The Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-3) lost, 14-6, to the Illinois Fighting Illini (4-6), so we’ll of course be bypassing “The Elite” and “The Meh” and diving right into “The Ugly”
The Gophers picked the most opportune time to embarrass themselves. This week, Minnesota stood alone atop the Big Ten West standings for the first time this season, checked in at No. 20 in the College Football Playoff committee’s first Top 25, and even signed head coach P.J. Fleck to a new seven-year contract. It all culminated in a face plant. They still control their own destiny in the Big Ten West, but good luck finding anyone who believes this team can win out. They won’t be ranked at any point the rest of the season. And we can all now look forward to seven more years of losses to teams like Bowling Green and Illinois.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. Twice this season the Gophers have held their opponents to 14 points and lost. That’s on the offensive coordinator, especially when you have a veteran quarterback, talent at the skill positions, and one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. To his credit, Minnesota has run the ball well under Sanford, but when defenses have been able to put the brakes on their ground game, he has shown no ability to adjust. His route combinations are especially atrocious, frequently calling for slow-developing deep routes when his offensive line is struggling in pass protection. Fleck once made a coordinator change after an embarrassing performance against Illinois and I can only hope he is considering making another, especially when he has Matt Simon waiting in the wings.
The Minnesota offensive line. It was the Bowling Green game all over again. The Gophers came out flat up front and failed to consistently open up holes in the run game, forcing Minnesota to try to move the ball through the air. The offensive line was not up to the task of protecting Tanner Morgan for 30+ pass plays, surrendering six sacks and allowing the Illinois defensive front to frequently force Morgan out of the pocket. Even when the Gophers would only split out two wide receivers and go to max protection, the Illini were still getting pressure. It’s an open question for offensive line coach Brian Callahan as to why this unit is so poor in pass protection. They were also undisciplined, drawing one false start and three holding penalties.
The Gophers’ wide receivers. Chris Autman-Bell was removed from the game by the medical staff after getting banged up on an incompletion in the third quarter, but he’d only recorded one reception prior to his exit. He’s had a total of two receptions in his last two games. Dylan Wright hasn’t caught more than two passes in a game since hauling in a combined eight receptions over the first two games of the season. Daniel Jackson has looked lost since returning from injury. What has happened to this once promising receiving corps? I’ve touched on the puzzling route combinations they are being asked to run, but they’ve also struggled to create separation.
Tanner Morgan. It’s truly unfortunate what has become of Tanner Morgan since his record-breaking 2019 season. Obviously, there are issues at the offensive coordinator position, at wide receiver, and on the offensive line, but Morgan’s done himself no favors, either. His accuracy and decision-making have been maddening at times, and he never looks comfortable outside the pocket. Morgan finished this game 15-of-27 for 180 passing yards and two interceptions. I wouldn’t mind seeing what Zack Annexstad or Cole Kramer could do with meaningful snaps, but I fear the Gophers’ issues on offense run a lot deeper than the quarterback position.
Third downs. Minnesota was 3-for-13 on third down, but the game was lost on first and second down. The Gophers’ average distance on second down was 8.2 yards, and 10.4 yards on third down. This is an offense that needs to have success on first and second down to sustain drives. Converting multiple third and longs just isn’t something they are equipped to do.
The kicking game. Matthew Trickett missed a 45-yard field goal attempt and a PAT.
The Minnesota defense to start the game. On the Illini’s first two possessions of the game, they racked up 135 total yards of offense and 14 points. On their next seven possessions, the Gophers held them scoreless and limited Illinois to 102 yards of offense. I’m not going to fault the defense too much because holding an opposing offense to 237 yards of offense and 14 points is more than enough to win. But the defensive line got bullied by the Illini’s veteran offensive line on those two first drives, allowing 93 rushing yards in the first quarter alone.
Bret Bielema improves to 8-0 against Minnesota. Enough said.