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Minnesota Football vs Michigan: The Elite, The Meh, and The Ugly

The honeymoon is over

NCAA Football: Michigan at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I’m skipping the preamble and diving straight into the muck.

The Elite

Mohamed Ibrahim. Hell of a game for the Gophers’ starting running back, who is back to being the bell cow after taking a backseat to Rodney Smith last season. He put the Minnesota offense on his back at times, finishing the game with 26 carries for 140 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

The touchdown pass to Ko Kieft. On the Gophers’ first offensive possession of the game, back when Minnesota looked like a competitive football team, Tanner Morgan connected with tight end Ko Kieft for 14-yard touchdown pass, giving the Gophers an early lead. Head coach P.J. Fleck and offensive co-coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. had teased that the tight ends would be more involved in the passing game this season, and it didn’t take long to see it.

The blocked punt. Walk-on running back Preston Jelen blocked a Michigan punt at the end of their opening drive, setting up a Minnesota touchdown drive inside the red zone. The Wolverines never punted again, presumably out of fear of Preston.

The Meh

The Gophers’ passing attack. Quarterback Tanner Morgan had a tough night. He was 18-of-31 for 197 passing yards, with one touchdown and one interception. His lone score came on the Gophers’ first offensive possession, and he never found the end zone again the rest of the night. He made quite a few poor decisions and bad throws, but as expected, he was frequently under siege. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown was true to form, cranking up the pressure and racking up five sacks. Rashod Bateman fought hard for nine receptions and 101 receiving yards, but had virtually no supporting cast. Chris Autman-Bell finished with one reception for 45 yards. Ibrahim was second in receptions with four.

The Minnesota Movers. The season opener was a mixed bag for the Gophers’ offensive line. To start, right guard Curtis Dunlap was not dressed for the game and was seen on the sideline with a cast on his left leg. Right tackle Daniel Faalele was not even at the game, all but confirming the reports that he has opted out of this season. Former walk-on Axel Ruschmeyer got the starting nod at left guard, with Blaise Andries shifting to right tackle. At times, the offensive line just looked slow and out of sorts against the Wolverines’ vaunted defensive front. I thought they improved as the game went along, but then at one point in the fourth quarter they gave up back-to-back-to-back sacks. The run blocking was certainly better than the pass protection.

The Ugly

Minnesota special teams. Starting kicker Michael Lantz, kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich, and starting punter Mark Crawford were both unavailable for the season opener, and their absences were felt from the start. Brock Walker took over kickoff duties and, for reasons unknown, resorted to sky kicks almost exclusively. Unfortunately one of them ended up as more of a squib kick and Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett promptly returned it 65 yards to Minnesota 9. Middle Tennessee State grad transfer punter Matthew Stephenson took over punting duties and was not good. He averaged 24.5 yards on his first two punts, including an 18-yarder before halftime that nearly gave the Wolverines a chance to extend their lead even further.

Fleck declined to get into the specifics of why Lantz, Kesich, and Crawford were unavailable, but alluded to it being related to COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. He offered no timetable for when any of them will be able to return to competition.

The decision to fake a punt on 4th & 4 from your own 31-yard line. Trailing 28-17 with three minutes left in the first half, Fleck opted to attempt a fake punt with a direct snap to Ko Kieft, who actually lost yards on the play. Four plays later, Michigan converted the short field into points and effectively pushed the game out of reach, 35-17.

The Gopher defense. Did Robb Smith sneak into the press box before the game and knock Joe Rossi unconscious? This was by far the worst defensive performance of Rossi’s tenure as defensive coordinator. The Gophers had no answer for Michigan’s offense, which punted on the opening drive of the game and then never punted again. The only time the Wolverines didn’t score on offense was when they missed three field goal attempts. Michigan scored on six of their first nine offensive possessions. Most of the damage came on the ground, as the Wolverines racked up 249 rushing yards and averaged 8.6 yards per carry. The Gopher defense featured six new starters in their front seven, none of whom seemed up to the task of stopping the Wolverines’ ground game. If they don’t improve dramatically, good luck winning a game this season.

Boye Mafe recorded a sack on the opening drive, but then the Gophers’ pass rush disappeared from there, failing to register even one quarterback hurry. And the Minnesota secondary was gashed for chunk plays left and right, surrendering an average of 15 yards per reception. Literally not one player on the Gopher defense had a good night.

Depth (or lack thereof). It has been made abundantly clear that Minnesota is not (at least not yet) a team that can reload from one season to the next. Michigan returned four starters on offense from last season and put up 42 points. Minnesota returned four starters on defense from last season and gave up 42 points. If you were hoping to see how much Minnesota has closed the talent gap with Michigan since their last meeting, you were in for a rude awakening.

Minnesota is not a contender in the Big Ten West. Not happening. Best to make peace with that now and move the goal posts to finishing with at least a .500 record.

The 2019 season is in the rearview mirror. The honeymoon is over. It was fun while it lasted.