Minnesota makes for a better story than an actual Big Ten West contender
It’s hard to really criticize Minnesota.
This is a program that has been besieged by injuries on offense, with its top 3 running backs all done for the year, including an All-American. Its best wideout hasn’t been healthy all year.
And yet, the Golden Gophers found themselves all alone in first place in the Big Ten West Division and ranked in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. They have shown massive improvements on the defensive side of the ball and thus turned their biggest weakness into a strength.
What more can you ask for from a program?
But as Saturday showed, No. 22 Minnesota is a much better story than legitimate threat to win the West. The 14-6 loss against visiting Illinois wasn’t a massive upset or anything like that. It’s just that the Golden Gophers (6-3, 4-2) have maxed out on the ability of this current roster, so these losses are going to happen. Getting to a bowl game for a third time in 4 years with this group is a noteworthy accomplishment, especially as its neighbors to the southwest were eliminated from postseason eligibility for a 5th straight year.
But for anyone believing this was anything more than a good story, Saturday was your evidence that unfortunately, that is simply not the case. Not that more evidence was necessary. Minnesota lost at home to Bowling Green (3-6), which is currently in last place in the MAC, and barely beat Miami (Ohio), which is 4-5.
For those who have followed Minnesota closely this season, the issues weren’t anything new. Minnesota is very limited offensively through the air, with the 122nd-ranked pass offense. Only Army, Navy and Air Force attempt fewer passes per game than the Golden Gophers. So falling behind 14-0 to Illinois was a death sentence, even if the Golden Gophers had 45 minutes to make a comeback.
Tanner Morgan, one of the darlings of the 2019 season, had to attempt a season-high 28 passes. And Minnesota’s offensive line, by now used to almost exclusively run blocking, allowed 6 sacks. It’s difficult to mount a comeback when a pass is almost always set up by an RPO or play-action. There wasn’t much of a threat in the run game as the game continued, as the Golden Gophers only ran for 89 yards (106 when adjusting for sacks). Minnesota had run for at least 130 in every game this season and at least 175 in all but 1 game.
It doesn’t help that Minnesota’s best wideout, Chris Autman-Bell, once again got hurt and did not return. It’s been a disappointing year for Autman-Bell, who showed flashes in 2019 behind Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, but just hasn’t been able to stay on the field.
Maybe it’s a little harsh to be critical of a team that had scored 30 or more points in 6 of 8 games this season. But to finish with under 300 yards for the third time at home isn’t befitting of a team that expects to win the West. Minnesota entered Saturday with the No. 92 offense nationally in terms of yards per play, which is natural considering the rushing volume. But put this offense in a pass situation, and it’s like asking it to translate Mandarin. That’s surprising considering Morgan is in his fourth year as the starter and his third year as the full-time starter. Maybe losing offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State after the 2019 season is mostly to blame for the drop-off.
And it’s a shame Minnesota hasn’t been able to figure it out offensively, because for the second time in 3 years, it has a top-10 defense. The run defense, which allowed 6.3 yards per rush last season, has nearly cut that total in half thanks to some savvy additions in the transfer portal. That’s the mark of a good program; identify the weaknesses and turn them into strengths. That’s as good of a reason as any that Minnesota is in this position.
So next year, Minnesota needs to do the same thing to its pass offense. Because it is wasting a terrific defense. Usually when you pitch a shutout for the final 45 minutes, that means you have a good chance at winning. But when it takes the offense nearly 55 minutes to score a point, it just doesn’t matter. Like a lot of the West teams, Minnesota is very good defensively and very limited offensively. Thus, its ceiling is limited.
But the Golden Gophers, despite this awful day, still control their destiny in the West since they play at No. 22 Iowa next week and finish the season with No. 21 Wisconsin at home. Who’s to say this really good story can’t become a great one? Crazier things have happened in the West in recent years, like Northwestern winning it in 2018 after losing to a MAC team.
But games like this make me doubt whether it’s possible for Minnesota to make it through the last quarter of the schedule without another slip-up.