Grab yourself an oar and start rowing the boat! Don’t look now but the Minnesota Golden Gophers are 9-0 for the first time since 1904 and they’re making a case to be one of the ten best teams in the country. On Saturday, the 17th ranked Gophers were home underdogs against the 4th ranked, Penn State Nittany Lions. Regardless of the 6.5 point spread in favor of the Nittany Lions, the Gophers brought their “A” game.
The players are certainly deserving of credit for the win but let’s start with head coach, P.J. Fleck. Going into this season, I had some doubts on him. Before the season, he had a below .500 record at Minnesota and it just felt like it was going to be another “meh” year for the Gophers. Instead, it’s been a Ski-U-Mah type of season for the Gophers. Fleck has now moved to 21-13 as the head coach and they’re looking at the possibility of competing for the Big Ten Championship. More than likely, they’d play Ohio State.
Let’s not look that far, though. Let’s enjoy what Fleck and his team have been doing. That includes this upset over Penn State. This was a signature win for P.J. Fleck and the biggest win for Minnesota since 1999 when they pulled off an upset on 2nd ranked Penn State. As one of the best teams in the Big Ten, let’s see why the Gophers are Golden!
Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson Can’t Be Stopped
No matter what week it is, one of these two wide receivers are going off. More than likely, they’re both going to have a good game and against Penn State, it was no different. Both of them had a great game.
Starting with Tyler Johnson, he’s one of my favorite players in the 2020 NFL Draft class. He was a top-25 player on my board going into the season and I don’t think much of that is going to change. He might move around a spot or two but there’s no big change coming for his draft stock. Johnson has been consistent every week and now has 50 receptions for 730 yards and 8 touchdowns.
At 6’2″ and 205 pounds, the Senior wideout could even help his draft stock by attending the 2020 Senior Bowl. When watching him, you’ll notice how well he does at the catch point — he catches everything. Despite having strong hands, he lacks ideal long speed but he’ll be a nice number two receiver for plenty of teams that need one. He reminds me of Stefon Diggs and I think he can make a similar impact Diggs has for the Vikings.
As for Rashod Bateman, he’s already on the rise for the 2021 NFL Draft. We won’t see Bateman in the 2020 NFL Draft but another year for the Gophers will do him good. He can solidify himself as thee guy for Minnesota but as of now, he’s already proving himself. He’s got a big catch radius with good body control and has been good after the catch. Get familiar with the sophomore wide receiver that had 7 receptions for 203 yards and a touchdown in the win against Penn State.
Tanner Morgan Shows Promise
Technically, we could see Morgan in the 2020 NFL Draft but we shouldn’t see the redshirt sophomore. That’s not a jab, that’s the truth. Morgan needs another year for the Gophers but he’s already shown some promise for them. Against Penn State, he finished 18-for-20 with 339 passing yards and three touchdowns. Even though Penn State had the best run defense in the country (1.99 yards allowed per carry), the Gophers were able to gain 121 yards on the ground as a team but their offense had no issues in the air with Morgan throwing the ball.
On the play above, you’ll see Tanner Morgan run play-action out of shotgun. Look at how comfortable he is in the pocket. As he works through his progressions, he stands tall and waits for the dig route from Rashod Bateman (WR #13) before delivering a strike to the middle of the field. Since becoming the starting quarterback for the Gophers in week 4 of 2018, Morgan is now 12-2 as the starter. He’s been consistent and is really starting to show promise as a quarterback. As the Gophers push to the postseason, he’ll need to play mistake-free football and continue to show that promise for them to stand a chance at winning the Big Ten Championship.
Football Family Tree on Defense
I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a defense have a family tree that goes deep into the history of football as this one. You can look at each level of the Gopher’s defense and you’ll find a player with a parent that either played for Minnesota back in the 1970’s and 1980’s to playing in the NFL.
The defense is led by Antoine Winfield Jr., who already has seven interceptions on the season and had two of them against Penn State. If you haven’t watched Winfield, you won’t see track speed but you’ll see a physical defensive back that has the ball skills to make a play at any given time. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as Winfield Jr., takes after his father, Antoine Winfield. He had a successful NFL career that lasted 14 seasons with the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings.
Then, there’s Thomas Barber. He’s a senior linebacker that has shown consistent tackling ability, leadership and his ability to drop into coverage. His father is Marion Barber who played for the Gophers back in the early 1980’s and ended up having a seven-year career with the New York Jets. Meanwhile, his brother is Marion Barber III and he went on to having a good NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears.
Lastly, Carter Coughlin is one of the two defensive players from Minnesota to accept a Senior Bowl invite (Kamal Martin LB #21). His family tree stems from his father, Robert Coughlin. He played at Minnesota from 1986-1990 and was two-year letterman. On the field, Carter has the ability to stand-up off the edge or put his hand in the dirt. He’s a high-motor player and is one of my type of guys that can play all three downs because of it. He doesn’t have a real counter move (only 3.5 sacks) but he doesn’t stop until the whistle.
Football runs deep on the Minnesota defense and despite giving up 26 points to Penn State, this unit has a “bend don’t break” mentality. Meanwhile, they’re getting big plays from Antoine Winfield Jr., and have been really good at forcing teams in tough 3rd down situations this year. Penn State faced 3rd down against Minnesota 16 times and turned the ball over three times. They’ll need to keep this momentum going against Iowa, Wisconsin and possibly Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game.
What’s Next for Minnesota?
Even though Minnesota holds a two game lead over the Big Ten West, they need to win out. It’ll be tough with Iowa (road game), Northwestern and Wisconsin left on the schedule. They could afford a loss and still make the Big Ten Championship game but if they want a shot at the College Football Playoff, they’ll have to win the rest of their games.
If the passing games begins to struggle, they’ll lean on their senior running back, Rodney Smith. He’s a former 1,000 yard rusher for the Gophers and he’s showing that he can be relied on to give balance to the offense. The sixth-year senior is having a bounce back season after a torn ACL last year. He’s already got 940 rushing yards on the season and shouldn’t be overlooked despite all the talent on the field for the Gophers.
P.J. Fleck has this team oozing with confidence. He’s got them where he’s always envisioned and he’s proving that no matter where he goes, he can be successful head coach. Next week, Minnesota travels to Iowa to take on the Hawkeyes. Tighten your tie and get your maroon pullover ready, it’s going to be another great week of football as we approach the closing weeks of the season. As we do, I think it needs to be known that the Gophers are Golden.