Albeit against hapless foe, Minnesota shows some fight for first time in 2020
Even before Minnesota was blown out at home by Michigan, even before it stepped all over itself in a Friday night fiasco at Maryland, Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan preached one primary thing to his teammates, fans and anyone else who would listen.
“Each and every player knows what’s at stake,” Morgan said back during fall camp.
Part of accountability is doing the right thing — that means something different for everyone in 2020, including college football players, than it did before. But another aspect is responding after you fail.
For the first time this season, Minnesota heeded its on-field leader’s calls to respond, following a dismal 0-2 start. Was it against an inferior Illinois team with a 3rd-string quarterback thanks to COVID-19? Surely.
But no one needs to apologize for the next team on their slate this fall. After looking a step slow in a 49-24 loss to the Wolverines then simply clamming up in last week’s 45-44 defeat against the Terps, the Gophers did exactly what they were supposed to do in a 41-14 win.
“We cleaned up our details on both sides of the ball,” wideout Rashod Bateman said. “Everything clicked for us.”
Coach P.J. Fleck spun it as making fertilizer out of manure. The former elementary teacher even read his team the children’s book “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi during their team meeting Friday night.
“I know that sounds crazy … because we didn’t play very well, but poop can be used as fertilizer if you grow,” Fleck said. “In Minnesota, we got lots of farms, and the poop is actually manure. It can help with crops and the best fruit and vegetables, and that’s what we talked about last night.”
Morgan looked more like the quarterback who ranked among the nation’s best last season, completing 17-of-27 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown. Bateman looked like the top NFL receiver draft prospect he is. And running back Mohamed Ibrahim was running back Mohamed Ibrahim — 224 yards on 30 carries, and four touchdowns for the second straight week.
“I think he is one of the most special backs in America,” cFleck said of his 5-foot-10, 210-pound bell cow. “And when you see him walking down the street, you wouldn’t think he’s a B1G running back. He’s not the biggest, not the strongest, not the fastest, but he’s got incredible vision. I mean like Superman.”
But moving the ball wasn’t really the issue in Weeks 1 and 2. Stopping opponents was.
And the Gophers did plenty of that Saturday afternoon in Champaign, Illinois.
The Illini’s No. 3 quarterback Coran Taylor never got comfortable, completing just six passes. Some self-inflicted wounds by Illinois — 12 penalties for 120 yards — helped, but Minnesota was in position more often and did a better job finishing plays than it had through two weeks.
Boye Mafe had a pair of sacks and is emerging as one of the Big Ten’s better pass rushers.
There’s plenty to building on heading into a matchup with Iowa that looks much tougher than it did a week ago.
“Boy, I thought they played really hard tonight,” Fleck said. “I thought they play with really good technique. They plot played with a high motor and they showed tonight what they can become.”
Said linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin: “You know, this was a new group of guys at the beginning of the season. And now we’re really starting to to come together and work some of the you know the kinks out.”
In its first two games, Minnesota allowed 94 points, 875 yards and 16 plays of 20 yards or more.
Those totals Saturday: 14, 287, 3.
And that’s with defensive coordinator Joe Rossi quarantined to his bedroom and participating in game prep only via Zoom after testing positive for COVID this week. Defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak seemed to dial up all the right calls in Rossi’s stead.
“I thought (Rossi), Coach Harasymiak, our entire defensive staff put together a heck of a game plan,” Fleck said. “But again, this is going to be a process on defense. We got a lot of inexperienced guys playing a ton of key positions that haven’t played a ton or haven’t played at all.”
Perhaps most importantly, Minnesota had answers every time Illinois sniffed a comeback.
When Illinois made it 21-7 in the second quarter, the Gophers responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive to go into halftime up by three touchdowns. When the Illini scored again in the third, Minnesota put together another long scoring drive to essentially ice the game with 8:27 left.
It’s hard to tell how far this squad has come in just eight days. But we’ll find out a lot more on Friday the 13th back in Minneapolis as Iowa comes to town following a 49-7 drubbing of Michigan State.
“2020 or not,” Fleck said, “it’s a really big game.”
With Northwestern and Purdue undefeated in conference play, any challenge for the Big Ten West remains a long shot regardless of what happens in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale. But Fleck has said this season is more about development anyway, with a young defense and every player on the roster forgiven a year of eligibility per the pandemic.
If it’s about getting better, the Gophers have finally made it happen. At least for one week.