It is bye week and if you ask me this could not come at a more perfect time. The Gophers secured a win at Purdue over the weekend to get back into the win column but this team has some work to do before they are ready for the rest of the Big Ten West.
As mentioned last week, this team still has every opportunity to accomplish the things it wants to accomplish this season. The only thing the Bowling Green loss did is effectively eliminated the Gophers from any talk about the College Football Playoff. I think we’re OK with that being out of reach this year. But winning the West, getting to the Big Ten Championship game and a shot at the Rose Bowl are still there in front of them.
But I think it is pretty clear that this team is still a work in progress. The defense seems to be improving every game. Special Teams is rather inconsistent. And the offense is really struggling to find an identity and a rhythm.
This Gopher defense, going back to the 2020 season, is really improving. You can see it individually and collectively. Guys like Mariano Sori-Marin, Thomas Rush, Tyler Nubin, Boye Mafe and DeAngelo Carter are all showing steady individual improvement week to week. And as an entire unit this group is gaining confidence, making stops and doing what it can to keep the team in games.
Through the first two games of the season this unit was last in the Big Ten in points allowed. They were 12th in total yards allowed. Three games later they rank 5th and 6th respectively. A stark improvement and 2 of those 3 games were road games against a P5 opponent. In 8 of the last 12 quarters this Gopher defense has put up a zero on the board. Is the Gopher defense elite? No, I wouldn’t say that it is exactly dominant like we are seeing from Iowa and Penn State. But it was the area with the most question marks coming into the season and they are continually getting better.
Special teams? Well, it is inconsistent. Matthew Trickett was a mess at Colorado, special teams was brutal in the Bowling Green game, but then this last week they contributed towards the team win. In fact we earned a co-special teams player of the week award. This area has potential to continue to wins, but also the penchant to make things harder on the team.
And the offense, oh the frustrating offense. So much talent returning. Not just projected and hopeful talent, but guys who have previously been successful in the Big Ten. This offensive line plus Tanner Morgan plus a good rushing attack plus Chris Autman-Bell on the outside; this really should be the strength of the team. Instead, the offense has really struggled with execution.
Losing Mohamed Ibrahim was a big blow, but really the emergence of Trey Potts has been the lone bright spot on offense. Potts has stepped in and is currently 2nd in the Big Ten at 110 rushing yards per game. It is the maddening inconsistency of the offensive line and the highly inefficient passing game that is killing this unit.
Here is where I am extremely thankful for the bye week. A week where typically the coaching staff will do some heavy self-scouting. A task that is often hard to fit in during a regular game week, but this needs to be done. The play-calling and the pass routes have been ugly this year. It really isn’t as much about receivers not getting open or Morgan missing them, but the refusal to call plays that relieve pressure (screens, quick slants, etc) killed them against Bowling Green. Receivers running routes right next to each other on critical 3rd downs nearly killed them at Purdue. I couldn’t be more thankful for a bye week and I’m begging the offensive staff to evaluate the play calling and game planning. Maybe, just maybe the offense can get things corrected for the last 7 games of the season.
Now... about that schedule.
The good news is that Northwestern and Illinois are both not very good. Indiana and Wisconsin do not seem to be living up to their preseason hype. And who knows what is really going on with Maryland, but I’m glad that one is at home.
But I will tell you that Iowa and Nebraska have me very concerned.
Nebraska has been pretty bad for a few years and they started off the season losing their second consecutive game to Illinois. It was pretty easy to make them the butt of many jokes. Today they are just 3-3 but they seem to be playing much better football than they were in early September. Hear me now when I say that this team is improved, they are figuring things out and I am not optimistic about this game.
Then Iowa. Holy shit, look at Iowa go. Are they living on turnovers? Yeah. But they are kicking people’s ass. Regardless of what happens this weekend against Penn State, this team is legit. Can we crash their party like they did to us in 2019? Sure. But we have to figure some things out in a hurry, particularly along the offensive line.
With all of that said...the remainder of the schedule is going to be no picnic. We absolutely have to be better on offense, better at protecting the quarterback and continued development on defense. The bye week is coming at an ideal time.