Uncertainty abounds as the Gophers head to Happy Valley to face #16 Penn State. Are they the team that blazed to a 4-0 start, or are they the team that crashed back to Earth in their past two games? Can they possibly rebound to win the Big Ten West title that pundits (including us) were ready to hand them after Week Four? And, more immediately, who will play quarterback on Saturday?
Unfortunately, we don’t have solid answers to any of those questions yet. But let’s unpack them as best we can.
Will The Real Gophers Please Stand Up?
Minnesota was unbeatable- literally- in September. They walloped their FCS/Group of Five/bad Power Five opponents and finished by doing the same to Michigan State.
Then the calendar flipped.
October started with a loss, albeit a respectable one, to Purdue. Mohamed Ibrahim, injured late in the Michigan State game, dressed but didn’t play. It showed. And yet, nobody thought it was panic-button time; a ten-point loss to a decent Purdue team, with your best offensive player out of the lineup, can be filed under “stuff happens”. With a bye week to get him healthy, surely the team would rebound against Illinois.
Except that they didn’t. Ibrahim’s 15 carries, 127 yards, and single touchdown paled in comparison to the numbers put up by Illini running back Chase Brown. Brown carried 41 times for 180 yards and caught a touchdown pass. In fact, Brown had more receiving yards (53) than Minnesota (38). Tanner Morgan completed just four of 12 pass attempts, for 21 yards and an interception, before leaving with a concussion. Freshman Athan Kaliakmanis replaced him and went two for six, adding two more picks. All in all, it was a terrible day, on both sides of the ball, for Minnesota.
You know the saying, “If you don’t love me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best?” The Gophers should probably get t-shirts printed up with that saying. People are jumping off the bandwagon left and right. Look, they’re definitely not the team we saw stomping Western Illinois and Colorado. But they’re not as bad as they looked against the Illini, either. (But be warned: they’ll probably resemble those Gophers this week against Penn State).
Is The Big Ten West Still In The Equation?
In a word, yes. However, the Gophers will need more help than they did three weeks ago. Currently, in fourth place in the division, they trail Illinois, Purdue, and (somehow) Nebraska. That means Minnesota would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with two of the three teams in front of them.
But even with a loss to Penn State, a 9-3 record would still be on the table. The Gophers face off against Rutgers, Nebraska, and Northwestern (about as easy as a three-game stretch gets in the Big Ten), followed by rivals Iowa at home, and Wisconsin in Madison. All they can do at this point is take care of business and cross their fingers.
Who Will Play Quarterback Against Penn State?
We have no idea. P.J. Fleck‘s last public comments were on Monday, at which point he said Tanner Morgan was doing well and had not been ruled out. Even if Morgan doesn’t play, will Fleck start the freshman Kaliakmanis, or go with Wildcat quarterback Cole Kramer, who’s a senior?
In some ways, it doesn’t matter. No matter who’s under center when the Gophers head to Happy Valley, their best (only?) bet to win this game is to make it the Mohamed Ibrahim Show.