Some Palpable Optimism For Gopher Football Heading into Week 3

Photo: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
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Before I head over to the U of M Athletic Facilities today for the Gopher Football weekly press conference, and we all move away from Fresno State and onto Georgia Southern, I think it’s important to get our minds right. There’s been too much negativity around how this team has started the 2019 season… undefeated after two games and I think I need to ease some animosities. 

That doesn’t mean I’m here to scold anyone who hasn’t jumped in the 2019 boat yet. As most of you know, I’m not about that. You’re a fan, just like me. You can feel however the fuck you want to. All of our brains work differently. That’s a good thing. However, I do want to tell you why I feel better about this Gopher team right now, than I have yet for 2019.

I was confident heading into the South Dakota State game; I was nervous/frustrated AF during it, and I was relieved/nervous AF for the future, afterward. Leading up to Fresno, I just wanted a win. I didn’t know what to expect. My feeling during the game was exactly the same as it was vs SDSU (nervous/frustrated AF) and the relief was certainly palpable afterward. But, once it was over, my outlook for the rest of the season was completely different than the previous week.

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Excited: That is the word I would use for how I’m feeling right now. 

That’s because the Gophers didn’t frustrate me in the same ways that they did vs SDSU. If you listen to a PJ Fleck interview or press conference, there is about a 78% chance that you will hear about “the 78%”. That’s the percentage of college football games that are won by teams who win the turnover battle. It’s a good focus because the Gophers finished last year with a -1 TO margin, even after a pretty successful season. 

“The ball is the program” is another saying that is difficult to avoid. PJ doesn’t just say these things to hear his own voice, though I know that’s how a lot of people feel about him. He knows that “not losing” is often enough to win, in this league. If you can play mistake-free (or as close as possible to that) you’ll win games, no matter how much talent you have. With a young team, avoiding turnovers can be tough but Fleck has been in control of the penalties since he arrived. In 2017, the Gophers were the LEAST penalized team in the entire country. Last year, they finished with the 5th FEWEST. This year hasn’t been like that… more on that in a second.

Against the Jackrabbits, they won the turnover battle but they still nearly lost the game. The most infuriating part of that contest was our inability to, both move the ball offensively and stop SDSU defensively. The Gophers didn’t seem to overmatch an FCS team like they should have. That was very worrisome. 

That was NOT the case vs Fresno State. No. The only team that almost beat the Gophers on Saturday night…. was the Gophers. They turned the ball over 3 times and muffed a fumble but when they weren’t turning the ball over, Fresno couldn’t stop them. Tanner Morgan was 16 of 23 passing and we ran the ball 52 times…. turnovers AND PENALTIES were the only thing stopping that offense.

Speaking of penalties, the box score says the Gophers committed 7 of them for a total of 65 yards but, if you add on the yardage that was gained and the TD’s that were scored by the Bulldogs following those flags, you could probably add about 150 yards and at least two of their TD’s. It was ugly in that regard but again, when the Gophers weren’t beating themselves, they were causing serious problems for the Fresno offense, compiling 4 sacks, 5 total TFL, 5 passes defended, 2 INT, and 4 forced fumbles.

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I saw what I wanted to see from the offense and defense, as far as what they are capable of (vs a damn good team in Fresno). We can move the ball up and down the field in multiple ways and our defense is going to be tough, as long as they can keep pressure in the backfield. Because the Gophers have proven their discipline over the last two years, I believe the penalty counts will come down tremendously, starting this weekend. They’ve had 7 penalties in each of the first two games. They averaged 3.9 last year and 3.2 the season before.

And now, the most difficult part of our non-conference schedule is over. I haven’t dug very deeply into Georgia Southern and their Triple-Option offense but, if the game vs Georgia Tech’s same style in last year’s Quick Lane Bowl was any indication of what we’ll see on Saturday, the Gophers will be JUST FINE.

The Maroon and Gold are favored by 15.5 over Georgia Southern right now and should be entering Big Ten play vs Purdue in two weeks, with a 3-0 record. After traveling for our first Big Ten contest, Illinois comes to TCF Bank Stadium in week 2. Never take a Big Ten opponent for granted but, on paper, we should be 5-0 heading to Nebraska for week 3, as long as we fix the turnover and penalty issues that were displayed in Fresno. 

Nebraska might be 3-3 heading into that contest, after losing to Colorado last weekend…

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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