Well, another season of Minnesota Golden Gopher football is in the books. Fortunately for us, head coach P.J. Fleck and his team had one last gift to give at the conclusion of a special season for the program, defeating No. 12-ranked Auburn in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day.
What is your Tweet-length (280 characters or less) summary of the Gophers’ 31-24 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn?
gopherguy05: It was an impressive win to cap off an impressive season. This team did something that we all think was super special. Let’s hope that in five years we all think this is just the new normal.
GopherNation: That game was awesome and a perfect ending to the best season in my lifetime.
zipsofakron: Wow. What a cool way to show ourselves and the country that Minnesota football actually belongs in the national conversation.
Iowa Gopher: The perfect ending to a great season that would seem to be a turning point for the program. These are not your same old Gophers.
"Row The Boat, Ski U Mah, Go Gophers!" - PJ Fleck pic.twitter.com/BUFS9nx4RP— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) November 9, 2019
To borrow a Fleck-ism, who is your pick for “Nekton of the Week” from the game?
gopherguy05: Tyler Johnson will get (and has gotten) a lot of the credit, but how about the way this offensive line bounced back from getting their asses handed to them against Wisconsin? Zero sacks against literally one of the best defensive lines in the country? Running game on point? Missing your massive starting right tackle? Yeah, give the big boys some credit. They came to play and made all the other flashy stuff possible.
GopherNation: I’m with Andy on this one but I’ll be a little more specific and give the Nekton of the Week to offensive line coach Brian Callahan. That Tiger defensive front concerned me very much and the Gophers dominated the line of scrimmage.
zipsofakron: Matt Simon. Man, that dude dialed up a hell of a game against one of the best defenses in the country. And on his first try!
Iowa Gopher: It has to be Tyler Johnson for me. You could not have written a more perfect ending to his college career. The best part is that he deserves it.
Tyler Johnson has set the gold standard for wide receivers at Minnesota. Years from now, if someone asks what made him so special, what will you say?
gopherguy05: He just has an ability to get open and make the big play. Yeah, he has had issues with drops, but then he would go out and do something so insane like that end zone catch that you would forgive him for that. His vertical leaping ability lets quarterbacks put the ball where he is the only one who can make a play, and a vast majority of the time, he does.
GopherNation: I think people will say that he was almost as good as Rashod Bateman. We were pretty blessed this year to have Johnson and Bateman together. Johnson set records and is the guy who got us started down the path of WR U.
zipsofakron: He’s got Cris Carter-like body and hand control, which gives the quarterback that much more room for error. But his off-the-field contributions to this team are just as powerful. He’s a real human being and puts his neighborhood on the map, inspiring a next generation of student athletes.
Iowa Gopher: I think of where Johnson started his career at Minnesota — catching tennis balls in practice and toiling on the sideline under the temperamental whims of an ego-driven position coach — and the growth we’ve seen from then to now. It’s a great story. It’s amazing to see someone with so much talent actually realize their potential.
Gophers take the lead again, no need to review this, Johnson gets wide open in the secondary pic.twitter.com/EHfDvJteW7— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 1, 2020
Enough about Tyler Johnson. Who else on offense had a game worthy of recognition? I can think of plenty of candidates.
gopherguy05: I already bragged up the offensive line above, but Mo Ibrahim is Mr. December/January. In two bowl games, he already has the Minnesota all-time career bowl rushing record. Seeing him play Wednesday was a reminder of what he did on a weekly basis in 2018. He took his “demotion,” sliding back behind Rodney Smith, like an absolute champ this year and I can’t wait to see him be the No. 1 back again in eight months.
GopherNation: I’ll call out the secondary on defense. I thought Benjamin St-Juste had a great game in coverage and supporting the run. But Coney Durr and Chris Williamson also played really well. The entire secondary contributed to pretty weak passing day for Auburn.
zipsofakron: Bryce Witham. Have a day, my friend. My goodness.
Iowa Gopher: Zips is spot-on. Bryce Witham all day. To come up with two big catches on fourth downs, after having not caught a pass all season, is just legendary.
How would you grade Matt Simon’s audition as offensive playcaller? Would you rather see P.J. Fleck give him the permanent promotion or bring in a newcomer?
gopherguy05: I was one that thought P.J. should look and see who was available at least before making a decision. But after yesterday and with what this team has coming back next year and the importance of keeping the same chemistry going forward:
GopherNation: I loved the game called by Simon. It is really easy to make quick comparisons based on one game to the previous offensive coordinator, and that may not entirely be fair. But he certainly incorporated tight ends and screens more than we have seen in the three previous seasons. Should he get the job? I wouldn’t be sad if he did, but I’ll also trust P.J. Fleck to make the best decision for his program.
zipsofakron: That’s an A- game for me, from Simon. It took Tanner Morgan a little bit to shake off the rust, but the mix of plays, with some exotic approaches mixed in, clearly had the Tigers backpedaling. From a continuity standpoint, I can’t imagine keeping Simon on is a bad approach.
Iowa Gopher: I will also trust Fleck to make the best decision for the program, but I will admit to being impressed with the game that Simon called against Auburn. The offense really didn’t miss a beat from the regular season, and if continuity is important, I think Simon is a guy who can get it done and even add in new wrinkles of his own. He has already proven himself as a wide receiver whisperer, and if his ambitions are to be an offensive coordinator, I think you give him a well earned promotion.
Superb catch from Witham on that 4th down pic.twitter.com/sjJA9u54yo— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 1, 2020
The Gopher defense was dominant even without starting linebacker Kamal Martin. Of the contributors returning next season, who do you think is due for a breakout in 2020?
gopherguy05: Boye Mafe is a popular pick on Twitter and by at least one other below. I suppose saying Coney Durr is cheating because technically he had his breakout season this year (or would have, if teams stopped throwing at him by Week 4). I’ll say Tyler Nubin. He steps into the void left by Antoine Winfield Jr’s (assumed) NFL departure and, while he is a different type of player, will have a large role on the back end of this defense in the fall.
GopherNation: Brevyn Spann-Ford is going to be a household name next season. On defense there are a lot of open spots and we will really need someone to step up to have a big season. But I think the biggest breakout will come from Spann-Ford next year.
Iowa Gopher: I’ve been a big fan of Braelen Oliver for a while, but after these last couple games, I’ve started to come around on Mariano Sori-Marin. Both are the favorites to take over the starting linebacker spots next season, but I think Sori-Marin may be the one that turns a lot of heads this year, especially against the run.
Now that this historic season is in the books, what are your expectations for the program moving forward?
gopherguy05: While I’m not ready to say that 10+ win seasons should be the norm, there is no reason this team cannot flirt with that number for the next few years, improve that recruiting base, and finally get over that last hump and get to Indianapolis. From then on, anything is possible. But as we have seen with this team, it’s one leap at a time. Finally beating Wisconsin in 2018. Getting huge wins over Penn State and Auburn in 2019-20. Time to put it all together, keep the huge wins, and beat Iowa/Wisconsin to get over that last hump.
GopherNation: I’m actually pretty concerned about unrealistic expectations heading into 2020. This was a fantastic season and next year’s team could be better, with a worse record. Progress is not linear and a lot of things went right in 2019. Moving forward, I expect this team to be very good and competitive in the West every year. Maybe not playing to get into the Big Ten Championship game every year, but in the mix. If things go well, we will eventually be the ones setting the pace. But for now, I’ll take next season as it comes.
zipsofakron: I feel like we’ve overstated this “soft schedule” thing. They had the sixth hardest overall schedule in the Big Ten and won 11 games. Next year will be a little more difficult, but 9 or 10 wins is definitely attainable. While 10 wins shouldn’t be the expectation going forward by any means, but this is now a clear ascent for this program and I expect them to at least be in the conversation for the B1G West title until late in the season. And that’s just fine for me.
Iowa Gopher: Pretty much what GopherNation said.