Preview 2017: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Previewing and looking ahead at the Minnesota Golden Gophers season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Minnesota Offense
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca knows how to make a passing game work, and he knows how to get the most out of smart, accurate quarterbacks. Fleck’s OC at Western Michigan will open it up a bit more, but he’ll still rely on the ground game early on to keep the Gopher attack going.
The 1-2 rushing punch of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks should be among the Big Ten’s most effective if the line can do its part.
The front five loses center Tyler Moore to Oklahoma State and right tackle Jonah Pirsig to graduation, but has great size on the left side and more massive pieces about to rise up into prominent spots. It’s possible Minnesota will go at least 320 at all five spots.
Drew Wolitarsky is gone after catching five of the team’s nine touchdown passes and 66 of the 181 completions. However, the 6-5 Rashad Still leads a decent-looking corps that should break out with more of an emphasis on the passing attack.
Now the new coaching staff has to find someone who can get those receivers the ball. It’ll be up to Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft to battle it out to see who can do better than Mitch Leidner. Both options are big, smart, and with good arms, but …
Biggest Key To The Minnesota Offense
The offense has to be able to throw more touchdown passes. The Gophers threw a grand total of five against FBS teams last year and never came up with two in a game – four came in the paycheck date against Indiana State.
The team was still fine thanks to the defense and running game, but there weren’t enough downfield passes in the occasionally inconsistent attack. Of the 12 interceptions thrown, six came in the losses to Wisconsin and Iowa – the new options have to be more effective.
What You Need To Know About The Minnesota Defense
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith spent the last few years at Arkansas and now moves over to Minnesota, needing to keep the production going for the nation’s 21st-best defense that allowed 349 yards and 22 points per game.
It starts with a terrific linebacking corps that might not have a slew of all-stars, but gets back Jonathan Celestin, Blake Cashman and Cody Poock – who made 99 tackles in 2015 but was hurt early last year. They’ll be working behind All-Big Ten tackle Steven Richardson and a line that needs more options on the inside.
The pass rush that cranked up 37 sacks last season and brought the heat from almost all areas – except from the defensive ends on a regular basis. Can the DEs do their part after not getting much of anything from the outside?
Getting Antoine Winfield back in the secondary is a massive plus in a secondary that was great, but needs to replace leading tackler Damarius Travis. It’s going to be a young group of defensive backs, but they’ll hit.
Biggest Key To The Minnesota Defense
The run defense has to hold up against everyone. The Gophers had a very tight formula that relied on being able to control games throughout – that means stopping the run and getting the defense off the field. It’s a new coaching staff and a new team, but things aren’t going to change too much in terms of what the D needs to do.
Penn State was able to come back and win with the passing game, but the other three losses to Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin came on the three-worst days by the run defense. Going back a few years, Minnesota is 0-10 when allowing 179 yards or more.
Minnesota Will Be Far Better If …
The offense starts to show more pop. Minnesota managed to win nine games and come really, really close to winning all four of the ones it lost, but it would’ve been nice if the O had another gear that could’ve put games away a lot easier and done more when things started to turn against Penn State and Wisconsin.
The Gophers don’t need to start winging it around the yard, and they don’t need to crank up the tempo to warp speed, but they need to start averaging more than just 357 yards and 29 points per game – especially against the mediocre teams.
Best Minnesota Offensive Player
RB Rodney Smith, Jr. – Whether it’s Smith or Shannon Brooks carrying the ball, as long as the O line is in place, the two star Gopher backs should be able to roll for over 2,000 yards. Smith cranked up 1,158 yards and 16 scores, pounding out just under five yards per try while catching 23 passes for 188 yards.
The 5-11, 205-pounder split more work over the second half of the season, but he was still the main man around the goal line. Feed him, and he’ll hit 100 yards, running for the mark every time he ran 20 times or more.
2. RB Shannon Brooks, Jr.
3. TE Brandon Lingen, Sr.
4. OT Donnell Greene, Jr.
5. PK Emmit Carpenter, Jr.
Best Minnesota Defensive Player
DT Steven Richardson, Sr. – The 6-0, 300-pound bowling ball on the inside was a great interior pass rusher in his first few seasons, and then last season earned All-Big Ten honors on the field and in the classroom with 31 stops with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. While he’s not built to be a big anchor who can lock down against the run, he’s can more than hold his own – he’s tremendously quick into the backfield.
2. LB Jonathan Celestin, Sr.
3. S Antoine Winfield, Soph.
4. LB Cody Poock, Jr.
5. LB Blake Cashman, Jr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
QB Conor Rhoda, Sr. – He waited his turn behind Mitch Leidner, but will it be his gig? The 6-3, 215-pounder has the size, the arm, and the running ability to fit the mold, but he’ll have to hold off Demry Croft for the gig.
The 6-5, 200-pound Croft has an accurate arm – he was great this spring – and is slippery-smooth as a runner the he gets in the open. He’s getting every shot at the job, but no matter who the starter will be, he’ll have to make the passing game more efficient. Leidner was a good, veteran leader, but he didn’t make the passing game go.
The Minnesota Season Will Be A Success If …
Minnesota wins ten games. After winning nine games last season – and coming up with a bowl win during all of the turmoil – how hard can it be to win ten this year with a strong team coming back? The Gophers had Penn State beaten, they lost to Iowa and Nebraska by seven each, and they pushed the Badgers.
The non-conference schedule – Buffalo, at Oregon State, Middle Tennessee – isn’t bad, and the Big Ten slate isn’t awful even with a trip to Michigan. They get Nebraska and Michigan State at home, and they just might be good enough to get to nine regular season wins.
The last time the Gophers won ten games in the season was also the last time they were able to beat …
Key Game To The Minnesota Season
Nov. 25 vs. Wisconsin – P.J. Fleck’s undermanned Western Michigan team gave the Badgers a nasty time in the Cotton Bowl – but didn’t get the win. Minnesota always seems to give Wisconsin a rough time, too, but without anything to show for it losing 13 straight going back to the 2003 victory. Can Fleck end the regular season by taking the Paul Bunyan Axe? Beat Bucky, and set the dial to Rivalry On.
2016 Minnesota Fun Stats
– Fumbles: Opponents 23 (lost 16) – Minnesota 12 (lost 5)
– Penalties: Minnesota 88 for 743 yards – Opponents 61 for 547 yards
– 3rd Quarter Scoring: 61 – 4th Quarter Scoring 111