In leading up to this weekend’s HUUUUUUUUUUUUGE matchup between the Penn State Nittany Lions and Minnesota Golden Gophers, we were able to take a few minutes out of Blake Ruane of The Daily Gopher day to ask him about the Gophers. We thank Blake for his time and now, here...we...go!
1) Alright, so Minnesota obviously is a very good team and they’ve gotten better as the season progressed, but the SOS is definitely not as high as some. This may be a loaded question but just how good are the Gophers?
It’s interesting. Very few people outside of Minnesota expected this team to win eight or nine games this season. In fact, I think a lot of people picked the Gophers to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten West and laughed off predictions of eight or nine wins. But now that Minnesota has eight wins, there’s been no mea culpa. Just most of those same doubters digging in on Minnesota being “not that good” because of their “soft” schedule. The Gophers keep winning, but they can’t seem to win in the court of public opinion.
With that said, your question is a fair one. Just how good is this team? I think we’re about to find out. I do know that the Gophers are good, at the very least. They’ve taken care of business against bad teams -- which is more than I can say for Wisconsin -- and done so in impressive fashion over the last month. Just how good is up for debate. I don’t have a good answer for you. I think a lot of Gopher fans, myself included, are excited for this game because Penn State is a very good football team and we’re curious to see how Minnesota measures up. I expect most Penn State fans are more excited for Ohio State, but I’d caution you against looking ahead. Gophers can be pesky!
2) The Gophers may have the best receiving corps in the country but has gone unheralded outside Minneapolis for the most part. Introduce Penn State fans to the notable names in the receiving corps and who should Penn State be most afraid of?
The first wide receiver that opposing defenses try to neutralize is senior Tyler Johnson. While they are preoccupied with Johnson, sophomore Rashod Bateman runs wild. And if they’ve somehow managed to contain both Johnson and Bateman, that is when redshirt sophomore Chris Autman-Bell catches defenses napping. No matter where you turn your attention, one of them is bound to get loose. They are the most formidable trio of wide receivers the Gophers have had in my lifetime. Johnson and Bateman are the two that will likely end up All-Big Ten at the end of the season, but all three run smooth routes and can make plays after the catch. Johnson is the most likely to be the safety valve on third down. Bateman is the most likely to make a circus catch. Autman-Bell arguably has the most reliable hands.
3) Tanner Morgan seems to be best described as efficient, what are his strengths and weaknesses? How can Penn State’s defense throw him off his game?
Penn State is going to have to force him into a mistake, either by confusing him with their pass coverage or getting after him with their formidable pass rush. When his throws are off the mark, it’s almost always his footwork that’s the culprit. He can make throws under pressure, but your best chance at getting him out of sync is to refuse to let him get comfortable in the pocket. When he has a clean pocket, Morgan is typically decisive, efficient, and accurate. He very rarely makes the same mistake twice. I would say he is inconsistent in his ability to hit receivers in stride deep down the field, but he can also make big-time throws into the narrowest of windows.
4) How is the Gophers offensive line and how do you expect it to hold up against Penn State’s vaunted defensive line?
They’ve come a long way. They were a mess during the non-conference portion of the schedule, struggling to open running lanes and failing to keep Tanner Morgan clean in pass protection. The bye week could not have come at a better time. The offensive line looked like a completely different unit coming out of the bye week, incorporating redshirt sophomore John Michael Schmitz into the rotation at center and shifting starting center Conner Olson over to either guard position at times to give each guard a breather. They’ve played physical, communicated better, and looked more comfortable with their assignments and technique with each passing week. I think one of the most interesting matchups of the game will be the Gophers’ rushing offense against the Nittany Lions’ rushing defense. Strength versus strength.
5) While the Minnesota offense has been great this season, the defense has been quietly good itself. What’s been the key to the defense’s success?
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. P.J. Fleck fired his previous defensive coordinator during the season last year and the Gophers are 11-1 since he promoted Rossi from defensive line coach. That’s not a coincidence. Under Rossi, they’ve been strong against the run, but the secret to their success is in the secondary, in my opinion. Antoine Winfield Jr. is one of the best safeties in the country, and Coney Durr has the highest incompletion rate of any cornerback in the country. Michigan transfer Benjamin St.-Juste has emerged at the other starting cornerback spot, and both he and Durr have been trusted in man coverage the last couple weeks. Members of the Minnesota secondary are all very good open field tacklers and rarely allow explosive plays. If you’re going to score against them, you’re going to have to drive down the field and earn it.
6) What is the Gophers biggest weakness on defense? How can opposing teams exploit that weakness?
Probably their depth at linebacker. They normally operate out of the 4-2-5, and both starting linebackers are seniors. Kamal Martin has been their best linebacker this season, but he suffered an undisclosed leg injury against Rutgers and missed the Maryland game. His status for the Penn State game is unknown. Without him, the Gophers will lean on sophomore Mariano Sori-Marin and redshirt freshman Braelen Oliver. Both played very well against Maryland, but Penn State is not Maryland. I’m particularly concerned about Nittany Lions tight end Pat Freiermuth. He is a dangerous weapon for Penn State, especially in the red zone, and the Gophers’ linebackers can’t afford to get caught out of position when Freiermuth is deployed in the passing game. Mistakes by inexperienced linebackers can be costly in a game like this.
7) Who are a few x-factors for the Gophers on Saturday?
Rodney Smith on offense. The wide receivers get a lot of attention, he is perhaps the most underrated running back in the Big Ten. Smith can make defenders miss and squeeze through the most crowded of running lanes. On defense, rush end Carter Coughlin will be on a mission to pressure Sean Clifford. He draws a lot of double teams, but they don’t always work, and even when they do, his teammates on the defensive line have taken advantage of the extra attention being paid to Coughlin.
8) Do you think the early kickoff time benefits Penn State or Minnesota more? What is your prediction for the game?
I don’t know that it matters all that much. I think it is more important to the fans than the players, because a lot of people associate “big games” with “night games.” I think it’ll be a great atmosphere, regardless. As far as my prediction for the outcome of the game... I think it’ll be close. No disrespect to Penn State, but I have to go homer and pick Minnesota. This is undeniably a big game for the program, and probably means more to the Gophers and their fans than it does to the Nittany Lions and their fans. I think Penn State is very good, but I think Minnesota is better than most believe. I believe they’re up to the challenge. But now that I’ve predicted it, it almost certainly will not come to pass.