Gophers Must Avoid Letdown and Backfield Injuries vs Illini

PHOTO: NAM Y. HUH – ASSOCIATED PRESS

On Saturday morning, the Minnesota Gophers will play their most important game of the 2021 season. Ok, maybe I’ve been listening to PJ Fleck too often but his often ridiculed, “one-game championship season” mantra was built for weekends like this one.

The maroon and gold are 14.5 point favorites at home against the Illinois Fighting Illini. If they can dispose of Brett Bielema’s blue and orange, they’ll head to Iowa City next weekend with a 7-2 (5-1) record, a chance to take a stranglehold on the Big Ten West and possibly choke out the last hopes the Hawkeyes have at their second-ever West title.

Pump the breaks

But, if we learned anything from the Bowling Green loss earlier this year, it’s that point spreads in college football mean nothing. Fleck preaches his “one game season” approach as an exaggerated version of what every good sports (or life) coach has been teaching for decades.

Thinking about the future and losing focus on the present is a recipe for letdown. On Saturday, the Minnesota Gophers will lose to the Fighting Illini if they look ahead to next weekend vs Iowa. That’d be a bad look fresh off a new PJ Fleck contract extension.

Running on eggshells

There’s one other focus vs Illinois this weekend, beyond winning. The Minnesota offense relies on a lot of production out of its run game, which has worked out for PJ and many of his predecessors. But what happens when you lose three of your six running backs to injury and then another enters the transfer portal?

In Fleck’s case, you’re very glad the two freshmen backs remaining, Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas, have the talent and maturity to perform at a high level, this early in their careers. Oh, and you try to protect them at all costs.

We know PJ and his offensive coordinator, Mike Sanford, prefer a bell cow back in their offense. But with just two guys remaining, plans might need to change. Even if it means moving some pieces around.

That’s Derik LeCaptain, who the Gophers have converted from linebacker to running back because of their emergency situation. Defensive back, Jordan Nubin, has also joined the emergency crew in the RB room. LeCaptain proved, in that ridiculous run last week, that he’s up for the challenge. But, LeCaptain and Nubin aren’t the only relief the Minnesota coaching staff can provide Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas vs Illinois or going forward.

More from Tanner Morgan

Using 5th-year senior quarterback, Tanner Morgan, more often has been a talker since the beginning of the season and I’ve written that blog way too many times. To Fleck’s credit, he hasn’t really needed Morgan to win him a game yet this season. But relying so much on the ground game has also proven fatal for the health of his backfield.

That may leave PJ and his staff with no other choice than to use Tanner Morgan’s arm more often, if not to defeat opponents, than at least in the hopes of keeping hits off of their running backs. He’s done it before but Tanner’s yet to prove he can be a consistent thrower since his record-breaking 2019.

Wildcat help

The other QB who could help keep the running backs safe is Cole Kramer, who runs the wildcat offense. Usually when Kramer’s in the game, he keeps the ball in his hands. A few more opportunities for both quarterbacks could take a significant load off Thomas and Irving.

But winning is the #1 goal and I have no doubt Fleck and his staff will do what it takes to get a W at Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday. Nothing else matters if the Minnesota Gophers go 0-1 in the Illinois Fighting Illini season.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan