Photo by Isabel Thalken/Nebraska Communications

Know The Foe: A Closer Look at Minnesota

By Brian Rosenthal

First-year coach P.J. Fleck and his famous “Row the Boat” mantra helped give Minnesota an early boost to the 2017 football season.

Fleck, who came from Western Michigan, led the Gophers to wins in each of their first three games. That included a 48-14 victory at Oregon State.

Then Big Ten Conference play began, and Minnesota has lost five of six games.

While the defense has been stout – Minnesota is holding opponents to 20.3 points per game – a stagnant offense simply can’t score enough. Since a 34-3 victory over Middle Tennessee State that left the Gophers 3-0, Minnesota is averaging a mere 18.8 points per game.

Still, Minnesota had been competitive in every game – until last week’s 33-10 loss at Michigan, when the Wolverines humbled the Gophers with a power rushing attack and finished with 371 rushing yards.

So how does Minnesota (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) respond to its first lopsided loss when it hosts Nebraska (4-5, 3-3) on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium?

Nebraska coach Mike Riley expects the Gophers to bounce back quickly under Fleck’s steady, positive leadership.

“I think that when you look at that team, they play hard, they’ve won games and they’ve been in a ton of really tough, close games,” Riley said. “As I look at the ones that they have played, they have been really competitive and they are doing a good job.”

To wit: Minnesota is one of the most disciplined teams in the nation. After ranking No. 100 in fewest penalty yards and 103rd in fewest penalties per game through nine games last season, the Gophers have done a complete turnaround under Fleck. The Gophers now rank third in fewest penalty yards and are tied for first nationally in fewest penalties per game.

Riley’s team, meanwhile, is also once again in bounce-back mode after a home overtime loss to Northwestern. The Huskers, like Minnesota, are in must-win mode for the sake of bowl eligibility.

“I think the initial focus is the work that we are going to do this week, but I think that to not still have that out there as something would be kind of denying what’s on everybody’s mind,” Riley said of a bowl game. “I think that it would be great, and I will state it would be great for our team and for our seniors in particular to fight and get some wins to get bowl eligible.”

Here’s a closer look at Minnesota, which has lost two straight games against Nebraska:

 

Gophers on Offense

In a nutshell, the Gophers simply aren’t very good on offense. Nationally, they rank No. 112 or lower in most major offensive statistical categories, including No. 119 in total offense (319.2 yards per game).

Quarterbacks Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft both have played, although Croft missed three weeks earlier this season because of a suspension for undisclosed reasons.

Neither has exactly ignited the Minnesota offense.

Rhoda, a former walk-on, started the season’s first six games and completed 54 percent of his passes for 839 yards and five touchdowns, with four interceptions.

Croft has started the last three games but also has gone three straight games with single-digit pass completions, a stretch in which he’s completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and committed four turnovers. Combined, he’s thrown for a meager 250 yards in those three games.

That hasn’t stopped receiver Tyler Johnson from having a nice sophomore season. He’s caught 32 passes for 620 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnson is averaging 19.3 yards per reception, second most among Big Ten players, and has three 100-yard receiving performances this season.

Keep an eye on Minnesota’s offensive line. The Gophers could be without two starting offensive linemen, at least to start, if left tackle Donnell Greene is held out.

Greene is facing discipline from Fleck that will carry over to Saturday’s game after the junior starter swung and hit a Michigan player last week. He’s started every game at left tackle.

Also, junior center Jared Weyler isn’t on this week’s depth chart after sustaining an injury against Michigan. Redshirt freshman Conner Olsen, who started three games in place of an injured Weyler earlier this season, is listed as the starter.

Greene, by the way, is the only Gopher lineman who’s started in the same position in every game this season.

One bright spot: Minnesota has scored four touchdowns this season of 60 yards or more, three of them on offense. The last time that happened was in 2006, and all three were touchdown passes.

 

Gophers on Defense

When you don’t count the 23 yards Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters lost in sacks, Michigan gained 394 rushing yards against the Gophers on Saturday.

“It’s an indicator that they’ve had a little trouble defending the run at times,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “It’s something that we want to gear up for. I think that runs will be important in this game.”

Michigan wore out Minnesota with power run after power run, and the Gophers also struggled with missed tackles.

Nebraska, of course, has struggled to maintain a consistent running game, what with a season-ending knee injury to starting running back Tre Bryant and injuries and position changes along the offensive line not helping matters. The Huskers are averaging 120.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks No. 107 nationally and No. 12 among Big Ten teams.

The Gophers are allowing 159.2 rushing yards per game, a mark that ranks No. 9 in the Big 12.

“They have two solid defensive tackles that give you some problems,” Langsdorf said of Steven Richardson (6-foot, 292 pounds) and Gary Moore (6-4, 287). “I don’t think they are as big as the defensive ends we have faced lately.”

Linebacker Thomas Barber leads the Gophers with 82 tackles, including a team-best nine tackles for loss. Barber has recovered two fumbles, as Minnesota has recovered nine fumbles, tied for second most in the Big Ten and No. 14 nationally. Defensive end Carter Coughlin has a team-leading 4.5 sacks among his 8.5 tackles for loss.

Jacob Huff has three of Minnesota’s seven interceptions, including one he returned 67 yards for a touchdown. He’s part of a pass defense that ranks No. 10 nationally, allowing 169.8 passing yards per game. Remember, Saturday’s forecast is for cold and snow, although Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee said he’s looking forward to playing in snow, which would be a first for the Louisiana native.

“Their backers are good, their safeties are physical hitters,” Langsdorf said. “They’ll be down in there tight. They like to force with those safeties. They’ll be tough, they’re physical and they play hard."

Gophers on Special Teams

Emmit Carpenter made 22 of 24 field goals last season and won the Big Ten kicker of the year award. He missed his first two attempts this, his senior season, but rebounded to make six in a row.

Statistically, Carpenter is the most accurate field goal kicker in Minnesota school history, going 34-of-40.

Ryan Santoso moved from kicker to punter prior to the 2016 season and has punted 127 times for an average of 42.2 yards, which ranks fourth in school history. This season, he’s first in the Big Ten with an average of 44.9 yards per punt.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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