Inexperience costs Gophers in loss to Michigan

Injuries, youth and COVID-19 positives left an already inexperienced defense without answers on Saturday.

Gophers+linebacker+Mariano+Sori-Marin+follows+the+ball+at+TCF+Bank+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+Oct.+24.+Minnesota+fell+to+Michigan+49-24+in+their+first+showing+of+the+season.

Nur B. Adam

Gophers linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin follows the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 24. Minnesota fell to Michigan 49-24 in their first showing of the season.

Paul Hodowanic, Sports Reporter

Last season, the Minnesota Gophers defense ranked ninth in the nation in yards allowed per game.

But this is not last year’s defense.

Fielding seven new starters on that side of the ball, No. 21 Minnesota couldn’t contain No. 18 Michigan’s offense all game long. The result… a 49-24 drubbing by Michigan. The Gophers have now lost 17 straight home games to the Wolverines.

“You got a bunch of other freshmen or redshirt freshmen who haven’t played a ton of football yet,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “You’ve got people on the back end who haven’t played a ton of football yet at the safety position who are filling holes, filling gaps. It was hard. Some guys were trying to do somebody else’s position at times. We didn’t tackle well and when we did fit it, they sprung out of it.”

The Wolverines racked up 481 yards of offense, averaging 8.6 yards per play. They were forced to punt just once, which came on their opening drive. From there, it was touchdown after touchdown, with their only unsuccessful drives coming in the form of three missed field goals and a turnover on downs in garbage time.

It was Minnesota’s worst performance since it gave up 55 points to Illinois in 2018. The next day, the team fired then-defensive coordinator Robb Smith.

“There’s a lot of youth and experience at that side,” Fleck said. “Again, not an excuse, we just have to be able to coach it better and it starts with me. We got to get it better and I know we will as we continue to go through the year.”

While Saturday’s performance was reminiscent of Illinois, the circumstances are different.

Normally, these opening game warts would be worked out against far lesser teams than Michigan. Minnesota struggled at times at the beginning of last season, surviving scares against South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern by sheer talent. With the schedule exclusively Big Ten opponents, that won’t be the case this season.

“We’re much better than what we showed tonight,” junior linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. “The communication, the guys doing their jobs, wasn’t where it needed to be tonight.”

The Gophers also lost four defenders to the NFL — safety Antoine Winfield Jr., linebacker Kamal Martin, defensive end Carter Coughlin and cornerback Chris Williamson — an atypical occurrence for the program.

But inexperience reared its ugly head in more than just the defense. The special teams unit was depleted because of COVID-19.

Starting punter Mark Crawford and starting kicker Michael Lantz were both out due to positive tests, Fleck revealed after the game. Backup kicker Brock Walker was forced into action despite still recovering from a sports hernia issue, which limited his ability. Backup punter Matthew Stephenson averaged just 35 yards per punt, including a 18-yard punt. The Gophers also attempted a fake punt on 4th-and-4 from their own 31, which failed and set up an eventual Wolverine touchdown.

“[COVID-19] hit the specialists pretty hard and it hit them at different times,” Fleck said. “That’s why there’s certain decisions made that maybe people agree with, maybe they don’t agree with, but at the time they seemed like the best decision… we were playing catch up.”

The lack of a traditional offseason plus the wealth of talent Fleck has brought in recruiting over the past several years provides hope that this can be just a blip on the radar with more time to grow. Yet, for a team that had hopes of competing for a Big Ten title, any more results like Saturday could sink their season’s hopes quickly.

“We just have to be better, we will be better,” redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “We’re going to take this and learn from it and move forward.”