Not many people predicted Minnesota to be in this position. With Paul Bunyan’s Axe on the line against the Wisconsin Badgers, the Gophers have a chance to clinch the Big Ten West division championship.
After a rocky non-conference slate, the Gophers have exceeded expectations in conference play, with their only loss occurring two weeks ago on the road against the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Here are the results so far for the Minnesota Gophers (10-1 overall, 7-1 B1G):
- Win vs. South Dakota State 28-21
- Win at Fresno State 38-35 (2OT)
- Win vs. Georgia Southern 35-32
- Win at Purdue 38-31
- Win vs. Illinois 40—17
- Win vs. Nebraska 34-7
- Win at Rutgers 42-7
- Win vs. Maryland 52-10
- Win vs. Penn State 31-26
- Loss at Iowa 19-23
- Win at Northwestern 38-22
In this edition of B5Q’s upcoming “opponent at a glance,” we take a deeper look at how Minnesota has looked so far this year.
Minnesota has been a revelation on the offensive side of the ball. The Gophers are averaging nearly 36 points per game, second best in the Big Ten.
A primary reason for the heightened offensive numbers is the balance of their offense. In the conference, Minnesota ranks fourth in total offense, fourth in rushing offense at 184.7 yards per game, and fifth in passing offense at 247.1 yards per game. While none of those statistics slot them into the top 40 teams nationally in any singular category, their offense can hurt opponents with a multifaceted approach.
At the quarterback position, redshirt sophomore Tanner Morgan has developed nicely. In his first real season at the helm he has thrown for 2,679 yards on 67.86% passing, and 26 touchdowns compared to only five interceptions. He has been a huge upgrade for the Gophers, and has three games with over 300 yards through the air. While he will not mistake anyone for a dual-threat quarterback, he has been able to carve up defenses this year with some tremendous accuracy.
A major reason for his ability to pass the ball so well this year are his two supremely talented wide receivers. Senior Tyler Johnson and sophomore Rashod Bateman each have over 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns apiece. Both players have been vital cogs in the Gopher attack, and have really been the catalyst for a breakout year for the Gopher offense. Minnesota rarely strays from throwing to players beyond the talented duo of Johnson and Bateman, in part because they haven’t needed to this season.
Each week, the Minnesota wide receivers step-up and play big.— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 25, 2019
Tyler Johnson did it AGAIN in Week 13. pic.twitter.com/3hD0cyl4am
In addition to a strong passing attack, Minnesota has a trio of tailbacks that can hurt opposing defenses. Senior Rodney Smith is the bell cow of the group, rushing for over 1,000 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns. But behind him, both sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim and senior Shannon Brooks have had solid seasons with over 375 yards rushing each, and eight combined touchdowns.
Minnesota runs behind a revamped offensive line that is the biggest pound for pound group in the nation. While they are big and physical, similarly to Wisconsin, they are still fairly young with two sophomores and a freshman along the starting unit.
#Badgers' linebacker Chris Orr on a Gophers offense that features Daniel Faalele, a 6-foot-9, 400-lb. offensive lineman:— TamiraMadsen (@tamiramadsen) November 26, 2019
"You’ve got to muscle up, put some air in your chest, get under people’s chins and make it happen."
Wisconsin will have its hands full with the bevy of weapons that Minnesota has along the skill positions.
As a group, the Minnesota defense has been solid. The Gophers are ranked nationally No. 27 in scoring defense and No. 10 in total defense.
The defensive line is experienced with four seniors, lead by Carter Coughlin at defensive end. He has four sacks on the season, and has seemingly been at Minnesota forever. On the inside Sam Renner is also tied for the team lead with four sacks, and is joined by Notre Dame graduate transfer Micah Dew-Treadway. Overall this group is not particularly flashy, as the team only averaged 2.4 sacks per game (No. 49 in the nation), but they are a strong unit.
In their hybrid 4-2-5 scheme, Minnesota only deploys two linebackers in the traditional sense. Seniors Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber are the leaders in the middle there, and are ranked second and third on the team for tackles with just under 60 apiece.
The strength of the Gophers however is in the secondary. Sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. has been one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten this year. After multiple injury-riddled seasons, Winfield is finally healthy and playing at a very high level. Used all over the field, Winfield leads the team with 76 tackles, and in interceptions with seven. He has also sacked opposing quarterbacks three times and forced two fumbles, and scored two touchdowns.
Rounding out the secondary, Minnesota uses a lot of different combinations, with varying seniority to keep players fresh. Seniors Chris Williamson and Jordan Howden have been two of the more consistent presences though on the field and are talented players.
#Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said on @wccoradio he doesn’t want to overwhelm Antoine Winfield Jr., with punt return duties since he’s doing so well on defense. But that is always an option, with regular returner Demetrius Douglas muffing a few punts at Northwestern.— Megan Ryan (@theothermegryan) November 24, 2019
If Wisconsin wants to win they will undoubtedly need to run the ball well, as Minnesota is No. 27 nationally against the run and No. 9 against the pass.
Minnesota is having their best season in recent memory, and are an experienced group, especially on defense. The Gophers are not only vying for a conference championship berth against the Wisconsin Badgers, but also bringing in College GameDay for the first time in their programs history. This game will be one of the biggest to ever occur in the rivalry, and this is not the same Minnesota program that Wisconsin has floored for the better part of the past two decades.
Minnesota has skilled players on the outside to compete on offense, and a stingy defense. If Wisconsin wants to win they will need to dictate both sides of the ball.