The Hawkeyes take on the Gophers this weekend, and as is customary, we talked about the state of the Minnesota football squad with everyone’s favorite Golden Gophers blog, The Daily Gopher. In this Q&A, we talked about the key cogs that won’t play against the Hawkeyes, how the Gophers are fulfilling expectations under PJ Fleck, their walk-on QB, and of course, their prediction for this game.
In lieu of more introduction, here’s a picture of Floyd in his natural habitat.
And now, let’s get to the questions and answers.
Max Brekke: I guess you’d call this Year One of the PJ Fleck experience in Minneapolis, right? The Gophers are 3-1 and are coming off a bye week, just the same as Iowa. How has this team fared in comparison to preseason expectations, and where could they realistically finish at season’s end?
GoAUpher: /skips past the Year One quip
If you’d told me this team would be down it’s best defensive and it’s best offensive player and was 3-1 with a loss at Maryland I’d have told you they were beating my expectations. I personally thought the Gophers would lose to Fresno State as they worked out the kinks of running an offense with so much youth at the skill positions, and that was before Rodney Smith went down.
In the actual world, a lot of Gopher fans are super frustrated and worried. Why? The game at Maryland seemed winnable but the Gophers were beaten pretty soundly while looking...not great. Blowout losses create angst. The defense got exposed by Maryland’s speed and losing Antoine Winfield Jr. early in the game showed just how thin the safety spot is behind him. Also, the offensive line (especially the tackles and most especially right tackle Sam Schluter) did not hold up against the pass rush. When you’ve got a true frosh QB that’s a recipe for disaster.
As a result, the outlook for the rest of the year feels significantly lessened. Don’t get me wrong, the Big Ten West is still garbage for the most part and Minnesota has enough talent to go bowling with their schedule. The question is whether they will play well enough against that schedule to pick up 3 more wins or not.
Max: Minnesota starts a freshman walk-on at QB in Zack Annexstad, and he’s been serviceable enough through one-third of the season. What does he do well, and what weaknesses might Iowa try to exploit in Week 5?
GoAUpher: I’m actually been pleased with Zack on the whole. He’s definitely a true freshman, but the kid has the tools to be a decent QB for Minnesota. Zack is good at executing timing throws with his receivers, he can fit the ball into tight windows, when fully mobile (he’s been dealing with an ankle issue) he’s been good at scrambling and throwing on the run, and he does a pretty good job executing Read Option pass reads. Where he’s struggled is on his deep balls and staring down receivers/working his progressions. He’s also done a nice job of not acting like a true frosh when it comes to a demeanor/leadership roll on offense.
The first thing Iowa can do is get pressure past Minnesota’s seemingly porous pass blocking. Zack is a true freshman, you hit him enough and it affects his play in the pocket. The next thing is to take advantage of his tendency to stare down receivers and create turnovers. The third would be to bait/force the Gophers to execute deep throws repeatedly and see if they connect (thus far, not really).
Max: With Rodney Smith out for the remainder of the season, the Gophers will look almost entirely different than the last time these two teams met. Who picks up the slack for Minnesota on offense, and how are they best utilized?
GoAUpher: You won’t recognize the passing game Minnesota employs, because 93.4% of the teams completions have gone to wide receivers. Please chew your angry gum in silence and resist the urge to go on a Fitz communist rant about the lack of fullbacks or TE receptions.
In the run game, the Gophers have turned to their 3rd and 4th string backs, Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams (Rodney’s pair in the running game was Shannon Brooks, who was out before the season with an injury). Both have been good replacements, but neither brings the same skills to the table as Rodney and that hurts. Rodney would get additional yards even behind a bad OL that struggled to open holes for him. Ibrahim and Williams aren’t there yet so they need Minnesota’s OL to be on their game to get the most of their talent.
If there are going to be big plays, I’d expect them to come from the passing game. Tyler Johnson remains the #1 wideout for the Gophers. Minus an apparent need to drop the first pass or two that comes his way every game, he remains a great WR option. Rashod Bateman is the uber talented freshman who is the big play pair to Johnson. If Minnesota’s OL can protect Annexstad (emphasis on IF) then look for those two along with Chris Autman-Bell in the passing game.
You should also expect a decent dose of wildcat with former QB turned TE/WR Seth Green. The Gophers often turn to that in short yardage and goal line situations and have had moderate success with it.
Max: Similarly, Minnesota will have to do without star safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. for the remainder of the season after he suffered a foot injury against the Terps. It’s a huge loss for the Gophers - which player (or position group) will need to step their game up in order to help minimize the loss?
GoAUpher: My desire to talk about this stuff is waning the more we get into these key injuries. Basically the secondary is thin right now. Antonio Shenault may move from corner to safety because the other backup for Winfield is true freshman Jordan Howden. Basically the front seven needs to improve their play to take pressure off the DB’s as much as possible. If that happens, look for Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber, and Blake Cashman’s names to come up.
Max: Minnesota will win if __________. Conversely, they will lose if ___________.
GoAUpher: Minnesota will win if they are +2 in turnovers, if your front 7 is out for a game with bilateral leg weakness, or if you run the 4th quarter Wisconsin gameplan the entire game. Conversely they’ll lose in almost every other situation.
No, I’m not expecting a win here.
Max: Prediction time - who ya got?
GoAUpher: Your team, whose only redeeming quality is that their fans enjoy making fun of Nebraska, will win by a score of 24-10. On the plus side, when the game is over we can all kick back and watch the fans in Lincoln freak out as Wisconsin continues to light fire to their Frosty dreams.
Thanks to GoAUpher for joining us for this Q&A, and I look forward to watching the Cornhuskers get stomped on by Wisconsin alongside Minnesota fans on Saturday. For more Minnesota football coverage, head on over to The Daily Gopher. And for good measure, here’s another picture of a more different pig.