A look at the Gophers’ 2020 conference-only schedule

The Gophers face an early test right away against No. 18 Michigan in a shortened, conference-only 2020 football season.

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Kamaan Richards

Gophers Wide Receiver Rashod Bateman carries the ball at the 2020 Outback Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 1. The Gophers went on to take the game 31-24 over the Auburn Tigers.

Matthew Kennedy, Sports Reporter

WEEK 1: vs. No. 18 Michigan

Arguably the toughest test on the Gophers’ schedule arrives first. Michigan has plenty of experience on both sides of the ball. Last season, the Wolverines defense finished 11th in the nation and allowed just 21 points per game to opposing offenses. They return defensive ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson who combined for 10 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss and also return star safeties Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins.

Another reason why this game could prove troublesome for the Gophers is the Wolverines running back depth. As a freshman, Zach Charbonnet racked up 726 yards and 11 touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry. Alongside Charbonnet, proven rushers Hassan Haskins and Chris Evans will return to the fold for the Wolverines.

Yet a question mark for Michigan going into the season is the quarterback position. Michigan has had adept defenses and talent on the team, but the team’s quarterback play has been its Achilles’ heel since Jim Harbaugh took the head coaching job.

Junior Joe Milton is a dual-threat quarterback who has earned the trust of Harbaugh and has earned high praise in training camp, inadvertently making Dylan McCaffrey opt out and enter the transfer portal. Milton has a cannon of an arm and can scramble, but his accuracy needs work. Keeping Milton uncomfortable and stopping the Wolverines’ rushing attack will be key to a Gophers win against a formidable Michigan team.

WEEK 2: @ Maryland

Of any Big Ten team, Maryland has more question marks on the team than answers currently.

Maryland’s leading rushers from last season Javon Leake and Anthony McFarland are gone, and the Terrapins still haven’t decided which former four-star recruit will lead its offense: Taulia Tagovailoa — the brother of former Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa — or redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre.

Another big issue for Maryland is on the defensive front where the team was abysmal in 2019; the Terrapins’ defense was ranked second to last in the Big Ten last season. Expect the Gophers to pounce on this leaky defense and shut down the Terrapins offense, playing against a team without a clear identity.

WEEK 3: @ Illinois

Expect Josh Imatorbhebhe, a senior wide receiver and a 2019 All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2019, to give Gophers’ cornerback Coney Durr a challenge in this game. In his standout 2019 season, Imatorbhebhe finished the year with 634 yards and nine touchdowns. Without him, Illinois would not have upset Wisconsin last year, as Imatorbhebhe hauled in a key touchdown late in the contest.

If the Gophers can stop Illinois’ passing attack, Minnesota should have no problem in Champagne. Alongside Durr in the secondary, the Gophers return safety Jordan Howden and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, all key defenders who had plenty of experience in 2019. In 2019, Illinois had one of the worst rush defenses in the country and gave up 211 yards to Gophers’ running back Rodney Smith in a 40-17 blowout last season. Despite returning a star receiver in Imatorbhebhe, Minnesota is the clear favorite in this matchup.

WEEK 4: vs. Iowa

The Gophers will play for Floyd of Rosedale in a favorable location at TCF Bank Stadium, as opposed to last season’s matchup in Iowa City. The Gophers are 3-3 playing the Hawkeyes in Minneapolis compared to 0-4 on the road since 2010.

Iowa’s defensive front from last year that bottled up the Gophers’ rushing attack has lost key pieces to the NFL Draft, only returning defensive end Chauncey Golston. Without those pieces on the defensive line, expect Gophers’ running back Mohamed Ibrahim to have a better day running behind an experienced offensive line, even if Golston is the best returning edge rusher in the Big Ten West Division.

Iowa also lost three starters in its secondary and will be starting sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras who could rise or fold in his first career start in this heated rivalry.

WEEK 5: vs. Purdue

Trap game? Purdue has a powerful passing attack that could surprise Minnesota if its secondary isn’t fully awake. The Boilermakers led the Big Ten last year in passing offense and was No. 12 in the nation, averaging 310 passing yards per game.

Slot wide receiver Rondale Moore will be a pesky player in this game — the only receiver that will catch as many headlines as Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman is Moore, who’s shifty and has tremendous speed. Another player difficult to handle in pass coverage will be sophomore receiver David Bell who was the 2019 Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

If the Gophers’ secondary can prevent Moore and Bell from wreaking havoc, Minnesota should be able to handle a Boilermakers team that allowed a whopping 30.6 points per game last year. If the Gophers cannot contain Purdue’s elite pass catchers, it will be in a shootout, which could go either way. But with more offensive weapons — particularly in the run game – the Gophers would be favored.

WEEK 6: @ No. 15 Wisconsin

While Zach Baun and Chris Orr, who shut down the Gophers’ run in last year’s Border Battle, are gone, 18 of Wisconsin’s 20 leading tacklers return. True freshman Jalen Berger has a chance to become the next Badger great at running back, running behind an always stout offensive line.

Minnesota’s front seven will need to play tough to stop the Badgers’ run. Stopping Berger and veteran running back Garrett Groshek from running over the team like Jonathan Taylor did in 2019 is paramount for the Gophers. If Minnesota cannot stop the run — like in 2018 — turnovers could be another key to victory.

The Badgers’ starting quarterback Jack Coan is out for the season with a foot injury, putting redshirt freshman Graham Mertz into a starting role. A turnover could be the difference in an evenly matched contest, so look for the Gophers to try and force younger Wisconsin players to make mistakes.

WEEK 7: vs. Northwestern

Coming off a 3-9 season, Northwestern hired Mike Bajakian as its new offensive coordinator who was previously in the same position at Boston College, leading the Eagles to the best running game in the ACC behind running back AJ Dillon. With Bajakian leading the offense and the Wildcats adding a dual-threat transfer quarterback in Peyton Ramsey, Northwestern’s offense could be much improved in 2020.

Still, the Wildcats’ revamped offense might not be enough to walk into TCF Bank Stadium and upset Minnesota. Minnesota’s offense had success against a similar looking Northwestern secondary last season and should have success again. Northwestern also has an inexperienced defensive line, which could open up the run game.

WEEK 8: @ Nebraska

The Cornhuskers boast raw talent but have yet to show for it. This is especially true at the quarterback position in former four-star standout recruit Adrian Martinez who had an up-and-down 2019. He had an inconsistent 2019, completing 59% of his passes with 10 TD and 9 INT. Without Martinez, the Gophers rolled past the Huskers last season in a 34-7 victory.

Don’t expect as easy a win for the Gophers this season, particularly if Martinez stays healthy. He’ll have a strong receiver duo in four-star incoming freshman Zavier Betts and sophomore Wan’Dale Robinson who set program records for receptions and receiving yards by a true-freshman. While Nebraska should be an improved team from last season, if the Gophers can avoid mistakes on offense, it should be smooth sailing for Minnesota in Lincoln.