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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Auburn - Opponent Preview

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This will be the first matchup between the Gophers and the Tigers

Alabama v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Outback Bowl is almost upon us!

On New Year’s Day, the No. 18-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers will take the field against the No. 12-ranked Auburn Tigers in the first matchup between the two programs.

We’ve got the scoop on what to expect.

Are they any good this year?

2019 Record: 9-3 (6-3, 3rd SEC West)
S&P+ Ranking: 10th

The Tigers opened the season with a win over No. 6-ranked Oregon, ended it with an Iron Bowl upset of No. 13-ranked Alabama, and dropped games to No. 1-ranked LSU, No. 5-ranked Georgia, and No. 9-ranked Florida in between. Yeah, I’d say they are pretty good.

Can they score on offense?

The Gus Malzahn offense is a power rushing attack that relies on a fair amount of deception and motion before and during each play. The Tigers will get creative in how they utilize multiple tight ends and H-backs or fullbacks to execute blocks from unique spots, but at the end of the day what they want to do is overpower opposing defensive lines in the trenches, gobble up yards on the ground, and try to catch the defense napping with an occasional shot down the field.

Sophomore running back JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow is the centerpiece of their offense. He was banged up late in the year due to a knee injury suffered in October, but he finished the regular season with a team-leading 739 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Auburn will likely spell him with freshman back D.J. Williams, who rushed for 387 yards on 79 carries while filling the void for Whitlow at times. Whitlow is more of a workhorse because of his size, but he also has the speed to make plays in space. Williams is the better short yardage back.

What has held back the Tigers’ rushing attack this season is the offensive line. Despite a starting five the features four seniors, their pass blocking has been average and their run blocking has been worse. Zone blocking, which is a staple of the Gus Malzahn offense, is a particular pain point for this offensive line, and Auburn has been unable to run the ball consistently as a result.

Most observers will point to true freshman starting quarterback Bo Nix as the problem. While I would obviously disagree, Nix has had his fair share of struggles. He is only completing 57 percent of his passes, but he has thrown 15 touchdowns and has the legs to extend plays and even take off on third down to find the yards for a fresh set of downs. Nix tends to struggle on obvious passing downs, so stifling the Tigers’ rushing attack on first and second downs is key.

Nix has the ability to complete the occasional deep ball, but he is at his best in the intermediate passing game and his favorite target is sophomore wide receiver Seth Williams. Williams is big, fast, and doesn’t have to get creative in his route running because he can consistently run straight down the field and catch jump balls. He leads the team with 55 receptions, 801 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns. Sophomore Anthony Schwartz is reported to be the fastest player on the team, but he has been more of a possession receiver for Auburn.

Junior wide receiver Eli Stove is the Tigers’ Swiss Army Knife. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chad Morris will line Stove up either split out at wide receiver or in the backfield, and he’ll be the player called upon to take jet sweeps, screens, swing passes, and plenty of play fakes.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

This a game that will be decided in the trenches, and that is no more apparent than when you look at the matchup between the Minnesota offensive line and the Auburn defensive line. The Tigers have one of the best defensive lines in the country, anchored by Outland Trophy finalist Derrick Brown, who is expected to be the top defensive tackle taken in April’s NFL Draft. Reserve defensive end Nick Coe is forgoing the Outback Bowl to focus on preparing for the draft, but I don’t expect his absence to have much of an impact, if any, on how this defensive line performs.

Next to Brown, senior defensive end Marlon Davidson is another force of nature, leading the team with 7.5 sacks and tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 11.5. Junior defensive end Big Kat Bryant and junior defensive tackle Tyrone Truesdell emerged as the go-to options at the other two starting spots on the defensive line. Auburn will also rotate in T.D. Moultry, Derick Hall, and Jared Handy to crank up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks on passing downs.

The Tigers’ formidable defensive line has helped them mask deficiencies in the secondary, as their cornerbacks have been prone to allowing big plays. Redshirt senior cornerback Javaris Davis, in particular, has struggled against wide receivers with a size advantage. Make no mistake, this is a good secondary. Redshirt senior safety Jeremiah Dinson is a great example, as he leads the team in total tackles with 79, to go along with 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, a force fumble, and a fumble recovery. But there may be matchups Minnesota can exploit.

It will be tough sledding against the Tigers’ linebacker corps as well. Auburn needed to replace three starting linebackers from a season ago and the new crew, led by junior K.J. Britt, did not miss a beat. Perhaps the unsung hero of the group is true freshman Owen Pappoe, a former five-star recruit who has acquitted himself well in a starting role.

This will be the best defense the Gophers have faced all season, and I have serious concerns about whether the offensive line will be able to handle the Tigers up front, especially with starting right tackle Daniel Faalele’s status uncertain after the injury he suffered against the Badgers.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

The Gophers’ offensive performance against Wisconsin to end the regular season left a bad taste in my mouth, and I’m afraid I don’t have a tremendous amount of confidence that they’ll be able to keep the Tigers’ overpowering defensive line at bay. Auburn 31, Minnesota 21.