Time and Date: Saturday, September 11 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: TCF Bank Stadium — Minneapolis, MN
Spread: Minnesota (-20)
ESPN FPI: Minnesota has 91.7% chance to win
All-time series: Minnesota leads series, 4-0
Last meeting: Minnesota 26, Miami (OH) 3 — September 15, 2018
Setting the scene
There were no tune-up games for Miami (OH) and Minnesota this season. Both programs opened against top 10 competition and were worn down by superior offenses. Miami fell flat out of the gate, allowing No. 8 Cincinnati to jump to a 21-0 lead before the first quarter subsided. On the contrary, Minnesota came out swinging against No. 4 Ohio State and held a lead until the late third quarter. While the Gophers couldn’t hang on, the loss wasn’t the most dreary thing to happen Thursday night — star running back Mohamed Ibrahim suffered a season-ending leg injury to put a damper on the team’s 2021 outlook.
After Miami and Minnesota suffered Week 1 defeats, one program in this matchup can turn the tide in Minneapolis and secure its first win of 2021.
The programs are familiar with each other after a recent meeting in 2018, but the head coaches are even more accustomed to seeing one another. This will be the fourth meeting between Chuck Martin and P.J. Fleck. Fleck is currently 3-0 over Martin with two wins coming at Western Michigan and the third occurring at Minnesota in 2018.
Miami RedHawks outlook
Miami has only played four games since claiming the 2019 MAC championship. While the conference title still feels fresh, Saturday’s 49-14 result was a harsh reality check and the team is now coming off its worst defeat in its last 14 games. The RedHawks were severely outmatched by their crosstown rival and entered halftime with a massive 35-0 deficit. In hopes of a bounce-back performance, Miami travels to Big Ten country where things haven’t been kind in recent years. The program’s last Big Ten victory transpired in 2003 when a Ben Roethlisberger-led RedHawks squad bested Northwestern, 44-14.
The RedHawks operated without their starting quarterback Brett Gabbert, who suffered a knee injury and subsequent thumb injury in fall camp. Gabbert suited up Saturday but his lack of availability in practice led to Miami opting for A.J. Mayer. Mayer’s career completion rate of 41.6 percent isn’t the most compelling statistic but his sample size only consists of three games — all against ranked competition, or teams that finished the season ranked.
Mayer led the RedHawks to victory over Ball State last November with 212 passing yards and three touchdowns, all without an interception. That showing proves his capability of leading this program in Gabbert’s absence. He puts a lot of heat on his throws which causes his accuracy to suffer at times, but it allows him to avoid turnovers. Mayer has seen moderate success when targeting 15-20 yards downfield and with Miami’s talented slew of receivers — Jack Sorenson, Mac Hippenhammer, Jalen Walker, James Burns — that area of the field should be a point of emphasis.
Connecting with Sorenson needs to be more of a focal point this week. Miami’s recent results have been correlated with Sorenson’s production. The 2019 MAC Championship Game MVP registered over 100 yards in each of the team’s last three victories and under 40 in the two most recent losses. Sorenson only corralled two passes Saturday, and getting him more involved can spark the RedHawks’ offense.
Minnesota struggled containing the deep ball against Ohio State, allowing touchdown passes of 38, 56, 70, and 61 in the second half alone. Thus, this would be the optimal time to break out Miami’s home run threat James Burns. In 2019, the 5’9” speedster collected over 25 yards per reception on 20 catches and serves as the team’s best deep option.
While the RedHawks’ offense usually inflicts more damage through the air, the ground production was more efficient than usual last week. Introducing Kansas State transfer Keyon Mozee worked wonders for the rushing attack. Mozee produced 80 yards at 5.3 yards per carry Saturday, repeatedly bursting for respectable gains against a stout Cincinnati defense. After an impressive RedHawk debut, expect Mozee to receive an uptick from the 15 carries he fielded against the Bearcats.
One key storyline heading into Miami’s season was the loss of All-MAC selections Tommy Doyle and Danny Godlevske on the offensive line. While the RedHawks evidently felt those absences in pass protection, the run blocking didn’t miss a beat. Rusty Feth and the interior o-line stepped up and provided solid gaps for Mozee and the running backs.
It came as no surprise that Cincinnati launched an 81-yard bomb on the second play of its season. Miami’s secondary has struggled containing the deep ball for quite some time and Saturday was no exception. Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder enjoyed an efficient 20/25 outing with 295 yards and four touchdowns.
It is imperative that Miami improves its coverage. Oftentimes, RedHawks’ defensive backs struggle with zone schemes and fall an extra step behind streaking and cutting receivers. And it wasn’t just one player or one area of the field Saturday — 11 Bearcats caught a pass against Miami and four averaged over 14 yards per reception.
Limiting the run game at Nippert Stadium wasn’t as effective as it was in 2020. Cincinnati’s premier back Jerome Ford averaged over 10 yards per carry on the 21st best run defense from last fall. Still, Miami applied a fair amount of pressure at the line of scrimmage and even sacked Ridder on two occasions. Pass rush has been the forté of Miami’s defense in each of the past two seasons. The RedHawks feature a rotation of defensive ends who are quick around the edge, and as a result, they led the FBS in sacks per game in 2020.
Kameron Butler and Lonnie Phelps are two key defensive ends that will test their luck against Minnesota’s mammoth offensive line, renowned as the “Minnesota Movers.” Miami is also well equipped with pass rushing from the second level of the defense as the team’s 2019 sack leader Ivan Pace Jr. lines up at outside linebacker. Completing the unit is middle linebacker Ryan McWood, who shockingly did not record a tackle last week. That statistical anomaly won’t occur two weeks in a row, and McWood is the usual candidate to lead the RedHawks in stopping opposing running backs.
Minnesota Golden Gophers outlook
Millions of eyeballs were fixated on Minnesota last Thursday night as the team kicked off Week 1 at home in hopes of upending perennial playoff contender Ohio State. The gas ran out after three quarters of competitiveness, but the bigger story was the loss of running back Mohamed Ibrahim. The impact of the star running back cannot be understated as he was in the midst of his ninth consecutive 100-yard game (163 yards, two touchdowns) when the injury occurred. Now, P.J. Fleck’s team must go through the grind of an entire season without its top player.
Ibrahim recorded 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in an abbreviated 7-game schedule last year. Minnesota never focused on spreading the wealth in the backfield because No. 24 was so dominant. Now, the Gophers are forced to turn to new names on the depth chart.
Treyson Potts appears to be the likely candidate to land the No. 1 running back role after receiving 10 touches out of the backfield against the Buckeyes. Also, Cam Wiley ranked second on the team in rushing last year and averaged over six yards per carry so his presence should be expected in the run game as well.
But Ibrahim’s absence ultimately shifts Minnesota to rely less on the ground and more on the arm of fourth-year starting quarterback Tanner Morgan. The 2019 All-Big Ten selection is looking for a resurgent season after a dip in production in 2020. Morgan was sensational as a sophomore when he led Minnesota to an 11-2 record behind 3,253 yards, 30 touchdown passes, and an accurate completion percentage of 66.
Morgan, a former Western Michigan commit, has watched his star receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman depart, leaving him dealt with a new hand of cards. No Minnesota receiver emerged as a primary threat in Week 1, but the Gophers were without Chris Autman-Bell who is recovering from an ankle injury. Autman-Bell has been a contributing piece to the wide receiver corps for three years now and was expected to take the leap as the No. 1 option in 2021. If he is not good to go Saturday, Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright appears to be Morgan’s best option.
For Miami, the most intimidating feature of Minnesota’s offense is located in the trenches. Collectively, the Gophers’ offensive line is built like a war tank. All five starters measure up to at least 6’4” and 310 pounds. The most notable “Minnesota Mover” is the mountainous right tackle Daniel Faalele, who measures at 6’9” and 380 and displays impressive foot speed for a man of his size. Minnesota’s offensive line paved strong pathways for Ibrahim in the running game last Thursday and the unit possesses an unhinged amount of strength up front that Miami will have to overpower.
Not too many teams allow as little as 10 points to the Buckeyes entering halftime, and that’s exactly what Minnesota’s defense accomplished in the opener. But Ohio State started going for the jugular in the second half and a slew of 50+ yard touchdown passes from C.J. Stroud ultimately swung the game out of the Gophers’ hands.
Similar to Miami, Minnesota must emphasize a mastery of deep zone coverage. The Gophers’ corners struggled against Ohio State’s duo of Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, yielding 197 yards on 21.9 yards per reception between the two wideouts.
The inability to generate pressure also plagued Minnesota against Ohio State. Minnesota failed to produce a single sack and wound up with only one stop in the backfield. This doesn’t seem like a one-off game, but more of a continuation from last year’s trend. The Gophers finished 10th-to-last in the FBS in the sack department by managing just 1.1 per contest in 2020.
Clemson transfer defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney should draw plenty of attention from the Miami offensive line, however. If Pinckney is able to cause enough havoc on the interior, lanes should open up for Minnesota’s pass rushers this weekend.
Minnesota’s offense will deviate from its usual gameplan without Mohamed Ibrahim, but relying on Tanner Morgan to create plays through the air is a solid second option for P.J. Fleck and Co. The Gophers should pick apart Miami’s secondary, and Saturday looks destined to be the breakout performance of wide receiver Dylan Wright — who totaled 57 receiving yards and a touchdown in his first game in maroon and gold.
Miami’s offense will generate more points than last week, but the projected absence of Brett Gabbert certainly limits the unit from its full potential. Still, wide receivers Jack Sorenson and Mac Hippenhammer should see increases in production this time after enduring a more strenuous battle against Cincinnati’s elite secondary in Week 1.
Minnesota showed flashes competence on defense to counter Ohio State in the first half, so I believe the same will be applied when the RedHawks take the field. With the Gophers’ defense playing a factor, Minnesota’s offensive output will be too much for the RedHawks to replicate in Minneapolis. The 17-year streak without a Big Ten victory unfortunately continues for the 2019 MAC champions.
Prediction: Minnesota 37, Miami (OH) 21