What went wrong for Minnesota? In what most, myself included, expected to be a competitive game, Michigan thumped the Gophers 49-24. The problems were numerous, but these were the main ones:
The Gophers were missing their usual placekicker, kickoff specialist, and punter, along with two starting offensive linemen. No reason was given, so the broad assumption is that it’s COVID-related. Adding credence to that theory is the fact that you have multiple players from the same two units out. Hopefully they’re all asymptomatic and will return soon.
Special teams were an adventure all night. Holder Mark Stephenson was forced into punting duty; backup placekicker Brock Walker had to replace both Michael Lantz and kickoff man Grant Ryerse. Walker, who played sparingly in 2019, rose to the occasion as far as placekicking, making all three PATs and a 29-yard field goal.
Kickoffs, however, were a problem. All four were between 34 and 39 yards, and Michigan returned one for 66 yards. Punting was enough of a problem early on that coach P.J. Fleck actually called for a fake on fourth-and-four at their own 31-yard line. The Wolverines sniffed it out easily. Stephenson’s first two punts went for 31 and 18 yards (to his credit, he had punts of 45 and 46 yards later in the game).
I hate to pile on these guys- to reiterate, Stephenson is generally the holder, not the punter, and Walker is not normally handling kickoffs OR placekicking. It could have been worse.
On the bright side, running back Preston Jelen blocked Michigan’s first punt attempt of the game, leading to excellent field position and a two-play touchdown drive.
I actually didn’t think the line was a big part of what went wrong for Minnesota, but they definitely missed Daniel Fa’alele. When you have a lineman who’s 6’9″ and 400 pounds, and he’s not there… you notice. The main problem up front was the five sacks Tanner Morgan took. Early last season, Morgan was getting sacked frequently- something like 11 times through three games, if I’m remembering correctly. But they got it fixed. This year, I think the fix may be as simple as getting Fa’alele and Curtis Dunlap back.
You’re not going to win many games when you lose the turnover battle 2-0. Tanner Morgan needs to take better care of the football, and this is coming from someone who watches Daniel Jones on Sundays. But Morgan doesn’t have a history of being careless with the ball, so I’m not overly concerned about it.
It Wasn’t All Bad
As I wrote last week, this could be the year the tight ends get more involved in the offense. I specifically mentioned Brevyn Spann-Ford and Jake Paulson. Well,I was partially right- the Gophers did get a touchdown from a tight end this week, but it was senior Ko Kieft. Let’s see if that continues once the offensive line is at full strength and the tight ends aren’t needed as badly to help block.
Some Gopher players got some well-deserved media attention this week, and it made me realize this is a team to be proud of on and off the field. These are young people who have their heads on straight.
Probably the best news is that much of what went wrong for Minnesota is easily fixed by getting the team healthy and getting the starters back. They face Maryland on Friday (not a typo) at 7:30 EST on ESPN.