The Minnesota Gophers were destroyed on Saturday night vs the Michigan Wolverines. PJ Fleck would be quick to reiterate, however, that it’s time to put those oars back in the water. The Gophers are gearing up for a rebound this week vs the Maryland Terrapins in College Park and it’s time to row forward.
But in order to do that, one needs to look back. There were way too many negatives to take away from the Michigan game. Much will have to change, even against a Maryland team that got routed in week 1 by Northwestern 43-3, if Minnesota is going to come back to Dinkytown after week 2 with a 1-1 record.
Specifically… there are four things I’ve been thinking of.
1.) Available Kickers and Punters
The Big Ten’s 21-day COVID-19 protocol will likely screw everyone over by the time this season is done. It got a head-start on Minnesota last week, though (before moving onto Wisconsin). Both starting punter, Mark Crawford, and starting kicker, Michael Lantz, were on the field during pregame warmups last week… but neither played.
That would lend one to presume, they were between the Big Ten’s 14-day quarantine window and their 21-day heart-monitoring window. Hopefully those 21 days are up on Friday night because last Saturday night’s kicking/punting game was difficult and embarrassing to watch. If the Gophers hadn’t played so poorly, special teams would have sunk Minnesota anyway.
I asked PJ Fleck about the Big Ten’s 21-day policy during his Monday press conference. Here is what he had to say:
2.) Limit Big Plays / Make Big Plays
The story of Saturday night, if you look past the COVID absences, was big plays. On offense, the Gophers struggled to find any and on defense they couldn’t stop them.
The first 21 points scored by the Wolverines were the result of big plays. They got their first 7 points on a 70 yard TD run. Then, they gave up a sack/fumble that was returned for a TD before Michigan returned a squib kick to the Gophers 8, before the offense punched it in.
During that same time, the Gophers were either forced to punt after four downs OR they took 10+ plays to methodically drive down the field. We know PJ likes to control the football but when the other team is repeatedly landing different variations of easy TD haymakers, you can’t continue your slow-kill strategy of landing repetitive jabs. You won’t keep up.
Maryland’s offense relies on taking shots downfield and they will do it often on Friday night. Minnesota will need to limit those big plays and find a way to convert some of their own.
3.) Youngsters Need to Grow Up Fast
Fleck and the veteran players who are available for press conferences talked a lot this week about bringing young guys up to speed, quickly. There is inexperience across the linebacker crew, especially, and it showed on some of the big plays we talked about above.
The inexperienced Mariano Sori-Marin will have to lead his even-greener teammates, like Thomas Rush and Cody Lindenberg, while still learning the position himself. That’s before you even peak at the DL or secondary, which house their own wealth of “wet behind the ears”.
In 2019, the Gopher defense was lead by a large group of talented and experienced upperclassman, most of them now playing in the NFL (Coughlin, Winfield Jr, Martin, Williamson). The Gophers have the exact opposite of that in 2020. A bunch of inexperience and a lack of leaders to help bring them along.
But like Durr alluded to in this interview, other teams aren’t going to care about the youth of this Gopher defense. If they can’t grow up in a hurry then big plays will continue to sink the Minnesota Gophers boat.
4.) Tanner Morgan Needs to be Better
Tanner Morgan is the first to blame himself, when asked about what went wrong in a loss. This week, that blame was warranted. Yes, he was missing part of his offensive line and yes he was playing catch up all night. But still, I thought Tanner looked too frazzled in a game where his teammates really needed him to steady the field with poise.
I don’t think Tanner played terribly, but I do think he needs to be better in one area especially. He needs to stop staring down Rashod Bateman. I asked him today about how he felt going through his progressions vs Michigan and he didn’t think it was a problem. I disagree.
Tanner found Bateman 9 times on Saturday night. The rest of the WR core totalled 1 catch, a beautiful adjustment by Chris Autman-Bell on an underthrown ball by Tanner Morgan. I want to get the ball in Bateman’s hands too… but when he’s not available, Morgan has to move on faster and find another playmaker.
He was too hesitant all around last week and I expect that to change in a big way vs Maryland. I am pinning Tanner with a big game in week 2.
Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan