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Minnesota Football: Midseason Offensive Report Card

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Evaluating the offense through the first six games of the Gophers’ season

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Minnesota at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now that we’ve reached the midpoint of the season, midterm exams are upon us, and I’ll be handing out grades to each unit on both sides of the ball for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Here I’ll be covering the offense and in another post I’ll cover the defense and special teams.

Here is where the offense ranks from a statistical standpoint:

S&P+ Offense: 9th (Yes, that means ninth in all of FBS)

Passing Offense: 229.7 YPG (7th B1G, 74th nationally)
Rushing Offense: 186.2 YPG (6th, 46th)
Scoring Offense: 35.5 PPG (5th, T-31st)

Quarterback

Named the starting quarterback during fall camp once sophomore Zack Annexstad went down with a foot injury, redshirt sophomore Tanner Morgan stepped back into the starting role after starting the final five games of last season. I’d say expectations for Morgan coming into this season were modest at best. And for the most part, he has exceeded them, throwing for 1,378 passing yards and 14 touchdowns and completing nearly 70 percent of his passes.

The highlight of his season so far is without question his record-breaking performance against Purdue. Morgan set a Big Ten record for completion percentage by completing 21 of 22 pass attempts, torching the Boilermakers for 396 passing yards and four touchdowns.

How he stacks up from a statistical standpoint:

  • 1st in the Big Ten in passer rating (4th nationally)
  • 2nd in the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (Tied for 12th nationally)
  • 4th in the Big Ten in passing yards (47th nationally)
  • 4th in the Big Ten in completion percentage (18th nationally)

He has not been perfect. His pocket presence at times has been the subject of criticism, and three of his turnovers — two fumbles and one interception — have been returned for touchdowns by opposing defenses. But those are warts on what has been an otherwise impressive performance.

Grade: B+

Running Back

I could grade this group hand-in-hand with the offensive line because their trajectories through the first six games have followed virtually the same path. It was slow going early in the season. Rodney Smith has been the constant, even as he has gradually worked his way back to being the explosive running back he was before tearing his ACL last year. Shannon Brooks wasn’t available until Week 5 as he recovered from his own ACL tear. And Mohamed Ibrahim was sidelined for three games with an undisclosed leg injury suffered during practice.

The Nebraska game was the first game for which Minnesota had all three backs at their disposal and the results were as fun as you’d expect:

  • Smith: 18 carries, 139 yards, 1 touchdown
  • Brooks: 13 carries, 99 yards
  • Ibrahim: 15 carries, 84 yards, 3 touchdowns

Through the first three games of the season, as the offensive line worked through their issues and the Gophers were forced to mix and match at running back, the ground game averaged 123.7 rushing yards per game. Since the start of conference play, Minnesota has averaged 248.7 rushing yards per game. I’d say they’re trending in the right direction.

Grade: B

Wide Receiver

Few would disagree that this is the most talented wide receiver corps the Gophers have had in years. It certainly says something that All-Big Ten receiver Tyler Johnson has largely been overshadowed by sophomore Rashod Bateman, who was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list a week ago. Johnson has pulled ahead of Bateman in receptions (33) and touchdowns (5), but Bateman leads the team in receiving yards (533). Together, along with redshirt sophomore Chris Autman-Bell, the Gophers’ trio of top wide receivers have collectively recorded 69 receptions for 1,227 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Not a bad haul through six games.

Grade: A-

Tight End

There’s not much to write home about in terms of receiving. Between Jake Paulson and Brevyn Spann-Ford, the Gophers’ tight ends have combined for 5 receptions, 63 receiving yards, and one touchdown. They haven’t been quite as active in the passing game as some may have hoped coming into this season, but they’ve been instrumental in run blocking. Paulson, Ko Kieft, and Bryce Witham have been outstanding in helping the offensive line open up holes in the running game. Spann-Ford, as a redshirt freshman, is a work in progress as a blocker, but he has the size and ball skills right now to be a red zone threat.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Coming into this season, the big question was at left tackle. Who would replace three-year starter Donnell Greene? When it became clear that Sam Schlueter would inherit that role, Gopher fans were understandably nervous. It was Schlueter who struggled mightily at right tackle last season, enough so that Fleck and co. decided to burn the redshirt of true freshman Daniel Faalele. But as the offensive line struggled during the non-conference slate earlier this year, Schlueter was the picture of consistency. He is far and away their most improved player on offense.

The biggest adjustment came during the Gophers’ bye week, when offensive line coach Brian Callahan decided to start rotating John Michael Schmitz in at center and shifting Conner Olson to guard, affording either left guard Curtis Dunlap or right guard Blaise Andries a breather at different intervals to keep them fresh. The results speak for themselves.

My biggest concern with this group is in pass protection. They’ve allowed 16 sacks through the first six games, which ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten and the country. To their credit, they’ve only allowed one in their last two games, but both of those games saw Tanner Morgan make fewer than 20 pass attempts. The Minnesota Movers must be able to keep Morgan clean when they need to lean more heavily on their passing attack, especially against defenses like Penn State and Wisconsin that rank in the Top 10 nationally in both rushing defense and sacks.

Grade: B