When you’re facing the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the best place for you to go is over to SB Nation’s very own The Daily Gopher. Blake Ruane was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the Gophers. So, let’s figure out some strengths and weaknesses about this Gopher team.
Minnesota sits at 5-4 and is coming off a gut wrenching loss to Illinois last week. With remaining games against Ohio State and Wisconsin after Purdue, is beating Purdue your best chance to reach bowl eligibility?
If Minnesota does not win on Saturday, I doubt they make a bowl game. With all due respect to the Boilermakers, this is the most winnable game remaining on the Gophers’ schedule. They’re not going to beat Ohio State and the Wisconsin game is a toss-up. If they can’t beat a Purdue team that has struggled under a first-year head coach, then frankly they don’t deserve a bowl game anyway — not that “deserve” has ever had anything to do with going bowling.
Minnesota has had two fourth quarter collapses this year, against Illinois and Northwestern, are there any similarities between those games that give you pause going forward?
It’s a combination of a couple things. When Minnesota has a lead or is trailing by a small margin, head coach P.J. Fleck has an inexplicable tendency to clip the wings of his offense. He avoids taking any risks and limits the offensive play-calling. This very rarely works out in his favor and has blown up in his face in spectacular fashion against Northwestern and Illinois, in part because playing conservative on offense means your defense also has to hold up their end of the bargain. Against Northwestern, for example, the Gophers had a 31-10 lead entering the fourth quarter. The offense went into hibernation and the defense proceeded to unravel, giving up 21 unanswered points. When Fleck has needed to keep his foot on the pedal, he has instead shifted the car into neutral and it has cost his team dearly twice this season.
With Tanner Morgan gone after seemingly playing at Minnesota since Clinton was president Athan Kaliakmanis has taken over. How would you assess his play so far this year? I know he’s has some real struggles at times.
Very inconsistent. He is only completing 54 percent of his passes and averaging 143.3 passing yards per game. With a more physically gifted quarterback under center and an influx of talented wide receivers from the transfer portal, Minnesota was supposed to air it out more this season and that has simply not been the case. Kaliakmanis has shown flashes of his arm talent throughout the season, but he struggles with putting the right touch on his passes, often when under pressure. He’ll rush throws and send them sailing over open targets. Kaliakmanis is also still figuring out when to get rid of the ball rather than try to force a play or take a sack. He is a first-year starter, so growing pains are to be expected, but I think a number of Gopher fans were hoping to see more of a finished product (whether that was a reasonable expectation or not).
Which unit on the offense and defense would you say are the strengths of their side of the ball?
On offense, Minnesota continues to churn out Big Ten running backs. Freshman Darius Taylor, who has missed four of their last five games due to injury, was turning heads to start the season, rushing for a combined 529 yards and four touchdowns over the course of three games. Most recently, fifth-string running back and former walk-on Jordan Nubin saw his number called against Michigan State and proceeded to tote the rock 40 times for 204 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The offensive line does deserve a share of the credit, but this coaching staff has also just been very effective at finding and developing running backs who fit their zone running scheme.
On defense, the Gophers are tough up front. I like their defensive line a lot. Defensive tackles Kyler Baugh and Deven Eastern have been stout up the middle, and the pass rush is the most improved position group from a season ago. Rush end Danny Striggow leads the team with five sacks but defensive end Jah Joyner isn’t far behind with 4.5 of his own, in addition to two forced fumbles.
Conversely, which unit on both sides of the ball would you say is the weakness?
I don’t love Minnesota’s offensive line, especially between the tackles, where a dominant defensive tackle can really be disruptive. They really miss John Michael Schmitz (now with the New York Giants) at center. This current iteration of their offensive line feels like a stop-gap while they develop the young and inexperienced talent they have on their roster. They can overpower lesser defensive lines in run blocking late in games, but they can just as easily look overmatched against formidable defensive fronts. They struggle in pass protection against more athletic pass rushers, as well.
Defensively, they are prone to a lot of mental lapses in the secondary. Even Tyler Nubin, their veteran leader and All-Big Ten safety, has made his fair share of blunders. Defensive backs not being in a position to make a play was a big part of the problem against Northwestern and Illinois. If it happens on Saturday, Purdue quarterback Hudson Card might find room to operate.
If you wake up Sunday and Purdue has won the game, what would you guess happened?
Minnesota struggled to move the ball consistently on offense, and the Gopher pass defense once again looked lost against a passing offense that hasn’t exactly been prolific up to this point.
Predictions for this one?
I have very little faith in this Minnesota team at this point in the season. I think Purdue delivers the knockout punch with a 28-21 victory.