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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Minnesota Golden Gophers with Gopher Illustrated

Ryan Burns of Minnesota’s 247Sports site talks Saturday’s matchup against Miami (OH).

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The second week of non-conference play launches this week for all 12 MAC teams. One of the more difficult early-season slates in the conference belongs to the Miami (OH) RedHawks. One week after facing a top 10 Cincinnati team, Miami must enter Big Ten country to face P.J. Fleck and the Minnesota Golden Gophers in hopes of scoring its first Big Ten win since 2003.

To preview Miami’s upcoming opponent, we bring in Minnesota expert Ryan Burns (@RyanBurnsMN) from Gopher Illustrated (@Minnesota247) to talk all things Gophers before Saturday’s matchup at TCF Bank Stadium.

Steve Helwick, Hustle Belt: Last Thursday night felt like a collective heartbreak for Minnesota fans and the sport of college football as a whole. Losing Mohamed Ibrahim for the season is a difficult blow to endure, especially after he produced nine consecutive 100+ yard showings on the ground. Is Minnesota’s offense equipped to handle the loss of their star?

Ryan Burns, Gopher Illustrated: If there was ever a Minnesota offense that was equipped to handle this type of loss, it’s this one. They still have a fourth-year starting quarterback in Tanner Morgan that we’ve seen play well for long stretches in 2019, but took a step back in the 2020 COVID season. But he’s seen it all. The good and the bad, and I think I’d trust him more than any other quarterback in the Big Ten West.

The other big thing is the Gopher offensive line, aka the Minnesota Moving Company. They came into the season with 10 guys that have started a total of 180 total games, but they returned all their starters from last season, and got back right tackle Daniel Faalele and right guard Curtis Dunlap from 2020. This is a group that opened holes against Ohio State, and expectations are lofty for this position group in 2021.

As far as replacing Ibrahim, I believe you’ll see a full-blown running back by committee for the next few games. I’d surmise that Trey Potts, Cam Wiley and Bryce Williams will see the bulk of the carries with the potential of freshmen Ky Thomas and Bucky Irving also mixing in.

Helwick: Tanner Morgan took the Big Ten by storm as a sophomore in 2019, producing over 3,000 passing yards and 30 touchdowns with accuracy on full display. However, the production dipped during the pandemic-shortened season in 2020. How much of the drop-off in the passing game is a result of the departures of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman? And how can Morgan revert to his 2019 caliber of play again?

Burns: That’s the big question we all have, media and fans included, is what caused the drop off last season? You can point to zero offseason time with a brand new quarterback coach and offensive coordinator, the loss of Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman opting out, then back in and then back out. Losing two starting offensive linemen to an opt-out and injury. Honestly, I think it’s a culmination of it all. But the hope would be that now with an entire offseason with his QB coach and play-caller, an entire off-season of running routes with new pass-catchers and hopefully an offensive coordinator that can scheme his offense around what Morgan’s strengths are, that Morgan and the entire passing offense as a whole can take a step back toward what we saw in 2019.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Minnesota
Former Western Michigan commit Tanner Morgan is in his fourth year as the starting QB for the Gophers.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know that the statistical numbers will ever replicate that 2019 season for Morgan, but if the fourth-year starter can continue to move efficiently around the pocket and deliver on-time throws, it’ll be a step in the right direction.

Helwick: The defense appeared to come out strong last Thursday night, but C.J. Stroud really lit up the secondary in the second half to turn the tide. Are there any areas of defensive strength or concern you were able to draw from the Ohio State game? And who are some potential breakout names to watch on this unit?

Burns: What I took away from the Ohio State game was that Minnesota’s defense wasn’t consistent enough. The Buckeyes ran 48 total plays against Minnesota’s defense, and on 90% of them (or 43 plays), the Gophers held them to 199 total yards or 4.6 yards per play. The issue was that other 10%, or Ohio State’ five touchdown plays. Those five plays accounted for an astounding 296 yards, or 59.2 yards per play. You ain’t going to win any football games if that’s the case, and that’s been the issue for Minnesota’s defense going back to last season as they are susceptible to the explosive play. It’s happened far too often and needs to change.

Minnesota’s defensive line needs to establish themselves and that begins with Boye Mafe and Nyles Pinckney. Mafe led the team in sacks and tackles for loss last season, and he didn’t show up nearly enough against Ohio State, while Pinckney and the defensive tackle group got moved too often. That needs to change against Miami (OH).

Helwick: What do you believe the formula is for Miami (OH) to pull off the upset in Minneapolis this Saturday?

Burns: The formula would be to sell out to stop Minnesota’s run game, and if the Gopher passing game can’t get off the ground for whatever reason, it’ll be a ball game. You’d also have to expect in that instance that the Redhawks offense is generating explosive plays from Jack Sorenson and Mac Hippenhammer among others.

Win the turnover battle, and this thing would get interesting in a hurry.

Helwick: Finally, how does Saturday’s game play out? What’s your score prediction and who are your offensive and defensive MVPs of the contest?

Burns: I‘ve got this game around Minnesota 38, Miami (OH) 17.

I believe this game will be won up front and I have confidence that Minnesota will be able to run the ball, that the play-action game will be open all day. But this is a big game for defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and his defense. The Redhawks are skilled offensively, but they’re not Ohio State. Make them drive the length of the field over 8, 10 or 12 play drives if they’re going to get points.

Offensive MVP: Tanner Morgan

Defensive MVP: LB Jack Gibbens

Miami (OH) continues its non-conference slate against Minnesota at 12 p.m. ET on Saturday. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.