Episode 24: Previewing Gopher football

In this week’s episode of “The Weekly Rundown” our staff discusses the upcoming Gophers football season and the team’s current position in the AP rankings.

Nolan O'Hara and Brendan O'Brien

INTRO MUSIC PLAYS

NOLAN O’HARA: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” presented by the Minnesota Daily. I’m your host, Nolan O’Hara. We’re just a little over a week away from the Gophers first game of the 2020 football season. They’ll take on No. 19 Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium on Oct. 24. As we’re gearing up for that, I’m joined today by our football beat reporter Brendan O’Brien. Brendan, how’s it going?

BRENDAN O’BRIEN: Doing pretty well. Nolan, how are you?

O’HARA: I’m doing well, I’m doing well. Good. Here another day, you know, still kicking. So, that’s always good. But let’s get started and talk about the rankings. The Gophers finished last season ranked 10th after they beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl, but were left out of the top-25 in the first poll once since the Big Ten restarted their season. But they’ve since jumped back in. First, they were at No. 25. This week, they’re up another spot to No. 24. So looking at some other Big Ten schools, Ohio State’s No. 6, Penn State is nine, Wisconsin is 16. Michigan who the Gophers will see in their first game of the season is No. 19. And the Gophers are the last Big Ten team in at No. 24. So, no Big Ten team has played a game yet, so it might be too early to tell, but Brendan, what do you think of the Gophers position in the rankings? Is it too low, too high, or is it just right?

O’BRIEN: Well, Nolan, I think this is a really great question. And to answer it, I’m not really sure right now. And if you’re listening to this podcast, you probably know that, obviously, there’s a lot of different methods that some conferences have taken going into this season. The SEC, the Big 12 and the ACC were notable conferences that started earlier in September, with the Big Ten in the Pac-12 obviously originally opting out of football, and now the Big Ten is starting up here in about a week. And then the Pac-12 starting out later in November, I believe.

So, at the beginning of the season, there was kind of some complaints whether Big Ten schools, Pac-12, schools that are projected to do well should actually be ranked in the top-25. But I think really being ranked 24th is more of a courtesy rank to the Gophers given what they did last year, obviously coming off of an 11-2 season, beating teams like Penn State and Auburn were some of their signature wins. And I think overall, it’s probably for fans out there that might be upset looking at some of the teams less traditional teams that are ranked in the top-25 right now that are ahead of the Gophers. It probably is a little bit pointless to get too upset about it right now, just because usually, if the Gophers ended up having a good record, they’re going to be ranked higher at the end of the season. And right now, there’s just so many question marks up in the air.

O’HARA: For sure. And yeah, the Big Ten is just about to start back up, and you know, looking at this Gophers first game against Michigan, it’s already going to be one that has an impact as both teams are top-25 already. And this year, in particular, every game matters more. There are only conference schedules. And you know, like eight games for the Gophers this season in this in only Big Ten conference games. So, what do you think we can expect from this week one matchup with two top-25 teams in the Big Ten?

O’BRIEN: Well, I think it probably will be one of your more traditional, classic, Big Ten games. Both teams like to run the football, Michigan didn’t necessarily have as successful of rushing statistics that you might usually associate with that team, but they still do like to run the football on offense and pride themselves with a good defense under Jim Harbaugh. Minnesota, actually, I was looking and in some places is favored right now to win the game, the line’s about like two. Michigan under Harbaugh right now, I also found this stat that they are currently 1-7 under Harbaugh as being road underdogs. So, that’s something just of note, but it is obviously going to be an interesting first game for both teams, especially Minnesota given that how they played last year in the non-conference, winning all three non-conference games, but all of them kind of been squeaky close wins. And then obviously once they got to the Big Ten, they started to kind of heat up a little bit more. They’re going to have to be sharp come next Saturday because Michigan was six in scoring offense last year and fifth in scoring defense in the Big Ten. So, it’s going to be a good test for both teams.

O’HARA: For sure. I’m glad you brought that up, you know the first three non-conference games last year, because playing a team like Michigan right out right out of the gate, the Gophers can’t play like they did in those first three non-conference games. And, you know, going back to them being two-point favorites as well, that probably is because it’s really a toss-up game. And they, it seems like they’re giving it to Minnesota because it is a home game. So, that’ll be really interesting game to keep our eyes on. And I know one thing we’ve discussed just a couple weeks ago on the podcast was the Gophers defense, but I kind of want to bring it up again, because that’s going to be the biggest question mark for this team. They had a great defense last season, but they’ve lost so many key players and starters to either the NFL Draft or to graduation. And I know one player, we’ve kind of seen his name recently who’s primed to step up is Mariano Sori-Marin, who filled in for Kamal Martin last season when he was down with an injury. And I know P.J. spoke pretty highly of him in the last press conference. What was he saying about him?

O’BRIEN: Sure. So, what Fleck kind of said about Sori-Marin was everything you’d want to hear about a Big Ten linebacker, that he’s fast, he’s very physical, willing to make plays, make hits in the open field. And the one thing that was really telling was one of the last things he said about Sori-Marin, is that he’s going to be the Joe Rossi of the defense, that he’s a really intellectual player. So, I would expect him not only to be in some of the right spots, whether it’s in pass coverage, or in the open field making tackles in the run, but also probably pre-snap, he’s going to be the guy that’s going to make sure other players are lined up correctly. And that the defense is set each time.

O’HARA: So, it sounds like Fleck not only expects him to kind of step up into that role after losing guys like Kamal Martin, Thomas Barber, but also to be kind of the quarterback of the defense and directing them and kind of stepping up into that role as well.

O’BRIEN: Right. Yeah. And the thing is to that, for Gopher fans that might not know as much about him, given all of the other linebackers that the Gophers have had throughout the past few seasons, he has still had some big game experience, most notably, he started for Martin who opted out of the bowl game against Auburn, and the defense really didn’t miss that much of a beat in that game as well. So, he should be kind of the Tanner Morgan of their defense.

O’HARA: And, alongside him who are some other players you expect to step up on that defensive side?

O’BRIEN: Sure. So, we obviously talked about Sori-Marin stepping up in the linebacking unit. On the defensive line, I think one name that’s been brought up quite a bit is Boye Mafe. And we talked a little bit about him as well, but he just really has some good football and just athletic measurables that other people have talked about. And he’s gotten some playing time already on that defensive line. But with guys like Carter Coughlin gone, Winston DeLattiboudere gone, he should probably see an uptick in the amount of snaps that he would get at least you would expect that.

And then in the secondary, I would say Jordan Howden. I was kind of walking by the football stadium earlier today, and I was thinking about the play he made in the Penn State game, sealing the game with an interception in the end zone. And I think he’s played a couple of seasons already for the Gophers, he played as a freshman didn’t start every game, but he’s going into his junior season now, but he’s definitely a guy that hasn’t gotten as much name recognition, playing alongside guys like Chris Williamson and obviously, most notably Antoine Winfield Jr. So, he definitely could be one that would step up. He’s had 40-50 tackles in the past two seasons as well. So he should be kind of a key cornerstone in that defensive backfield.

O’HARA: You heard it here first, watch out for Jordan Howden in the season. We’ve seen you know, him make that play. But we’ve also seen some Antoine Winfield play, so maybe he can make some more similar kind of game saving plays in the endzone should the Gophers need it this season. And, another interesting thing to note is that there are still some players who are undecided about returning in this unusual season. Rashod Bateman we saw opt out, opt back in when he saw that the Big Ten was playing again. And we haven’t seen any additional opt-outs yet, but it was something Fleck was asked about in media availability and kind of alluded to that it could be happening. Do we have any idea who might be on the fence still?

O’BRIEN: So, two players that are have been asked about in these press conferences with coach Fleck are offensive lineman Daniel Falale, primarily plays right tackle, and then linebacker Braelen Oliver. Now, those are two guys that have been asked about that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are guys that are on the fence 100%, they very well might be. But the reason why there’s not necessarily more clarity on the situation with those players and maybe even other players is that one thing coach Fleck has said early on, as before the season approaches is that he wants to make sure that players are kind of given their opportunity to come up with a decision for themselves, he doesn’t want their names being out there and have in any other added pressure put on those players before the season where to start, that obviously we’re going to hear about players if they do decide to opt out here within the next few days, given that the season is supposed to start in a couple of days. But right now, those are just two names that potentially are on the fence.

O’HARA: I kind of want to talk about Falale a little bit because he’s been a huge impact on the offensive line. And one of the things that wasn’t really a question mark for the Gophers coming into the season was the offensive line, you know, thankfully returning Tanner Morgan returning Rashod Bateman, but you’re also returning pretty much your entire offensive line. They’ve shifted around a bit, but the same five guys are coming back this year. If Falale does decide to opt out, what could that mean for the Gophers offense? And is there anybody you think that might step up in the right tackle?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, right now, I think it would be a little bit hard to project who would necessarily step up into the exact right tackle spot. The Gophers do still have some players that are kind of reserves on the offensive line, like Axel Ruschmeyer, and I’m blanking on his name right now, John Michael Schmitz. And both of those players would either step up into either the right tackle position, or they would play another position and they could move guys around whether it be Blaise Andries, who’s moved around before, Connor Olson.

O’HARA: For sure. Yeah. And just kind of having to shuffle like that. How difficult could that be for a team, you know, starting out right away in the season, when you think you kind of have your entire offensive line intact moving in, and now having to shift it right away?

O’BRIEN: It definitely could play an impact in maybe pass coverage. I would say, given how heavily of run team the Gophers are, that a lot of the offensive linemen, whether you’re a starter or a reserve, you’re expected to know the pass block or run blocking schemes as well as the pass blocking schemes. But, sometimes if it’s a third-and-long, players might have to switch up coverages and or roles, I should say and pass blocking schemes. So, that communication might take a little bit longer for some of those reserves who haven’t gotten as much game time. As far as that, it might take them a little bit longer to adjust to that.

O’HARA: Yeah, as far as the past blocking thing, all we have to do is point to our hometown, Minnesota Vikings to see that, you know, sometimes you can run block, but you can’t pick up the pass block. That’s just as far as you have to look. But the Gophers will kick off their season, on Oct. 24 here at TCF Bank Stadium, but unfortunately, given the circumstances fans will not be permitted. But the game is nationally televised on ABC. It’ll start at 6:30 p.m. So, don’t forget to tune in. Brendan, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us.

O’BRIEN: Yeah, of course, Nolan. Thank you.

OUTRO MUSIC BEGINS

O’HARA: In other news, on Oct. 9, the Board of Regents passed a revised athletics department proposal to cut three men’s sports in gymnastics, tennis and indoor track and field. The proposal passed on a 7-5 vote. The athletics department had previously proposed to cut both indoor and outdoor track and field, but a revised proposal came before the Board on Friday. So, after the 2020-2021 school year, indoor track, tennis and gymnastics will be discontinued. This proposal will only save the department $1.6 million in next fiscal year.

The University will host three championship events between 2023-2026. In 2023, the University will host the men’s swimming and diving championship. In 2024, the University will host the men’s Frozen Four. And in 2025, the University will host the women’s Frozen Four. The University will partner with local venues to accommodate these events. The University is already scheduled to host one of the regionals in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the 2021 men’s gymnastics championship and the 2022 NCAA women’s basketball Final Four.

The Gophers men’s and women’s basketball teams practiced for the first time on Wednesday. Both teams lost a number of key contributors from last season and will rely on underclassmen and transfers to step up in the upcoming season.

That’s all for this week. Remember to check our website mndaily.com for more coverage. Join us again next week for the “Weekly Rundown” on all things Gopher sports.