Are We Worried About the Gophers?

PHOTO: ALEX KORMANN - STAR TRIBUNE

Everything was rolling for the Minnesota Gophers, leading up to their matchup on Saturday vs the Purdue Boilermakers. Kirk Ciarrocca had resurrected an even better version of 2019 Tanner Morgan. The defense, under Joe Rossi, looked like one of the best in the country. And Mo Ibrahim was still Mo Ibrahim, even after snapping his achilles in week one last year vs Ohio State.

Combine all of those internal positives with a weak 2022 Big Ten West and a Gophers schedule void of matchups vs Buckeyes or Wolverines; the optimism in Dinkytown was running amuck. But then, the game vs Purdue kicked off and everything changed.

Gophers hit Purdue wall

The Minnesota Gophers were punched in the face immediately. Purdue forced an opening drive 3-and-out, then charged down the field, themselves, and scored a touchdown. It took until the 3rd quarter, but the Gophers did eventually tie the game, 10-10. They’d never get the lead, though. Three Tanner Morgan interceptions and a flacid run game choked the life out of their offensive effort. Final: 20-10, Purdue wins.

Just like that, the population of PJ Fleck’s 2022 hype boat has declined rapidly over the past 20 hours. It’ll only get worse from here, too. They’re top-25 AP Poll ranking will disappear on Sunday afternoon. And media members will jump ship for the next two weeks, given the Gophers impending bye.

But is the current bandwagon exodus warranted? After the Purdue loss, how worried should fans be about Minnesota’s chances in the Big Ten West? The answer to these questions, of course, is “yes” and “no”. But, more “yes” than “no”.

Most Concerning: Running Back Depth

Mohamed Ibrahim dressed and worked out before the game but didn’t take the field for Minnesota’s first snap. Or for any thereafter. Instead, the Gopher running game was anchored by Trey Potts and Bryce Williams. And it didn’t go well.

Tanner Morgan handed the ball off just 20 times on Saturday (Williams: 11, Potts: 9). Probably because those handoffs totalled just 48 yards (2.4 YPC). With or without Mo, the Minnesota Gophers under PJ Fleck will always be a run-first team. They lost two elite backs to the transfer portal this offseason, so the depth issues aren’t surprising. Nonetheless, if the run game is reliant on Ibrahim’s health, that’s worrisome.

Don’t Worry Defense

If Gopher fans need a happy place to go to, think about the defense. Yes, they struggled in the first drive, but from there, they fought ever single down and gave the Minnesota offense a multitude of opportunities to get back into it.

It has depth, it has speed and it has talent. It also has Joe Rossi. Every opponent on the schedule will struggle to score points against the Minnesota Gophers and that means they’ll be in every matchup. Yes, Kirk Ciarrocca & Co struggled on Saturday and RB depth is a concern. Still, this team is much better offensively than last season, when they finished 9-4.

The Key: Tanner Morgan

And that brings us to what matters most: Tanner Morgan. Given Minnesota’s depth issues in the backfield and the determination opponents have to stop the run, offensive productivity throughout the season will land on Tanner’s shoulders.

Michigan State challenged him and he made them pay. In return, the Gophers won easily. Purdue did the same thing, even with Ibrahim sidelined, and Morgan struggled. Thus, the Gophers failed to move the football consistently and lossed.

So, the jury is still out on Tanner Morgan. You know Illinois will force him to make plays in two weeks, when the Gophers resume their schedule after the bye week. How does Tanner respond?

More Optimism

Even with their struggles offensively, the Minnesota Gophers should have won yesterday. Mike Brown-Stephens dropped an easy TD that turned into an INT and Tanner Morgan was careless with the football. On top of that, the OL struggled throughout the day.

These are the issues that are unlikely to be repeated. Morgan is never careless with the football, PJ Fleck’s wide receivers do not drop passes and the Gopher o-line is one of the best in the conference.

Most importantly, if we’re eyeing a Big Ten West championship, is the inadequecies plagueing the rest of the division. Wisconsin and Iowa both lost AGAIN yesterday and Minnesota’s biggest competion looks like Illinois, who they face in two weeks.

Yes, there’s reason for concern around Dinkytown. But overall, the Gophers are still in really great shape.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan