Mike Sanford Jr. was first introduced to Mohamed Ibrahim through the Outback Bowl. Sanford would not be named Minnesota new offensive co-coordinator until two days after the bowl game, but he was watching from home, possibly scouting the offense he was about to inherit.
“I watched the Outback Bowl knowing there was a possibility that I’d be involved in this job search,” Sanford recalls. “To say that I became a Mo Ibrahim fan would be a huge understatement.”
Ibrahim rushed for 140 yards against Auburn on New Year’s Day and seemed to pick up right where he left off against Michigan in the Gophers’ season opener, matching that rushing total and scoring two touchdowns. He was one of the few bright spots for Minnesota in a 49-24 loss.
“It wasn’t a surprise at all in terms of how he performed,” Sanford says.
Ibrahim was operating behind an offensive line that was missing two starters from a season ago. Starting right tackle Daniel Faalele has opted out of the season, and starting right guard Curtis Dunlap has been sidelined with a lower leg injury suffered during fall practice. Former walk-on Axel Ruschemeyer earned his first career start at left guard and Blaise Andries and Conner Olson to right tackle and right guard, respectively, to patch together an offensive line.
Overall, Sanford was pleased with how Minnesota’s “retooled” offensive line performed, especially against a formidable defensive front. The group may have paved the way for Ibrahim’s 140 rushing yards, but struggled in pass protection, surrendering five sacks.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan believes he shoulders a share of the blame.
“There were some things where I think I needed to have better pocket movement, whether it was stepping up and maybe escaping. And then obviously a couple throws that if they were better, could have been big plays,” Morgan says. “Obviously I need to be better. There were I couple plays where I could have gone through [my reads] faster, could have gone through [them] better, and that is something that I’m working at and that we’re continuing to work at.”
Sanford says that the emphasis for Morgan in practice this week has been eliminating grey areas, identifying at what point in the game he had questions and being able to provide him with the answers he needs for when those situations happen again in the future.
“I think the key for us has been to understand the complexities that he saw from a schematic standpoint,” Sanford explains. “I think when you really looked at the game relative to what was available to him in the throwing game, I think there was about three snaps that certainly we would like to have back. Outside of that, I thought Tanner was extremely resilient in the game.”
Perhaps the most surprising stat of the night was that Ibrahim and tight end Ko Kieft were No. 2 and 3, respectively, on the team in receptions. Rashod Bateman made his presence known with nine receptions for 101 receiving yards, but Chris Autman-Bell was the only other wide receiver to record a reception. Daniel Jackson, Seth Green, Clay Geary, and Mike Brown-Stephens all saw game action, but none of them made an appearance in the box score.
“You always have to understand that you gotta get the ball in your playmakers’ hands,” Sanford says. “Certainly when you play a team with the personnel [like Michigan] in our opening game, you’ve gotta make sure that you get your playmakers an opportunity to make plays and we did that. But I think it is important for us to continue to spread the ball around, spread the wealth.”
“I think it is going to be important to utilize more of that receiver room, to utilize more of that tight end room, and utilize more of that running back room. In that opening game, that first game, there are certain guys that are ready for that type of a moment and they have to be the guys that are featured prominently. We gotta continue to get everyone else more involved.”
We’ll have to wait and see who among the Gophers’ playmakers is ready to play when Minnesota takes the field on Friday night in College Park against Maryland.