Fresno State Non-Conference Preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Bulldogs will travel to Big Ten country for the first time under Jeff Tedford for a date with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
How well can the Gophers row the boat in year two under P.J. Fleck?
It isn’t easy to break through in the Big Ten.
Even in the West division, where the Minnesota Golden Gophers can be thankful they don’t have to tangle with Ohio State and Michigan every year, one team has won three of the first four titles. Minnesota has finished higher than fourth just once. College football writers noted this particular attrition and named it after a former Minnesota coach.
Things might be changing in the Twin Cities, though. P.J. Fleck’s arrival from Kalamazoo has brought renewed expectations that the Gophers can finally break through and challenge the conference’s blue-bloods. Before they can do that, however, they’ll host Fresno State.
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Mascot: Goldy Gopher
Conference: Big Ten, West division
2016 Record: 5-7 (2-7 Big Ten)
Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (5-7 at Minnesota, 35-29 overall). After leading Western Michigan to the Group of 5’s big money bowl berth in 2016, the 37-year-old Fleck jumped to a program that’s won nine games in a season just twice since 2000. His first Gophers team had a rude introduction to conference play, losing three of four games decided by one score or less and getting shut out against Northwestern and Wisconsin to finish the year.
Despite the initial disappointment, Fleck is clearly building something in Minneapolis. He brought in three four-star recruits among his 2018 class and, at the moment, ranks fourth in the Big Ten with his Class of 2019.
QB Tanner Morgan
The Gophers’ passing game left a lot to be desired in 2017, compiling an overall rating of just 105.07, a figure that ranked 120th in the FBS. Now, they’re starting over with several options at Fleck’s disposal, but Morgan, a redshirt freshman, is thought to have the inside track after a strong performance at Minnesota’s spring game.
Alex Annexstad, a true freshman, is another name to keep an eye on, but Morgan is likely to be the guy to lead the Gophers when September rolls around.
WR Tyler Johnson
The junior receiver was one of two Gophers to earn a postseason honorable mention from both Big Ten coaches and the conference’s media. It’s easy to see why: He only caught 35 passes, but he averaged 19.3 yards per catch, which ranked 12th among FBS receivers with 30-plus catches. While it remains to be see how the rest of the unit will resolve itself around him, Johnson is the one big-play threat of whom the Bulldogs will have to be most mindful in non-conference play.
LB Thomas Barber
Barber was the lone Gopher to make the Big Ten’s postseason all-conference squad, earning a spot on the third-team defense with 10.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and 1.5 sacks. For a unit that ranked sixth among FBS linebacking corps in Havoc Rate (percentage of plays with TFL, forced fumble or pass defended), having a talent like Barber in the middle of the field will test Fresno State’s revitalized ground game.
DE Carter Coughlin
Coughlin took a big step forward from his freshman to his sophomore year and developed into Minnesota’s top pass-rushing threat. He led the Gophers in both tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (6.5), so while pass protection was one of Fresno State’s biggest strengths in 2017, they’ll need to be ready for perhaps the biggest September test of that asset.
RB Rodney Smith
The Minnesota offense wasn’t all doom and gloom in 2017. Smith carried the ball 229 times for 977 yards and three touchdowns, helping the Gophers to a measure of efficiency (and a lack of explosiveness) that may seem familiar to Bulldogs fans.
It seems safe to say that Minnesota’s offense will be better in 2018 than it was last fall, though it remains to be seen by how much. Having a solid running back and one established receiver helps, but Morgan, Smith and Johnson will need help. Philip Howard might be the de facto WR2; Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas, a pair of three-star 2017 recruits, had a nice spring game, too.
Fresno State’s defensive depth should be enough to stem Minnesota’s youth movement on offense, and if they can prevent big plays — the Gophers ranked 112th in pass plays of over 20 yards — they’ll give their own attack a huge advantage.
Minnesota faces some of the same questions as Fresno State heading into 2018, most notably how the Gophers will replace some key cogs on the interior of the defensive line. Gary Moore made five starts last year, and Alabama transfer O.J. Smith is ready for a role after sitting 2017 out. The linebackers are in good hands with Barber, Coughlin and Kamal Martin. The secondary has a lot of promise if Antoine Winfield Jr. can come back healthy from injury and Florida transfer Chris Williamson locks down a cornerback spot.
Things might look sunny for Minnesota in the long run, but Fresno State is a much better team than any they faced in non-conference play a year ago. Winning on the road is never an easy task, but the Gophers don’t seem to have enough weapons to outscore a deep and dangerous Bulldogs offense. Fresno State 28, Minnesota 17