Michigan State football: 6 questions about Week 4 foe Minnesota answered

Nov 23, 2019; Evanston, IL, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach PJ Fleck takes the filed with his team in a game against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 23, 2019; Evanston, IL, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach PJ Fleck takes the filed with his team in a game against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports /

Earlier in the week, Noel Thompson of GopherHole was kind enough to reach out to me and ask me a few questions to get a Michigan State football writer’s perspective headed into the conference opening matchup on Saturday between the Spartans and Minnesota Golden Gophers.

If you would like to read my perspective, it is posted here on GopherHole.

This was an excellent idea and something I wanted to bring to the readers here at Spartan Avenue, so I asked Noel if he would answer a few of my own questions regarding the Gophers and he was more than willing to do so.

I would like to give a ton of credit to Noel and thank him for giving me the idea as well as his thoughts on the questions I posed.

Follow Noel on Twitter: @n0elthompson

Six questions answered ahead of Minnesota vs. Michigan State football

1. PJ Fleck is in his sixth year at Minnesota and will be starting the conference season looking to build off of his success from last season’s 9-4 record, placing second in the Big Ten West. What are the expectations this year? Do you think they have been met through three games?

Minnesota is in the wild and crazy Big Ten West division, where many predicted a three-to-four team race for the division title before the season began. Expectations are really high in Minneapolis. Before the season, I said anything less than finishing in the top two in the division would be a huge disappointment for the Gophers. As of today, they have to be the favorites to win the division, and that would be the expectation right now.

I would say they have far exceeded expectations so far. For reasons Minnesota fans can’t understand, the Gophers haven’t always performed well in non-conference under PJ Fleck. Look at Bowling Green last year. The fact that they have outscored their opponents in the first three games 149-17 has been a huge relief for Minnesota fans.

2. Last game, Minnesota thrashed Colorado, arguably the worst Power Five team in college football, by a score of 49-7. In fact, Minnesota enters 3-0, with their slimmest margin of victory through three games being 38 points. What has gone right for the Gophers so far? With Minnesota only a three-point favorite on Saturday, do you believe this is their first test?

Honestly, just about everything has gone right so far. The only thing that hasn’t is the loss of star wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell last week to Colorado, who suffered a season-ending leg injury. The offense and defense are both among the top two in the nation. Have they faced easy competition so far? Absolutely, but bad teams don’t accidentally put up the numbers Minnesota has done so far.

Even with Minnesota favored, this will be a big test for Minnesota. Not only is this their first road game of the season, they are facing a good team in Michigan State.

3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Golden Gophers?

The run game and RPO are the bread and butter of the Minnesota offense. Only Air Force has run the ball more than the Gophers. Minnesota enters Saturday averaging an absurd 312 yards per game. They are getting almost six yards per carry. They love to set up the run and then catch defenses off guard with play-action. The depth on the defense has been really impressive so far, but I think Minnesota secretly has one of the best secondaries in the conference. The defense has been disciplined and fast thus far, led by safety Tyler Nubin and linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin.

The loss of wideout Autman-Bell is a big one for the Gophers. He is also one of the main leaders of the team. He is also the most experienced and complete receiver on the Minnesota roster. The Gophers got Daniel Jackson back last week, which is great news. But it is now time for Dylan Wright to step up in Autman-Bell’s place. While the receivers don’t have the experience like Autman-Bell, they still have the talent to make teams pay in play action.

The offensive line has four new starters from last year. So far, the unit has performed well. It is led by preseason All-American center John Michael Schmitz. This game will be their first test of the season.

4. Mohamed Ibrahim enters this week with 464 yards on 67 carries and seven touchdowns, along with a running streak of 12 games rushing for over 100 yards. He is starting to garner some Heisman hype, being ranked fifth in ESPN’s most recent “Heisman Five.” How would you describe his play this year?

Simply unbelievable. You would have no idea from watching him that he is coming off a torn Achilles injury. His streak of 12 games rushing over 100 yards leads the nation. Ibrahim isn’t the fastest or strongest running back, but his vision and motor are second to none. It’s great to see Ibrahim come back strong after getting injured in the first game of the season last year. Remember, he was the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year.

5. Can you give us a few impact players on offense and defense for the Spartan faithful to know about on Saturday?

Outside of Ibrahim, I think the most important player on offense this Saturday is quarterback Tanner Morgan. His decision-making and mobility in the pocket have improved since last year. No quarterback in Minnesota history has won more games than Morgan. Tanner’s stats won’t blow you away, but he is fourth in the conference in QBR.

Another player on offense is tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford. He is the most athletic tight end Minnesota has seen since Maxx Williams (2014) and had a career year last year with 23 catches and 296 yards.

The defense is led by linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin. He currently leads the team in tackles with 16. He started every game last year and finished second on the team in tackles with 85. I would also watch out for cornerback Justin Walley, who was a Freshman All-American last year.

6. This is the first time Michigan State has played Minnesota since 2017, and the first time the game will be played at Spartan Stadium since Mark Dantonio’s 2013 Rose Bowl team won against a Jerry Kill-led Gophers, 14-3. What do the Golden Gophers need to do to beat the Spartans for the first time in their last six attempts? What is your score prediction for the game, and why?

I think the start of this game will be really important for Minnesota. If they can get some early stops and take control of the tempo of the game, it will definitely work in their favor. The Gophers love controlling the time of possession with their potent ground game. But I think Tanner Morgan is the X factor. After seeing the Spartans struggle in pass defense last week, Minnesota is going to need Morgan to make the right reads in the RPO.

Fleck likes to open up the playbook in conference play, and I see Minnesota taking advantage of the Spartan secondary. I also think the run game for Minnesota will eventually be too much for the Spartans.

While I don’t see the Gophers’ defense completely shutting down Payton Thorne, I think they will do enough for Minnesota to escape East Lansing with a win. My score prediction is 34-24.

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