the prospect of Johnson forgoing his senior season for the NFL:
Jacob and Julian Huff. In their final game wearing the maroon and gold, the Huff brothers went out on top, finishing the bowl game as the top two tacklers on defense. Julian collected nine tackles and a sack, while Jacob tallied eight tackles of his own. It was a fitting farewell for two seniors who have been key contributors since their freshman seasons.
Head coach P.J. Fleck. Fleck must own the disastrous hiring of defensive coordinator Robb Smith, which led to a demoralizing stretch midway through the season when the Gophers lost five of six in catastrophic fashion on defense. But Fleck also deserves credit for cutting Smith loose when he did, a decision that likely resuscitated his second year at the helm. Once Rossi took over playcalling duties, Minnesota was a completely different team. The Gophers finished the season winning three of their last four games, averaging 31.5 points per game on offense and allowing an average of 14.8 points per game on defense over that span.
Just one year after finishing 5-7 and failing to muster a single point over the final two games of the season, Fleck’s Gophers are singing a completely different tune with Paul Bunyan’s Axe back in Minneapolis, a bowl game victory under their belt, and a winning record.
The Gophers’ passing game. Outside of the two touchdowns for Tyler Johnson, it was a ho-hum game through the air for Minnesota. Redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan wasn’t asked to do much, attempting 13 passes and completing seven of them for 132 yards and two touchdowns. But his accuracy, especially downfield, left much to be desired and made it clear that the quarterback competition this spring will be wide open between him, Zack Annexstad, and incoming freshmen Jacob Clark and Cole Kramer.
The Gophers won’t take the field again until Aug. 29, 2019. Now we wait.