Minnesota football: How will the Gophers adjust to role of West favorite?
A statement win? Maybe not. But regardless, it was enough to get the attention of the rest of the Big Ten.
Minnesota’s 34-7 win over Michigan State at Spartan Stadium opened plenty of eyes. Not because the Gophers won, but because of the way they won. The dominance they’ve shown over the season’s first 4 weeks has been impressive.
It has vaulted Minnesota into the AP Top 25 at No. 21, and into the favorite’s role in the B1G West.
It had been since 2006 that Goldy waltzed into East Lansing and came away victorious. Sparty isn’t the same team as a year ago, true. However, the Gophers took care of business as 3-point road favorites. They overcame the loss of leading receiver Chris Autman-Bell. Others stepped up (10 receivers caught a ball). Depth, once a question mark, is showing to be a strength.
One peek at Minnesota’s schedule and it’s no shock national pundits are weighing in on its chances to reach Indy for the 1st time. No Ohio State. No Michigan. A road trip to Happy Valley to face Penn State is the toughest remaining test.
And with the rest of the B1G West in struggle mode, the road looks as favorable as ever for PJ Fleck’s team to navigate. An 11-1, heck, even a 12-0 finish, isn’t out of the equation.
Wisconsin was boat-raced by Ohio State. Despite a stellar defense, Iowa’s offense continues to sputter. Purdue is 2-2 after squeaking by Florida Atlantic. Jeff Brohm’s team is showing several warts.
The Gophers are outscoring opponents by nearly 40 points a game. The defense has given up just 24 points in 4 wins. If not for a late garbage-time TD by the Spartans, Minnesota would’ve claimed its 2nd shutout and the top spot in scoring defense in the country. (Instead it is No. 2 behind Iowa by a single point.)
The Gophers forced 3 turnovers and held Michigan State to a season-low 240 yards. Joe Rossi’s defense continues to display both speed and physicality, ingredients that will lead to continued success in league play.
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) September 24, 2022
Tanner Morgan’s continued growth
There are several feel-good stories on this team. But none is better than senior quarterback Tanner Morgan’s growth and development.
Morgan was brilliant in East Lansing, completing 23-of-26 passes for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns. He earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. He’s on pace to rewrite several school records he already holds — including completion percentage and TDs thrown.
Highest completion % in a game by a Minnesota QB, all-time (min. 10 comps):
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) September 24, 2022
Morgan has taken his fair share of past criticism. Can he make the big throw in clutch situations? Can he improve his ball security and decision making?
So far, so good. And likely the biggest statistic? Morgan’s a winner. He’s now 31-12 as a starter. He may not be glitzy, but he’s showing he can get it done. His confidence is high and his offensive teammates are feeding off it.
Michael Brown-Stephens caught a team-high 6 balls Saturday. Nine other receivers had at least 1 catch. The “next man up” message after Autman-Bell’s injury was definitely received. It was the 3rd straight game the Gophers eclipsed 500 yards of total offense.
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) September 25, 2022
If the Gophers offense continues to fly high, Morgan will be a major reason why. He’s elevated his game, and everyone is flourishing because of it.
Ibrahim’s ‘beast mode’ running
Mohamed Ibrahim is a familiar name in B1G circles. But nationally? Not so much. Expect that narrative to change.
Ibrahim posted his 13th straight 100-yard game Saturday, the longest streak of any current FBS player. He’s an absolute menace and a handful to tackle.
His 1st-quarter score Saturday put him alone in 1st place with 41 career rushing TDs as a Gopher. At his current pace, there’s no question he should be mentioned in Heisman talk with the likes of CJ Stroud, Bryce Young and Stetson Bennett.
Ibrahim already holds school records in the following categories:
- Rushing TDs – 41
- Most rushing TDs in a game – 4
- Career 200-yard rushing games – 4
- Consecutive 100-yard rushing games – 13
- Season rushing yardage per game – 153.7 (2020)
He sits 5th in career rushing yards. No doubt he’ll continue his climb up the chart each week. He’s built for the grind of the league season and provides Morgan a needed safety blanket.
Will B1G defenses have any answer for him? For the offense as a whole? If not, Gophers fans should book rooms in Indy now.
Avoiding a letdown
After easily dispatching Sparty, Minnesota goes from the hunter to the hunted. They’ll be on everyone’s radar. Can they avoid a letdown starting this Saturday against Purdue?
The Boilers may or may not have starting QB Aidan O’Connell. O’Connell missed Saturday’s narrow win over FAU with an unspecified injury and his status will be evaluated later in the week, according to Brohm.
Austin Burton would fill in for a 2nd week if O’Connell is unable to go. And it’s not just QB where the Boilers are shorthanded. They’re beat up in the secondary too. All signs lead to another Gophers romp. They’re currently 12-point favorites.
Not so fast. The grind of the B1G has arrived. It’s a week-by-week slugfest. Nothing’s guaranteed.
Fleck is a master of the underdog role. He knows how to motivate his guys when they’re up against it.
Now? The Gophers are clear favorites. Expectations have arrived.
Fleck told reporters the goal is for the players and coaches to keep things simple and not get ahead of themselves.
“We’re in charge of taking care of a football game and playing our best football to be 1-0. That’s it.”
Seems simple enough. However, the Gophers have rarely (maybe ever?) been the team with a target on their backs. How they handle their newfound role will determine whether or not they find themselves in Indy on Dec. 3.