The Gophers’ first real test of the season came on Saturday against #4 Penn State. They aced it. With three games remaining, let’s take a look back at how unbeaten Minnesota got to this point.
How Unbeaten Minnesota Got This Far
Quarterback Tanner Morgan has seemingly improved every week. In his last five games, the sophomore has thrown 11 touchdowns and just two picks. Admittedly, four of those games were against fairly weak teams. But against Penn State, Morgan literally threw more touchdown passes (three) than incompletions (two). (This article has some interesting information about Morgan’s off-season work with a kinesiologist).
Of course, we can’t talk about Morgan’s numbers without mentioning his receivers. Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, and Chris Autman-Bell are finally starting to get some notice as arguably the Big Ten’s best trio. Each found the end zone against Penn State. The fact that there are three of them, all of them reliable, has to drive other teams crazy. You just can’t adequately cover all three of them without leaving yourself very vulnerable to the team’s other three-headed monster: Smith, Ibrahim, and Brooks.
Sixth-year senior Rodney Smith (whom teammates reportedly address him as “Grandpa”) has been the backfield bell cow for seemingly an eternity. It’s impossible to overstate his value since P.J. Fleck took over, both as a running back and as a leader for what’s still a very young team. Out with an ACL injury last season, Smith has been open about his mental state during a trying time. During that time, then-freshman Mohamed Ibrahim saw an opportunity and ran with it, no pun intended. With Brooks out for the season as well, Ibrahim rushed for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns. Predictably, his numbers have fallen off a bit this year; missing four games due to injury didn’t help. But all three have been reliable when called upon, with Smith leading the way.
And then there’s the offensive line, which has come up huge both literally and figuratively for unbeaten Minnesota. Morgan was being hit much too frequently early in the season, and they’ve done a much better job protecting him of late. While it’s tempting to credit some of that to inferior competition, Penn State finished the game with one sack and zero quarterback hurries. Obviously, they deserve credit for the success of the run game as well.
The Gophers rank 13th overall in total defense this season. That’s not counting the Penn State game; the NCAA’s stats page only includes games through November 8. Up front, seniors Carter Coughlin and Winston DeLattiboudere have been the stalwarts. However, former walk-on Sam Renner has made himself invaluable as well. Multiple TV crews calling Gopher games have mentioned NFL interest in Renner.
Seniors Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber have led the linebacker group this year, with Blake Cashman gone to the New York Jets. Martin has missed time with an injury of late, but freshman Braelen Oliver has played very well in his stead. In his last five games, Oliver has 12 total tackles and two sacks.
The backfield can be summed up in three words: Antoine. Winfield. Junior. Penn State’s Sean Clifford had been intercepted just three times this season; he threw two to Winfield yesterday. (He matched his total for the year by throwing a third one to Jordan Howden in the end zone with under two minutes to play). Winfield is now alone in second place in the country with his seven interceptions. Coney Durr is another player in the secondary who’s played very well lately, in particular against Penn State.
Minnesota went to a new kicker for the Penn State game after an inconsistent eight games from freshman Michael Lantz. Brock Walker made his lone field goal attempt (26 yards) and was 4/4 on extra points in his first college game. Punter Jacob Herbers continues to excel at pinning opponents inside the 20. A stronger return game would be nice, but overall the special teams have been decent.
The sky is the limit for this unbeaten Minnesota team. Penn State was, at least on paper, the toughest game on their schedule. However, the road game at Iowa next weekend is no gimme. That said, I expect Fleck and his staff to have the team focused and ready to go. Row the boat, Ski-U-Mah, Go Gophers.