The Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-1) hit the road this week and head to Boulder for a Power 5 non-conference matchup with the Colorado Buffaloes (1-1), who are coming off a near upset of No. 5-ranked Texas A&M that suggests the Gophers will have their hands full on Saturday.
Can Colorado score on offense?
The Buffaloes lost starting quarterback J.T. Shrout to a knee injury during preseason camp, reducing their options under center to redshirt freshman Brendon Lewis and true freshman Drew Carter. Lewis got the starting nod and has not been asked to do much, posting anemic numbers against FCS Northern Colorado (10-for-15, 105 passing yards, 1 touchdown) and Texas A&M (13-of-25, 89 passing yards, 1 interception). His legs have arguably been more of a weapon than his arm, racking up a combined 120 rushing yards on 17 attempts through the first two games.
With the inexperience at quarterback, Colorado has leaned on their rushing attack, which consists of a two-headed monster in the form of Jarek Broussard and Alex Fontenot. Broussard was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year last year after rushing for 895 yards and five touchdowns on 156 carries. Broussard exited the Buffaloes’ 10-7 loss to Texas A&M in the third quarter with a leg injury and did not return, but it sounds like he is good to go for Saturday.
Both Broussard and Fontenot are operating behind an offensive line that returns four starters from last season and has paved the way for a rushing attack averaging 226 yards per game.
The problem for Minnesota is that the Gophers haven’t been able stop the run with any consistency, nor have they been able to generate much of a pass rush. Colorado would be content to attack Minnesota with their ground game, limiting Lewis to completions on screens and other high-percentage passes to keep the Gophers’ defense honest. Minnesota has to be able to take them out of their comfort zone if they want to leave Folsom Field with a win.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
The Buffaloes are very tough, defensively. Last season, according to S&P+, Colorado ranked in the Top 15 in defensive efficiency against both the pass and the run, with the caveat that they were very susceptible to explosive plays through the air and on the ground. But they were also a Top 5 defense in creating havoc, ranking fourth nationally according to S&P+.
Newly-minted starting running back Trey Potts and the Minnesota Movers will certainly have their work cut out for them against a run defense that is only allowing an average of 58.5 rushing yards per game, albeit only two games into the season. It all starts up front for Colorado, where 6’6”, 325-lb. nose tackle Jalen Sami anchors the defensive line. He was the lynchpin of the Buffaloes’ 3-4 defense last season, but now shares responsibilities with defensive tackle Na’im Rodman.
Flanking Sami and Rodman on the defensive line are a pair of third-year starters in Terrance Lang and Carson Wells. Lang is a traditional defensive end but Wells should remind Gopher fans of Carter Coughlin, since he too is a converted outside linebacker who alternates between putting his hand in the ground and standing up. He was a force on the edge for the Buffaloes last season, leading the team with 16 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks.
Nate Landman is the name to remember at linebacker. The fifth-year senior led Colorado in tackles last year and already leads them again this season with 14 tackles, all of them solo.
In the secondary, the Buffaloes are led by Mekhi Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez, both of whom started every game at cornerback for Colorado last season. Blackmon is the better of the two, having allowed the lowest catch rate in the Pac-12 last season even though he was locked up in man coverage most of the time. Colorado has an established starter at strong safety in Isaiah Lewis, but sophomore Mark Perry in his first season as the starting free safety.
This will undoubtedly be the best defense Minnesota has faced up to this point in their young season. They’ll need to be more balanced than they have been through the first two games, because it is going to be tough sledding against the Buffaloes’ defensive front. Hopefully Chris Autman-Bell and Dylan Wright will both be available so that quarterback Tanner Morgan has a full complement of receivers with which to attack Colorado’s secondary.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
I don’t feel good about this game. Texas A&M was missing their starting quarterback, but Colorado’s defense still deserves credit for limiting an offense loaded with talented to 10 points. Minnesota’s defense, on the other hand, looked lost in the second half against a MAC opponent. This is a winnable game for the Gophers, but my confidence is not where it needs to be to predict a victory on the road against a tough Power 5 opponent. Colorado 20, Minnesota 17.