Minnesota football: Way-too-early look at 2022
Minnesota might’ve been one of the most overlooked teams in the 2021 season. Although PJ Fleck’s team had been considered a contender in the B1G West race last year, an early-season injury and a non-conference loss to Bowling Green knocked the Golden Gophers out of the national spotlight.
Despite being plagued by the injury bug and some midseason transfer portal losses, Minnesota managed to finish 9-4, defeating Wisconsin to reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Axe and closing out the year with an 18-6 victory over West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
The 2021 season is a slightly difficult one to break down for the Golden Gophers. A 9-4 year is always going to be a record welcomed with open arms in the Twin Cities. At the same time, if losses to Bowling Green and Illinois could’ve been avoided, who knows how far this team would’ve gone.
But that’s all in the past. Now, we’re taking a way-too-early look at Fleck and the Gophers heading into the 2022 season.
What worked in 2021
How about Minnesota’s rushing attack? The football gods attempted to throw every obstacle imaginable in the way of the ground-and-pound approach, but the Gophers continued to find success running the ball. It wasn’t just successful, it was surprising.
Minnesota lost Mohamed Ibrahim in the first game of the season because of an Achilles injury. That forced Trey Potts to take over as the premier back, and he did an admirable job, spearheading the rushing attack and totaling 552 yards and 6 touchdowns in his 6 games of action.
Then Potts suffered an injury at the end of the Purdue game that kept him out the remainder of the season. Minnesota called on Bryce Williams (who also suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks later), Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving to step up.
By the end of the season, all 5 backs hit the century mark in at least 1 game and the Gophers finished with the B1G’s third-best rushing attack at 198 yards per game. A lot of credit goes to that burly offensive line, which continued to plow through defenses regardless of which guy was carrying the football.
On the other side of the football, almost everything was working for Minnesota.
Defensively, the Gophers ranked second in the B1G in scoring defense (17.3 ppg), run defense (97.5 ypg), pass defense (181.2 ypg) and total defense (278.8 ypg). Not bad for a group that struggled to keep opponents out of the end zone one year prior.
Minnesota got great play from Jack Gibbens and Mariano Sori-Marin at the linebacker position. The defensive line was intimidating with Boye Mafe, Thomas Rush, Esezi Otomewo and Nyles Pinckney providing a strong push up front.
Tyler Nubin, Coney Durr and Jordan Howden secured the secondary for a good portion of the year.
When it was all over, Minnesota’s defense allowed more than 30 points in just 1 game — the season-opening loss to Ohio State. The Gophers held 9 opponents under the 20-point mark.
Pair that strong rushing attack with a lockdown defensive unit and it’s easy to understand why Fleck’s team finished the year with a 9-4 record.
What didn’t work in 2021
Everyone expected Minnesota’s passing attack to look similar to 2019. That was not the case. Not even close.
Despite having Tanner Morgan back under center, Chris Autman-Bell in the No. 1 role at wide receiver and adding Dylan Wright out of Texas A&M, Minnesota’s air attack struggled mightily. There was very little consistency, and it proved to be costly at times throughout the year.
Minnesota’s inability to be much of a threat throwing the football is a big reason why Fleck moved on from offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. and brought Kirk Ciarrocca back to the Twin Cities.
Morgan averaged just 157.2 yards per game through the air and ended the season with 10 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. His completion rate dipped below 60% and he was responsible for critical, late-game interceptions in losses to Bowling Green and Illinois.
Had Minnesota’s passing attack provided at least some consistency, there’s a good chance the Golden Gophers would’ve been making the trek to Indianapolis to compete in the B1G Championship Game. Instead, it came up 1 win short.
The passing attack was easily the most disappointing, and most frustrating, aspect of the 2021 season in Minneapolis.
After lamenting on Minnesota’s passing game, it might seem a tad strange to be optimistic about Morgan’s return for the 2022 season. The seasoned veteran provides the Gophers with experience at the game’s most important position, and that’s a good thing.
More importantly, though, is the return of Ciarrocca as the team’s offensive coordinator. That provides a spark of hope that Minnesota’s passing attack can resemble what it was in 2019.
The Gophers probably aren’t going to be quite as prolific as they were through the air that season. It’s difficult to replicate the impact that Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman had at the receiver position. But Morgan’s familiarity with Ciarrocca’s system should prove to be beneficial.
Plus, Morgan will have another offseason to work with a wide receiver corps that has a high ceiling. Autman-Bell’s return is huge, and having Brevyn Spann-Ford, Mike Brown-Stephens and Dylan Wright in the mix provides the experienced gunslinger with plenty of weapons.
This offense, under Ciarrocca, should be fun to watch in 2022.
As much criticism as Morgan has taken over the past 2 seasons, it’s important to remember that he’s thrown for 8,072 yards and 56 touchdowns over the past 4 years. He’s also Minnesota’s all-time winningest starting quarterback. The senior leader is more than capable of turning the passing attack into a major weapon again.
Basically, the entire offensive and defensive lines. And when you’re trying to compete in the B1G, that’s never a good thing.
Minnesota will go from having one of the most experienced offensive line units to one of the greenest. Daniel Faalele, Conner Olson, Blaise Andries and Sam Schleuter are all leaving. Curtis Dunlap Jr. transferred out mid-season. Losing that entire position group leaves some big shoes to fill.
The Gophers had one of the best offensive lines in the B1G, maybe even the country. So having to replace it with a group that has just over 30 starts is going to be a challenge for Fleck and company heading into the 2022 season.
Minnesota will be dealing with a similar situation on the defensive side of the ball. The Gophers lose Mafe and Otomewo on the edge after they combined for 10 sacks in 2021. Interior defensive linemen Nyles Pinckney and Micah Dew-Treadway are also heading out the door.
Also departing are Gibbens, who led the team with 92 tackles, and Durr, the lockdown cornerback who ended the season with 40 stops and 5 pass break-ups.
Minnesota’s greatest strengths in 2021 become the biggest questions heading into 2022.
What Minnesota loses in the trenches it will return at the skill positions. It’s going to be a real strength for the Gophers’ offense next season.
Ibrahim will be back for another season, which is going to be a problem for B1G defenses. The back who Fleck describes as a “bowling ball going downhill with razorblades” is looking to return to his 2020 self, when he rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in 7 games.
Behind Ibrahim, the Gophers return Potts, Williams and Irving, all of whom made major contributions during the 2021 campaign.
All of Minnesota’s top pass-catchers — Autman-Bell, Wright, Brown-Stephens, Spann-Ford and Daniel Jackson — will be back in 2022 as well. Each had at least 267 receiving yards and 1 touchdown catch. Morgan will have no shortage of options in the passing game.
Having Sori-Marin back at linebacker and Nubin and Justin Walley returning to the secondary is a good starting point for the Gophers. All 3 should serve as leaders for Joe Rossi’s defense in 2022. But there are going to be some serious questions about the defensive line.
Rush is the key returner up front after totaling 5.5 sacks for the Gophers last season. He’s going to need a lot of help, though. If not, Minnesota’s No. 2 defense in the B1G is going to take quite a hit.
Minnesota will have plenty of pieces to compete for a B1G West title in 2022. The challenge on Fleck and his staff is to get the offensive and defensive lines up to speed as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the Gophers are going to struggle against Iowa, Wisconsin and other teams that are stout at the line of scrimmage.
Ciarrocca’s quick-hitting offense — assuming it works — should offset some of those concerns. Ibrahim has also demonstrated the ability to pick up yardage behind a subpar offensive line, as well.
Even with such a significant loss up front, the Gophers’ offense has potential to do some damage. Veteran transfers from Michigan and Notre Dame will be in the mix to fill the open line spots and possibly reduce the impact of the losses.
It’s hard to imagine Minnesota’s defense doesn’t take at least a small step back next fall. Losing such talented athletes along the defensive line, a lockdown cornerback and the team’s top tackler won’t come without some repercussions.
Rossi has done an excellent job of adapting during his time as the defensive coordinator, though. Even if there’s a drop-off, the Gophers have potential to be in the top half of the B1G on that side of the football.
Minnesota’s recruiting class, consisting of 18 3-star players, ranks 11th in the B1G. It’s hard to imagine much instant impact coming from the young newcomers.
Still, entering 2022, Minnesota should be considered a Top 25 team with a chance to win its first division title at the end of the season.