It’s almost here. The Minnesota Golden Gophers will open their season against the New Mexico State Aggies on Thursday, August 30, at 6 p.m. at TCF Bank Stadium.
So let’s get to know the Gophers’ season-opening opponent.
Were they any good last year?
Record: 7-6 (4-4, T-5th Sun Belt)
S&P+ Overall Ranking: 72nd
The Aggies were good enough to go bowling last season, which is more than I can say about the Gophers. New Mexico State was bowl-eligible for the first time since 1960 and even came away with a 26-20 overtime victory over Utah State in the Arizona Bowl, which was quite an accomplishment for head coach Doug Martin in his fifth year at the helm.
Their 6-6 regular season record included two road losses to Power 5 programs. Their season-opening loss to the Arizona State was much too close for comfort for the Sun Devils, who allowed Aggies senior quarterback Tyler Rogers to rack up 398 passing yards and three touchdowns. New Mexico State scored 18 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes of the game to cut the score to 37-31, but Arizona State was able to hold on.
There was less drama in the Aggies’ 42-24 loss to Arkansas. The Razorbacks opened up a 21-0 lead in the second quarter and never looked back, dominating the time of possession (41:35, compared to 18:25). Rogers again had success through the air, passing for 344 yards and two touchdowns, but the Aggies’ rushing offense was limited to 11 yards on the ground.
Fun Fact: Last year was the Aggies last as a member of the Sun Belt. The conference did not renew their membership, so New Mexico State is now an Independent.
What about this year?
Jury’s out, but the season opener against Wyoming didn’t inspire much confidence.
Over the weekend, the Aggies were smothered by the Cowboys’ defense, failing to reach the end zone until their final drive of the game, when the score was already 29-0.
Can they score on offense?
New Mexico State clearly misses having Tyler Rogers under center. The senior quarterback was the Aggies’ spark on offense last season, passing for 4,016 yards and 27 touchdowns. His replacement, Matt Romero, struggled against Wyoming. The JUCO transfer was limited to 140 yards passing and one touchdown in a 16-for-27 performance.
The Aggies also lost their top running back, Larry Rose III, and their top wide receiver, Jaleel Scott. Rose rushed for 939 yards on 187 attempts last year, with 10 rushing touchdowns. He was also the team’s second leading receiver, behind Scott, with 55 receptions for 522 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Scott, who is now with the Baltimore Ravens, hauled in 76 receptions for 1,079 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
That’s three of their top offensive playmakers, all gone.
Junior Jason Huntley, who was bottled up for 22 rushing yards on nine attempts against Wyoming, is the type of all-purpose running back capable of filling Rose’s shoes on offense. Last season, he rushed for 420 yards on 70 attempts with one rushing touchdown and recorded 39 receptions for 363 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.
New Mexico State returns most of their receiving corp from a season ago, but none possess the game-changing talent of Jaleel Scott. Senior Johnathan Boone and juniors O.J. Clark and Anthony Muse will be the Aggies’ most popular targets, as the three combined to snag 10 of the team’s 18 receptions and 66 of the team’s 144 receiving yards last week against the Cowboys.
The Aggies run a pass-heavy offense, which will put a lot of pressure of the Gophers’ young secondary, led by Antoine Winfield, Jr. Minnesota will need to apply pressure of their own against a solid offensive line to help stifle the passing game. New Mexico State’s offensive line resembled a game of musical chairs last season, but return a bevy of juniors and seniors now with game experience. The Cowboys were able to rack up three sacks of Romero, and the Gophers will need to do the same. He can’t be allowed to get comfortable.
I also don’t know how much stock I’d put in the Aggies’ anemic offensive performance last week against Wyoming. The Cowboys were ranked 7th in the country in total defense last season, according to S&P+, and return eight starters from that elite unit this fall. I imagine this year’s Gophers squad would struggle against them, as well.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
The Aggies’ performance against Wyoming bodes well for Minnesota.
The Cowboys are replacing quarterback Josh Allen, now of the Buffalo Bills, with redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal, so their first game of the season was very much in the hands of their rushing attack. Led by senior running back Nico Evans, Wyoming racked up 312 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground, alleviating the pressure on Vander Waal, who mustered 137 passing yards while faring 13-for-22 through the air.
Minnesota is in a similar situation with true freshman starting quarterback Zack Annexstad, so if senior running back Rodney Smith and his stable of back-ups can gash the Aggies’ defense, the Gophers should be able to follow the same formula as Wyoming.
Unfortunately, New Mexico State brings back a lot of experience on defense, with a starting defense composed almost entirely of upperclassmen.
The defensive line, which tallied a school record 43 sacks last year, returns mostly intact, with only one contributor graduating. Redshirt junior defensive end Cedric Wilcots II is the Aggies’ top pass rusher, recording 8.5 sacks last season, but redshirt junior Malik Demby has made a name for himself with 6.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss at the “money position,” a nine-technique hybrid position that is equal parts defensive end and linebacker.
Gone is last year’s team leader in tackles, linebacker Dalton Herrington, but junior Leon McQuaker proved he is up to the task of replacing his production, leading the Aggie defense with 18 total tackles against Wyoming on Saturday.
In a secondary that allowed 234.4 passing yards per game last season, the Aggies have lost one starting safety, but return All-Sun Belt Conference defensive backs in senior Ron LaForce (who notched 14 tackles a week ago) and junior Shamad Lomax. Holding down one cornerback spot will be redshirt freshman Ray Buford, a former Gopher who was expelled from Minnesota.
But who will score more points on Thursday?
Minnesota, I believe. But it will be much closer than fans will be comfortable with. New Mexico State has the advantage of one game under their belt, which should help as they re-tool their offense to replace Rogers, Rose, and Scott. The Gophers haven’t had that luxury, so they’ll be forced to work out their kinks against an experienced Aggie defense. But ultimately I think the Gophers’ defense is good enough to hold serve until the offense can find a rhythm in the second half to pull away for good. Minnesota 24, New Mexico State 10.