Dear Gopher OL: The Best Backfield in the NCAA Needs to FEAST… So Be Better

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 27: Shannon Brooks #23 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers reacts to scoring a touchdown during the second half of the Holiday Bowl against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at at Qualcomm Stadium on December 27, 2016 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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The University of Minnesota Golden Gopher Football Team opens the Big Ten season tomorrow afternoon in West Lafayette, Indiana vs the Purdue Boilermakers. It’s a must-win game, if the Gophers want to keep any hopes alive, of competing with Wisconsin for the Big Ten West Title in 2019. Really, this is the type of game that needs to eventually become an easy W. I started to write that article… but decided against it because I guess I don’t believe the Gophers are ready for that yet. I still need to see more, no matter how light the rest of the schedule looks or how evenly matched they are against the rest of the Big Ten West vs past years.

This is a massive game, toward getting to that point, as a program. Fans are still holding their collective breaths, as we wait to see more out of a team that barely made it out of non-conference play unscathed. A convincing win would change the entire narrative on the season, with Illinois coming to TCF Bank Stadium next week, into another home game vs the most overrated Nebraska team in program history.

The key to beating Purdue comes in the trenches on both sides of the ball. 

Shannon Brooks will make his return this week and that easily makes the Gopher backfield the most talented in all of college football but I’d argue they were near the top, even before his return. The key to the running game doesn’t lie within Brooks’ return. It lies within this offensive line, which has looked vastly overrated, early on.

Sure, they are young, they are MASSIVE, and they are likely to keep improving. That’s definitely the bright side. But, we need to see some noticeable improvement right now, out of this O-line, because their size hasn’t equated to results yet this season, vs NON-Big Ten defensive adversaries. It’s been ugly.

The Gophers are currently sitting at 90th in the nation, with 119.5 Rush YPG. Last year, we averaged 171.2 per game, with a lot of the same guys. Hopefully that’s some hope we can grasp onto because their 2019 Yards/Carry isn’t… they rank even worse there (124th in nation) with 2.2 YPC…. Only 5 teams in FBS rank lower. But just like with YPG, they were way better last year (4.3 YPC)…. so… hope?

At this point, we know what we have at RB, WR, and QB. Our skill positions are stacked and Tanner Morgan is more than equipped to handle an offense as loaded as this one. In fact, the more room the offensive line can give this running game, the better Tanner Morgan will be, because when we need Tanner Morgan to come through in clutch time, he’ll be there. But, the less you have to put on his shoulders throughout the course of the game, the better he will be as the game unfolds. He’s an elite game manager with a twinkle in his eye for big time moments. In other words, the Vikings should call him up for Sunday……….

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Defensively, the focus is on the Boilermakers’ now healthy (they hope — he’s questionable but expected to play) QB, Elijah Sindelar, and their standout Sophomore WR, Rondale Moore.

Sindelar was injured last week but put up over 900 YDS, 9 TD’s, and just 3 INT’s in weeks 1 and 2. Moore is looking like one of the WR greats in Purdue history with just 1.3 seasons in the books. He went for 114 REC, 1258 YDS, and 14 TD’s in his Freshman season and has 369 YDS and 2 TD’s in 2019.

But, we have what should be a smothering secondary, led by Antoine Winfield Jr. and they get to face WR’s, as good as Rondale Moore, everyday in practice with Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, and others. I’d be shocked if Moore has a monster game. But if he does, it will likely be on the front-7, rather than the back-4.

PJ Fleck has touted Jim Panagos as a major hire at defensive line. He glowed aboout him at Big Ten Media Day and he raved about him at early media gatherings, before putting Jim at the podium to hit us with his enthusiasm. He’s a great guy and coaches with the type of fire that PJ loves. The results so far though, have been mixed.

We’ve faced 3 new QB’s, that play for underwhelming opponents. The sack percentage looks really good, ranking 17th in the nation but we’re also near the bottom of the NCAA in opponent passer-rating (90th). They’ve allowed offenses to march down the field at times, but have also stepped up and gotten big stops, in big moments. You also can’t discount the triple-option offense they went up against vs Georgia Southern, since they never really threw the ball, period. So far vs the run, they’ve been dominant, ranking in the top-25 in both YPG and YPC.

In other words, there is a lot we still need to find out about this defensive line vs the pass game. If the Minnesota front-4 can keep Sindelar uncomfortable without needing to blitz a ton, it’ll be hard for him to find Moore, with our secondary/linebacker group.

I think we will see a different Gophers team than what we have so far. I want to see some wrinkles on offense and defense, that we haven’t seen in non-conference play. Hopefully, that will lead to some running backs breaking free. If we can get that part of the offense rolling, I think the defense will handle itself, and the Gophers will walk away with this one handily, 31-20.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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