Big Ten Conference Play is open this weekend in Minnesota and Michigan. The Golden Gophers and the Spartans will face off on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET at Spartan Stadium and the match will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.
To find out more about the Golden Gophers ahead of Saturday’s game, we reached out to him Blake RowanCo-Director of The Daily Gopher – SB Nation’s website for all things athletics at the University of Minnesota.
Minnesota initially started 3-0, but hasn’t been tested by a Michigan State caliber team yet. Can gophers really win the Big Ten West Tour? Could it slow Mohamed Ibrahim’s running back? Do Minnesota fans love what PJ Flick did with the show?
Blake fills us in at the bottom.
1. Minnesota was knocked out from the start 3-0, but has yet to face a tough competition. What are the reasonable expectations for the Golden Gopher award in 2022?
Blake: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Big Ten West is kind of a disaster right now. Purdue hasn’t beaten FBS yet, and Northwestern lost to FCS. Kirk Ferentz is convinced that in a well-made movie for television, he is confident that his love for his son can overcome all obstacles, such as the said son’s inability to stand up to a career crime. Nebraska deals with its own family’s problems, after paying her prodigal son $15 million to go home and think about what he did for his university.
Meanwhile, Minnesota avoided embarrassment, successfully outsmarting three inferior opponents in a dominant fashion. I think most fans adopt a form of cautious optimism until they see how the Gophers will perform against Michigan State, their first real competition of the season. But there’s no reason Minnesota can’t compete in the Big Ten West this season. At a minimum, the Gophers look solid on either side of the ball, which is more than most teams in the Big Ten West can say at this point. If they can beat the Spartans on the road on Saturday, I’ll pick gophers as the favorites to win the West going forward.
2. Minnesota is led by quarterback Tanner Morgan and full back Mohamed Ibrahim. Morgan had an effective start to the year (albeit with a limited sample size), while Abraham entered the game with 464 yards (6.9 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. Clearly, Minnesota is a team that runs first, but what can Michigan State do to limit the effectiveness of this duo?
Blake: If the defensive front of the Spartans can contain Abraham, I take my hat off to them, because this is no easy task. He’s faster for over 100 yards in 12 straight games now. That streak was cut when Ibrahim tore his Achilles tendon in last season’s opener, but he’s back from where he left off this season. His patience and vision are what sets him apart from others, and he rarely comes down at first contact. Try to handle him with his arm and you are likely to lose your arm. The best thing about slowing Ibrahim down is to beat the line of scrimmage and limit running lanes. The Gophers have four new players up front, but the unit as a whole looked solid during the first quarter of the season.
Morgan is a slightly easier target for opposing defenses. He struggled the past two seasons under an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach who has been unsuccessful anywhere in these roles, before being reunited with Kirk Ciaroca, the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach who helped guide him into a record-breaking season in 2019. This season, Morgan looks more Comfortable to attack and more pocket-balanced. He even made some very difficult throws against Colorado, a game in which he threw for three touchdowns. But he also wasn’t under much pressure. The more Michigan State can squeeze him into his pocket, the more likely he is to return to bad habits.
3. Speaking of insult, Minnesota’s leading wide receiver, Chris Ottman Bell, will be out for this season. What would Minnesota look like to replace the Outman Bell production and what could the other players make an impact on Saturday’s Gopher team?
Blake: Replacing the Autman-Bell will require a team effort. His biggest impact was in the vertical scrolling game. The Autman-Bell was the Gophers’ most dependable threat thanks to his ability to expand the defense. Most of the wide receivers behind it on the depth chart are unmounted. Dylan Wright is a former transfer from Texas A&M and has the highest cap of any receiver on the list, but consistency has been an issue for him. Daniel Jackson missed his first two games through injury, but last week was back in time to help carry the burden. Mike Brown Stevens and Clay Jerry play the slot and receive more possession than anything else.
The name you want to pay attention to is Brevyn Spann-Ford. The 6-foot-7 tight end is a mismatched pass-game nightmare and he sees more goals with Autman-Bell out.
4. On the defensive side of the ball, who should Michigan State fans look forward to this weekend and why?
Blake: Honestly, there is not a single name that distinguishes it. This is a defense that plays as one unit. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The announcer is full-back Mariano Suri Marin, who leads the team in interventions and serves as a field leader in defence. The defensive line was solid, especially against running, although the passing dash has only hit or missed six sacks through three games against over-the-top opponents. Saturday’s most interesting game will be the pass-through match between the Spartans and Gopher High School. The secondary is the defense force, with one veteran at nearly every starting position. This Michigan State prospective band will be the most talented group Minnesota has faced up to this point, so we’ll get a better idea of how good this high school really is.
5. Now in its sixth season at the helm, do Minnesota fans generally seem to trust and believe in PJ Flick and his coaching staff, or if the 2022 season doesn’t work out, do you feel it’s time for a change?
Blake: The PJ Fleck seat is not remotely hot. The COVID short season, which saw the Gophers finish 3-4, looks like a hiccup between two very good seasons in 2019 and 2021. I think fans are excited to see this team take the next step and win the Big Ten West for the first time in the program’s history. If it doesn’t happen this year, there will certainly be frustration and disappointment, but no sane fan will call for a change of leadership.
Bonus: What is the end result expectation?
Blake: For me, this is a coin flip. I could see it going either way. If I was a betting guy, I wouldn’t bet anything in this game. However, I’m going with Minnesota with a score of 24-21. Nobody really knows how good this team is yet. Think – or hope? – We found out on Saturday that it’s very good.
To read my responses to Blake’s questions, head over to The Daily Gopher.