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Friends of the Blog: Minnesota Q&A

We are using “friends” in the loosest possible terms here.

Penn State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In the Twin Cities on the final weekend of the regular season, the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Golden Gophers will meet for the 131st time on the gridiron. It is the most played series in FBS history and the Badgers lead by a mere two games, thanks to winning 16 of the past 17 meetings.

Neither the Gophers nor the Badgers had an ideal season in 2020 (who did to be fair?) and this game could be crucial to the Big Ten West title hopes of one or both teams.

Our first guest today is Blake Ruane of The Daily Gopher. Blake is also a diehard Cleveland Guardians fan, so you know he is well-versed in losing.

Here are Blake’s answers to our questions with the fourth answer being quite surprising!

Who is your player to watch on offense?

I think I have to go with Tanner Morgan here. The Gophers should boast one of the best rushing attacks in the Big Ten, with the reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year operating behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. So to keep defenses from stacking the box, Minnesota will need Morgan to put the 2020 season in his rearview mirror and recapture some of the magic from his record-breaking 2019 season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 07 Minnesota at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

He won’t have the luxury of throwing the ball to Rashod Bateman and will have to rely on a largely unproven wide receiver corps. But no matter who Morgan targets in the passing game, he needs to be better about going through his progressions and not forcing the ball into coverage.

If Morgan can regain his poise in the pocket and show that he has used this offseason to get more comfortable under second-year co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford Jr., the Gophers could have one of the most dynamic offenses in the Big Ten.

Who is your player to watch on defense?

The obvious choice here is rush end Boye Mafe. He led the team with 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks a season ago, made Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List” for the second consecutive year and is likely headed to the NFL next year. But there are so many players to watch on this defense because a number of them are expected to take a big step forward after struggling for much of last season.

Minnesota v Illinois Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Mariano Sori-Marin and the rest of the Gophers’ linebackers need to be more disciplined in their run fits and not give up 39-yard rushing touchdowns to Garrett Groshek (Editor’s note: this is awfully specific, did something happen last year?).

Safeties Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin need to take better angles to the ball and also provide better support against the run. Honestly, Minnesota’s chances of contending in the Big Ten West hinge almost entirely on this defense, so all eyes are on this unit as a whole.

Why will Minnesota beat Wisconsin this year?

I don’t think it’s a secret that games against Wisconsin are won and lost in the trenches. This season, Minnesota has the mass on the offensive line to go toe to toe with the Badgers’ formidable defensive front. They bring back all five starting offensive linemen from last season and return former starting right tackle Daniel Faalele and former starting right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. Faalele opted out of last season due to COVID and Dunlap missed the year due to an injury suffered in preseason camp. Suddenly, the Gophers have their deepest and most experienced offensive line in years.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 26 Quick Lane Bowl - Minnesota v Georgia Tech
Daniel Faalele (No. 78) is a shiny building of a man.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On the other side of the ball, Minnesota will feature a six-man rotation at defensive tackle, including Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney and NC State transfer Val Martin. The end positions aren’t as deep, but there is plenty of experience at the top and an abundance of raw talent behind them. P.J. Fleck and co. have made upgrading the talent level on the defensive line a priority in recruiting the last couple years and I think their efforts will bear fruit this season.

God, isn’t Iowa just the worst?

The absolute worst. Believe it or not, when Iowa plays Wisconsin, I root for the Badgers (Editor’s note: !!!). I know most Gopher fans root for a meteor to strike the playing field when these two teams square off, but I’m a realist. I understand that the odds of a meteor strike in Iowa City or Madison are not great.

So for a couple hours one Saturday out of the year, I hope Wisconsin gives Kirk Ferentz a reason to scream at his adult son on the bus ride home.

Our second guest is Ben Dawson, who you may know as WhiteSpeedReceiver over at Off Tackle Empire. Ben and I are both big supporters of the extremely frustrating Minnesota United Football Club and we take great joy in making fun of Nebraska too.

Here are Ben’s answers to our questions!

Who is your player to watch on offense?

While Mo Ibrahim is the best player (isn’t having an elite RB great?), the player to watch has to be Tanner Morgan. He’s got the aforementioned Ibrahim back, along with everyone from the 2019 offensive line. Everything comes down to Morgan successfully handing the ball off and picking the right wide receiver to throw it to.

If he can’t successfully hit when he’s asked to throw (only 57% in 2020 vs. 66% in 2019), the offense won’t be as efficient as it should be and I’ll have to start worrying about the Northwestern game. And nobody should ever have to worry about Northwestern.

Who is your player to watch on defense?

Braelen Oliver. This may come to a surprise to the readers here, but I think that you probably need to have outstanding linebacker play if you’re going to be a decent defense in the B1G. Oliver showed some flashes in 2019 as a wildly athletic LB who loved to put fingerprints on opponents before missing last year with a lower body injury that in no way was an ACL that the coaches didn’t want to communicate for...reasons?

Nebraska v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Anyway, without Oliver some other players were asked to fill in, and sometimes a “coach on the field” also has the lateral movement of a coach instead of a Big Ten LB. If he’s back and fully healthy, it’ll make life much easier for everyone. Then the safeties won’t need to cheat to help stop the run, then the corners won’t get roasted, then...holy hell I just started twitching thinking of Gophers defenses under Glen Mason.

Why will Minnesota beat Wisconsin this year?

Because God loves us and wants us to be happy? Honestly, I’m really looking forward to the game this fall as a football fan, because it should be a good one. If we can maybe get and keep momentum early and maybe avoid horrific special teams coverage, we should be in a good place.

God, isn’t Nebraska just the worst?

The absolute worst. It absolutely astonishes me that a team that plays like one of ours from the 1980s has a fanbase that pretends that it’s still Nebraska from the 1990s.

It brings a small bit of joy to my cold, black heart that every summer we start hearing the Prairie Pravda start saying things like “This year the QB really has it figured out” or “The defense will be much better” in spite of losing a good chunk of their best players from an already mediocre defense or “The OL is ready to lead the way” after spending last fall displaying all the toughness and power of a small kitten, only to have the fans start talking about how they’re going to win the West and then CornNation has nearly everyone predict 10 win seasons.

I hate to spoil my OTE work later in the week, but I really really want Bert to wish Scott Frost good luck in D3 next year like he once did for another WINFIGHTTREMENDOUS inept blowhard who had no business coaching in the West. I hope that everyone else in the Quadrangle of Hate (yes, even you folks) hang 63 on them and next summer the Nebraska media and fans get to talk about how Chris Kliemann or whomever else they get to steal their money for a few years is going to lead them to 10 wins in 2022.