Fresno State Football: First Look At The Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Bulldogs will have revenge in mind for the 2019 home opener against Minnesota. Here’s a first look at P.J. Fleck’s Golden Gophers.
The Gophers should again be a worthy foe.
Do you remember the halfback pass that ended last year’s game between Fresno State and Minnesota?
It raised a lot of eyebrows at the time, but you can bet the Golden Gophers thanked their lucky stars that things broke their way. Without that defensive stop, you probably have to strain to see the progress the program has made under P.J. Fleck. They definitely don’t thump Georgia Tech in a bowl game and maybe they aren’t seen as a potential Big Ten West dark horse. Maybe Fleck himself is on the hot seat.
You can also bet, though, that everyone coming back in red and white for round two is more than ready to finish the job this time around, no gadgets required. Here’s a first look at Minnesota.
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Mascot: Goldy Gopher
Conference: Big Ten
2018 Record: 7-6 (3-6 Big Ten)
Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (third year; 12-13 at Minnesota, 42-35 overall). 2019 is a critical season in the Twin Cities since Northwestern’s forthcoming division title defense is proof that anything is possible in the Big Ten West. To do that, though, his Gophers will need to follow through on any strong start they have in conference play: They did beat Purdue and rival Wisconsin convincingly, but they also got hammered on the road far too often and dropped games at Maryland, Ohio State, Nebraska and Illinois by an average of 23.5 points.
WR Tyler Johnson
Johnson was far and away Minnesota’s best pass-catcher a year ago, mustering a 62.4% catch rate while leading the Gophers with 78 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns. He didn’t quite light up the stat sheet against the Bulldogs in last year’s game, but he did end up earning first-team all-conference honors from the Big Ten media, so he’ll remain a focal point across the defense.
RUSH Carter Coughlin
Once again, Coughlin played like one of the Big Ten’s most disruptive defensive forces, leading Minnesota with 9.5 sacks while tallying 15 tackles for loss. Like Johnson, he also earned all-conference honors by landing on the media’s and coaches’ second team and, after collecting 1.5 TFLs a year ago against Fresno State, containing him will again be crucial.
RB Mohamed Ibrahim
Expectations are high for the sophomore runner after a season in which, after recovering from injury, he picked up the lion’s share of the rushing workload to lead the Gophers with 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns. He also managed a very good 52.5% Opportunity Rate and a 46% Success Rate, meaning that stopping the run is likely to be a much tougher assignment this time around.
CB Terell Smith
Smith was one of a few young Gophers to play a significant role in 2018, but he held his own to the tune of eight passes defended, two tackles for loss, and an interception. Now a sophomore, he’ll be a tough draw for whoever lines up opposite of him.
OT Daniel Faalele
Among the key players listed here, Faalele is easily the hardest to miss. You know, he’s the one listed at 6-foot-9 and 400 pounds.
Faalele ascended to the starting lineup in the middle of last season and made eight total starts, acquitting himself well enough to be one of the team’s two Offensive Freshmen of the Year. The size, then, isn’t just a novelty but a unique task that Fresno State will need to solve.
Pretty much everyone of note is back from last year’s attack, but is that a good or a bad thing? Johnson leads a deep and talented receiver group that also features a trio of sophomores — Rashod Bateman, Demetrius Douglas, and Chris Autman-Bell — while Ibrahim will be joined in the backfield by Rodney Smith, who had over 900 yards rushing in 2017 but was lost for the year in the Fresno State tilt. Those are the upsides.
The downside… well, both quarterbacks are back, too. Zack Annexstad had a 52% completion rate and nine touchdowns against seven interceptions before he, too, was sidelined by injury. Tanner Morgan was slightly better, but whoever ultimately wins the job will have the task of ensuring the offense, which ranked just 75th by Offensive S&P+ and 67th by yards per play, can catch up to the defense.
Depending on how you examine things, the fact Minnesota finished 39th in Defensive S&P+ might seem right on the money or it might look a little wonky. On the one hand, they did hold six opponents to 15 points or fewer; on the other, they also coughed up more than 30 points in six games. They were 11th in Stuff Rate and 23rd in Defensive Opportunity Rate, but they were also 68th in Defensive Success Rate, 101st in IsoPPP (which measures explosive plays) and 105th in Sack Rate. What gives?
For starters, the Gophers will have to replace a pair of disruptive linebackers, though Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin make a solid foundation of returners. They’ll also need to find contributors to help Coughlin more consistently in the trenches, which might come down to the development of sophomores Esezi Otomewo, Boye Mafe, and Jamal Teague.
The secondary might also feature three sophomores in Smith, Antoine Winfield Jr. (who only played in four games last fall due to injury), and Jordan Howden, and that youth movement might make some adventures over the course of a full season.
Frankly, Minnesota was fortunate to steal the win from Fresno State last season. Even though both sides will miss a few stars in the rematch, it should be just as much of a back-and-forth endeavor as the original and, all things being equal, perhaps the home-field advantage will be what it takes to swing last year’s result. It may not be flashy, but it should be good enough. Fresno State 24, Minnesota 23