Well that was close. Too close.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers escaped non-conference play with their undefeated record intact, overcoming a mind-numbing series of mistakes to squeak past the Georgia Southern Eagles 35-32, thanks in large part to a certain All-Big Ten wide receiver.
Let’s take a closer look at this god forsaken game.
Tyler Johnson. I don’t know if there is a better wide receiver tandem in the Big Ten than Johnson and Rashod Bateman. You can’t stop both of them. You can only hope to contain one. For the first two games of the season, it was Johnson who was held in check while Bateman carved up opposing defenses. Against Georgia Southern, Johnson came alive with 10 receptions for 140 receiving yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead game-winning score with 13 seconds left. It was the kind of game you’d expect from an All-Big Ten receiver.
The 13-play, 75-yard, game-winning drive. It wasn’t perfect — at one point the Gophers were facing 3rd and 30 from their own 5 after a sack and then a holding penalty — but as they’ve done all season long so far, the Minnesota offense found their way to the end zone when their backs were against the wall. And they did it through the air.
The Minnesota defense. This was a solid showing for Joe Rossi’s unit, especially when you consider the way in which Georgia Southern scored their four touchdowns. More on that later. But the Gophers held the Eagles to 123 rushing yards and 75 passing yards, including a dominant second half that saw Georgia Southern muster all of 5 rushing yards. Yes, you read that right. The Gopher defense held them to 5 rushing yards in the second half.
The Gophers are now 9-0 in non-conference player under P.J. Fleck. I’ll take it. If you need some perspective, feel free to reach out to Illinois and Maryland fans.
Umm... True freshman running back Cam Wiley saw his first collegiate action and was okay up until he suffered a concussion? I don’t know, everything seemed to be either good or bad in this game, with almost nothing in between.
Injuries at running back. To start the game, the Gophers were without Mohamed Ibrahim, who was held out due to a leg injury, and Shannon Brooks, who has not yet been cleared to play. By the end of the game, Rodney Smith and true freshman Cam Wiley had been sidelined with an oblique injury and a concussion, respectively. The crowded medical tent left sophomore Bryce Williams to carry the load. The bye week could not have come at a better time.
The Minnesota offensive line. Woof. I repeat: Woof. The Minnesota Movers allowed five sacks and 11 tackles for loss against Georgia Southern, bringing their season total to 11 sacks and 24 tackles for loss through the first three games. To state the obvious, that is not good. Tanner Morgan’s pocket presence (or lack thereof) does not escape at least a portion of the blame for the sacks, but the Gophers’ offensive line has been an equal opportunity offender in both pass protection and run blocking. The aforementioned injuries at running back did not help an anemic rushing attack that is having to grind out every single yard, averaging 2.6 yards per carry this season. But the lack of push up front is making life difficult for a banged up running back corps.
Predictable offensive play calling. Not so fast, Kirk Ciarrocca. Where do you think you’re going? In my opinon, Minnesota is not nearly talented enough to skate past opponents with a vanilla game plan. Yet Kirk seems to think so. Worse yet, he became predictable against the Eagles, especially in the second half. In the first half, Ciarrocca dialed up seven pass plays and eight rush attempts on first down. In the second half? Two pass plays and 13 rush attempts on first down, prior to the game-winning drive. The Gophers passed on obvious passing downs and ran on obvious rushing downs. That makes life a lot easier for opposing defenses.
The worst defense is a bad offense. The Eagles scored four touchdowns against the Gophers. Here is how each of them came to be:
- Tanner Morgan’s interception on the second play of the Gophers’ first drive set up Georgia Southern at the Minnesota 21. The Eagles scored on the next play for a 7-0 lead.
- The Gophers failed to convert on 4th and 1 at their own 34, and the Eagles would score five plays later to cut the deficit to 21-20.
- The Gophers failed to convert on 3rd and 1 at the Georgia Southern 17 and attempted a field goal, but it was blocked and returned 77 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 28-26.
- Morgan was sacked and stripped at the Georgia Southern 47, which the Eagles recovered and returned for a touchdown to take the lead, 32-28.
Notice a pattern? Every single touchdown Georgia Southern scored was the result of a self-inflicted mistake. An interception. A failed fourth down conversion. A blocked field goal. A strip sack. 28 points off those turnovers. Minnesota’s lack of execution single-handedly kept the Eagles in the game — and nearly handed it to them, if not for the late game heroics.
The Gophers are 3-0, but could have easily been 0-3. At this point in the season, we have no way of knowing how good South Dakota State, Fresno State, and Georgia Southern actually are. So Minnesota may be 3-0, but the quality of those wins is TBD. So what are we left with? The process and the results. Obviously, the results favor the Gophers. But the process? That’s a different story. P.J. Fleck would be the first person to tell you that the process is as important, if not more important, than the results. There is certainly something to be said about how resilient this team is, but I hesitate to credit them for putting out the fire when they have been the ones lighting the match. They’ve been playing with fire and they are going to get burned in Big Ten play if they can’t cure this stress-inducing bout of pyromania.
The situation is far from dire. No one could have anticipated that the team that lost to Illinois and Nebraska last year would go on to beat Purdue and Wisconsin in the same season. And not every struggling team needs to fire a coordinator to spark improvement. The talent is there. The question is how long it will take before they play to their potential.