For our final opponent preview of the year, FTRS chatted with Blake Ruane of the lovely Minnesota SBNation site, The Daily Gopher. Keep reading for his thoughts on their midseason defensive coordinator change, rowing the boat, and whatever in the world a balanced offense is... since we know of no such things around here, donchaknow?
1) Minnesota’s season was kind of all over the place - they both won and lost some games they shouldn’t have. What’s different on the team when things are clicking? Is it player or position group that makes the biggest difference?
The Gophers’ season can be divided into the nine games during which Robb Smith was defensive coordinator and the three games during which Robb Smith was not the defensive coordinator. Smith was a disaster prior to being fired and replaced by defensive line coach Joe Rossi. In six Big Ten games this season under Smith, Minnesota allowed an average of 246 rushing yards, 261 passing yards, and 43 points per game. Worst of all, it was own his position group -- the Gopher linebackers, who are a talented, athletic, and experienced bunch -- that suffered the most. They were constantly out of position and making the wrong reads.
The difference since his late season firing has been stark. In three Big Ten games under Rossi, the Gopher defense allowed an average of 117 rushing yards, 188 passing yards, and 16 points per game. The turnaround has been remarkable, and earned him a permanent promotion to defensive coordinator.
2) How do you feel about the PJ Fleck hire? Is the whole fanbase on board with rowing the boat? What do you think his ceiling is at Minnesota?
I am cautiously optimistic. Beating Wisconsin to end the season -- snapping a 14-game losing streak to the Badgers and becoming bowl-eligible -- was huge, especially for the fans. I would say a good portion of Gopher fans were lukewarm on Fleck up until that game. I understand the perhaps puzzling optics of a fan base being swayed by a blowout victory over a 7-5 team, but there is no love lost between Minnesota and Wisconsin and that losing streak only intensified the hatred. I’m sure you can understand, with Georgia Tech being part of the “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” with Georgia.
As for the ceiling at Minnesota, I’m not sure. The program has been mired in mediocrity for so long, it’s difficult to know where the ceiling is. I think most reasonable Gopher fans would tell you that the expectation should be consistent bowl games and challenging for the Big Ten West title every couple years.
3) What matchup on either side of the ball concerns you most heading into this game against the Yellow Jackets?
I wouldn’t quite say I’m concerned but maybe more interested to see how Minnesota defends the flexbone offense. It’s an early test for new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and I’m curious to see his game plan for stopping the run. It’s clearly a very formidable rushing attack, as the Yellow Jackets lead the country in rushing yards per game. I’m particularly amused by the games in which Georgia Tech doesn’t have to complete even a single pass, although I certainly hope that won’t be the case on Wednesday. But as I mentioned earlier, the Gophers’ struggles on defense early in the season, when Robb Smith was calling the plays, were largely predicated on staggering incompetence against the run. Here’s hoping they don’t fall back into the bad habits that allowed several Big Ten opponents to run wild.
4) Who should we be looking out for on the defensive side of the ball that will be most tasked with stopping the flexbone?
Normally the answer would be senior linebacker Blake Cashman, but he is forgoing the bowl game to prepare for a potential NFL career. That is a significant loss for Minnesota, as he was their leading tackler this season. They’re certainly going to miss his instincts and athleticism. But the Gophers are fortunate to have a solid core of linebackers in place, including juniors Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin and senior Julian Huff, who will be asked to help keep the Yellow Jackets in check. Fleck has made cryptic indications though that the defense could look dramatically in the bowl game different due to the unique game plan for Georgia Tech, so I’m very interested to see what kind of personnel takes the field on Wednesday.
Rush end Carter Coughlin is another name to remember. He leads the defense with 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, but he is a converted linebacker and his role may be altered for the bowl game since the matchup may not often require his skills as an elite pass rusher.
5) I’ll admit to not having seen the Gophers play this season... What kind of offense will the Yellow Jackets be tasked with stopping? And who’s going to have to have a good day on that side of the ball for Minnesota to come away with a win?
First of all, how dare you. Second of all, the Gophers strive for a balanced offense. When redshirt freshman running Mohamed Ibrahim, a tough runner who is 64 rushing yards short of 1,000 on the season, is able to find a rhythm, that takes some of the pressure off redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan, whose accuracy and decision-making can leave much to be desired at times. But Morgan benefits from a pair of very talented wide receivers: Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Johnson is the one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten, if not the country. He flashed potential as a freshman and sophomore, but was finally able to put it all together this season. Having Bateman, a true freshman, to also draw the attention of the defense has certainly helped him find space.
Minnesota will be without senior left tackle Donnell Greene, a three-year starter who signed with an agent and will forgo the bowl game. That likely means redshirt freshman guard Blaise Andries will shift to left tackle and true freshman Curtis Dunlap will take over at guard. The Gophers will have at least three freshman starters on the offensive line, including 6’9’’, 400-lb. right tackle Daniel Faalele. All three are very talented, so this will be a head start on the future for Minnesota.
6) And finally, how do you see this game going? Who wins and why?
I’ll say I’m not at all surprised that Georgia Tech is the favorite. The Gophers are a young team, and the Yellow Jackets seem to rely on a lot of upperclassmen. Younger teams are naturally going to be more inconsistent. Georgia Tech also has the emotional factor of wanting to send Paul Johnson out with a victory, and I don’t think you can ignore that. I think it’ll be a competitive game, but the Yellow Jackets will hold off the Gophers to come out on top in the end.
Thanks again to Blake for taking the time to chat with us.
From all of us at FTRS, we hope you guys have a wonderful holiday season filled with food and booze and football. Let’s send CPJ out with a win.