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Minnesota Football: The Monday Perspective is seeking answers

A weak non-conference slate, but the Gophers are undefeated, do we know how good they are?

NCAA Football: Colorado at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Gopher football has wrapped up the non-conference portion of their schedule. We knew that all three opponents were going to be pretty weak, turns out we were all very right about that.

But we entered the season with a number of key questions about his year’s team. Now that we are three games into the season, have we seen enough to know how these questions have been answered?

On the one hand, it is really hard to say. Do we really know how good any individual player or unit is when the opponents have not provided much of a test? On the other hand, they are still facing Division I caliber athletes and if they are executing and dominating, is that actually answering the questions?

Hard to say, but let’s dive into the preseason questions I posed and see what kind of answers we have found.

#1: How good will the offensive line be?

This is the one question that may be the hardest to answer because of the quality of the opponent. The Western Illinois defensive front hardly was talented enough to present a challenge, the same can be said for the New Mexico State DL.

But to be honest, I am far more optimistic about this line than I was before the season started. It has been well-documented that the Gophers lost 4/5 of last year’s starting offensive line. And it was a very good offensive line. Replacing that much experience and talent is never easy.

But we really didn’t see this line struggle in the first 3 weeks, in fact, they dominated. Especially in the ground game, these 5 starters have been really good. The only comparison we have, and it isn’t a perfect comparison, is looking at last year’s Colorado game to this one. In 2021 the Gopher rushing attack ran for 277 yards with a 5.2 per carry average. This year, against the same program they ran for 334 yards with a 6.4 average.

Not to say that clearly this line is better than last year’s. But there are plenty of indications that this line has at the very least raised the floor of their expectations. We don’t know how good this line will be, especially as we get into Big Ten play. But we do know that they are at the very least a solid unit that is going to continue to be a very good run-blocking unit.

The Answer? They are at least an above-average Big Ten offensive line. We don’t need them to be elite, we just couldn’t afford them to be a unit that really struggled.

#2: Who steps up along the defensive line?

Broadly speaking, this was the biggest question on the defense and overall the defense is the 2nd best defense in the Big Ten. But this one is harder to answer specifically because I’m not sure I would say that anybody has actually stepped up. Except to say that maybe all of them have.

As you may recall from the Upgrade/Downgrade post, there are a lot of names that are part of the rotation along the DL. And so far everybody seems to be contributing. Is anyone starting to really stand out? Not exactly, but collectively they are all playing well.

The sacks are spread out with Danny Striggow having 2 and then Thomas Rush, Jalen Logan-Redding, and Lorenza Surgers all with 1 each.

The inside guys are doing their job and allowing the linebackers to make a lot of tackles through the first 3 games. Mariano Sori-Marin and Cody Lindenberg are leading the team in tackles.

And collectively the Gophers are absolutely shutting down opponent rushing attacks.

The Answer? The truth about the defensive line is that it is young and potentially going to be very good. For 2022, they’ve been fine collectively. I don’t expect there is any one player along this line that Big Ten defensive coordinators are fretting about. But they are doing their jobs and making plays as a unit.

#3: Will special teams be better?

So far, so good. Again, nothing is standing out but there’s no reason to think that this unit is going to lose us any games.

Matthew Trickett has been perfect 20/20 on PATs and is 3/3 on field goals hitting from 22, 34 and 46.

Dragan Kesich has put kickoffs into the end zone for a touchback on 22/25 kickoffs.

Mark Crawford has only been called upon to punt 3 times all year. Two of the 3 have been pinned inside the 20.

The return game has been mostly fair catches, and I’m OK with this.

The Answer? All in all, they’ve been fine.

#4: What will we get from Terell Smith?

This has been answered very positively. Smith has really been very good in the team’s first three games. He has made a significant play in all three games.

Smith ended the lone New Mexico State threatening drive with a diving interception in the end zone. He had a tackle for loss against Western Illinois. And he started the Colorado game with a strip sack, resulting in the Gophers recovering inside the red zone.

Smith appears to be locked in this season and is playing at an elite level.

The entire defensive backfield has been very good, but Smith was the one we had the most questions on. He’s been great.

#5: Is Kirk Ciarrocca going to be the difference offensively?

Yes! Yes! Yes! This offense has been fantastic through the first three games.

They are leaning on what they do well and then using that to set up what has been a very efficient passing game.

I know, I know, the opponents have not been very good. But the Gophers have the #2 team in the country in terms of yards per game and they are 8th in points per game. It isn’t really about the yards and points that have been put up against bad teams. It is the balance, the efficiency, and the execution from all of the offensive units.

Things may be a bit more challenged now, with the loss of Chris Autman-Bell. But this offense has been very good so far, and I give a lot of credit to Ciarrocca.

The Answer? He’s been exactly what this team needed. This question has been answered.

But now is when things get interesting. The Big Ten is here. And the caliber of the opponent is going to increase.

Here is my perspective, I do think that most of our questions have been answered adequately and this is a good team. There is more work to do, I think the Big Ten is going to be tougher than it appears to be through this past weekend.

I’m very excited to see how we play on the road against a Big Ten program. This will be a step up in caliber of opponent, but I’m sitting here feeling rather confident in the caliber of this Gopher team.