Episode 26: Gophers football: From Michigan to Maryland

In this week’s episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” our staff discusses the Gophers first game of the season against Maryland, the team’s defensive struggles and what to expect this weekend against Maryland.

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 back and finally we have some sports to talk about as Big Ten football returned here, the Gophers had their first game on Saturday, a game they lost 49-24 to Michigan. So, I’m here again with Brendan, our football beat reporter and we’re going to break down both the Gophers loss to Michigan and its upcoming game against Maryland. So Brendan, how’s it going?

BRENDAN O’BRIEN: Doing pretty well, Nolan. Well rested, ready to talk some football today and watch some tomorrow.

O’HARA: Love to hear it. Love to hear it. Yeah, so obviously, as we can see by the score, or by watching it, the game didn’t go exactly how P.J. Fleck and the rest of the team had planned. The first quarter was wild to say the least, it could have gone either way, it looked like it was going to go either way that neither team could stop each other. But Michigan’s defense picked it up after that. They were able to slow down the Gophers offense, especially with some offensive line struggles. And then offensively, even better. Joe Milton looks fantastic. You know, looking through Twitter, seeing all the Michigan fans comments, they’re like, ‘Why did we not see him last year? Why did we keep trying to make Shea Patterson the thing?’ And I think that’s a valid argument there. Definitely looks like a step up there. And they were able to score at will, but from the box at TCF, what did you make of the game? Is Michigan as good as they looked on Saturday? Or was it some bad Gophers?

O’BRIEN: I kind of think it might be a combination of both. I think both of these things could be true that Michigan is a good football team, and that the Gophers did not play their best brand of football, especially on defense. I will say Joe Milton did look good. And I know this isn’t a Michigan football podcast, but the reason Michigan won wasn’t because of Joe Milton. The reason Michigan won was because they could run out well, like you had mentioned and they could score at will. Really, what it also came down to for Minnesota and this sounds really simple, and if any team obviously did this, then obviously you could say, ‘Well, yeah, every team would win football games.’

But the way Minnesota is built and the way P.J. Fleck kind of talked about it last year, is that they want to play well-balanced football on in all three phases. On defense, they need to get stops. On offense, they need to score points and keep their defense out of bad situations. And just make sure that they’re also doing well and the simple things like field position, turnovers, and really in those simple battles, they lost those obviously on Saturday. The fake punt put them in their defense in a really bad situation. They basically handed Michigan seven points after faking it just because Michigan again was able just to run the ball down their throats. The offense just wasn’t able to score points on certain drives, obviously, the big sack-fumble return for a touchdown. Put the defense in another hole, trying to get more stops to let the offense catch up. And they just had you know a few of those costly turnovers the sack-fumble for a touchdown and an interception by Morgan.

O’HARA: Yeah, there was definitely quite a few plays in that game, the 18-yard punt the fake punt some of those kickoffs that did not go the Gophers way which it is worth noting that they were missing quite a few starters, two on the offensive line in Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele and then their kicker and punter. We’ll get back to that a little bit later in the podcast. But you started off saying that it was a little bit of bad Gophers, a little bit of good Michigan, and it seems like the polls kind of felt that way to Michigan jumped up five spots in the AP Poll to number 13, they were 18 last week. And Minnesota completely fell out at the top-25 from 21. Now, they’re receiving about 40 votes. So now that we’re a game into the season, you know, we talked about the polls before doesn’t really matter, the Big Ten hadn’t played a game. Should the Gophers be outside of the top-25 after finishing No. 10 last year, and now just losing a game against a Michigan team that looked really good right off the bat.

O’BRIEN: I think so just because of how they lost that game. If they lost in close fashion, you look at kind of where the rankings are right now Penn State is at 18th and they’re 0-1. They’re one of the only teams in the rankings that is still in the rankings after losing only one game. But the reason they’re still in the rankings is because one Penn State’s kind of a brand name, a lot of voters will still assume that they’re going to be a competent team. And then two, they lost in a very close matchup against Indiana who’s only ranked one spot ahead of Penn State. So, that game basically could have probably been coin flip. But Minnesota on the other hand, like now going back to them and comparing Penn State and Indiana’s game to Minnesota and Michigan’s game, it wasn’t as close as that game. So, it makes sense that even though they did lose to a Michigan team that looks like, you know, are they going to be a contender for, you know, looking at the National picture, the college football playoff? Well, probably not if they can’t beat an Ohio State team. But they still could be a really good football team this season. But to answer your question, yeah, Michigan’s a really good team. And yet, you should get credit for losing and playing a good team. But at the same time, you can’t necessarily give up 49 points and still expect to be in the rankings.

O’HARA: Right. That was not the best defensive performance. One of the things that surprised me in the polls was seeing Indiana. Did you expect that to see them jump up to 17?

O’BRIEN: Yes, only because of how much I think a lot of the polls are kind of based off of hype too, right. And if you watch any of the pregame shows, whether it’s on ESPN or FOX, a lot of people kind of were thinking highly of Indiana, they played well last year, were competitive in some games, but and a lot of people actually kind of picked Indiana to be a favorite for an upset in that Penn State game, so it’s actually isn’t terribly surprising that they’re in the rankings, but we’ll see how they do going forward. They’re still going to have to play that Michigan team. They’re going to have to play Ohio State too. So, we’ll see how that goes.

O’HARA: Yeah, it’ll be interesting. I was I was a little bit surprised to see that one. And that was, that was quite the game coming right down to it at the end. But yeah, I wanted to kind of dive back into the Curtis Dunlap and Daniel Faalele and the special teams unit, there was some news and we got some more news today that we weren’t expecting before we did this podcast but after the game, P.J. announced that Michael Lantz and Mark Crawford, the kicker and punter, were out because of COVID reasons. And then now we found out with Dunlap and Faalele that they are out indefinitely, Dunlap with an Achilles tear and Faalele not really sure, maybe an opt-out? I’m still not really sure what’s going on there. But do we have any more details? And what do we kind of have on a timetable for Lance and Crawford with this COVID protocols?

O’BRIEN: Sure. So just to kind of first just talk a little bit more about Dunlap and Faalele, it sounds like it’s probably an opt-out. But again, Coach Fleck really hasn’t definitively said whether or not it is and he’s also kind of just said that he’s not going to comment on whether players have opted out or not. As far as Dunlap, he has that Achilles tear. Obviously, that’s a serious injury for athletes, and he’s going to going to be out for the rest of the season. Depending on what Faalele’s status and what his feelings are towards, if he feels unsafe, you know, that’s totally his decision, and shouldn’t be faulted for opting out for the rest of the season. But there might be some leeway as far as if he wants to come back kind of like Rashod Bateman decided to come back and then turn it over to the kicker and punter, Lantz and Crawford.

Again, Coach Fleck really hasn’t given us too much information on whether when they tested positive, if they do, but again, depending on the COVID-19 protocols, whether or not they were the ones that tested positive, or if they came in contact with someone. But long story short, they’re out. You could assume you know, the timetable is probably the next two games that they’re going to be out is the long term because if they tested positive early in the week for the Michigan game, then that would obviously leave them off for 21 more days. And then that would probably be around their third or fourth game that they’d be able to come back. Or potentially they tested positive, like 21 or 22 days before the Michigan game and now they’re able to come back in this next game against Maryland. I would assume that they’re going to be out for the next week for sure. And possibly week three as well, though.

O’HARA: Yeah, I did see today that both Lantz and Crawford are officially out for Maryland. But after that, who knows? I mean, we don’t, the Gophers definitely don’t want to see any more 18-yard punts or squib kicks at the beginning of the game. I was just wondering does Michigan have have some kind of Devin Hester returner back there because why are they doing these squib kicks, not realizing that the backup kicker had some sort of injury as well. So, that’ll be something to keep an eye on to see if there’s any improvements this week, or if it’s kind of that same stuck faking punts because it’s only going to go 18-yards if you get it off anyway. But that wasn’t the biggest problem with this team was, well, it was a problem. But the defense is not last year’s defense by any stretch of the imagination. We talked about them a lot on the podcast before, that it was going to be the biggest question mark for this team. And that was definitely true. They struggled a lot against Michigan. We talked about them running the ball. We talked about Joe Milton, Michigan didn’t have any trouble getting through the Gophers defense scoring points, any of it. What did you see overall, just from the Gophers defense on Saturday, what is Rossi said about kind of saying about fixing some of these early struggles here?

O’BRIEN: So, kind of just going off of what I saw. And obviously I am not, I do not have the football acumen that any of the coaches do. But basically what I saw is kind of what everyone else watching the game saw there was too many big plays that the Gophers defense gave up. Obviously, they got a lot of energy after blocking Michigan’s punt and then going down in scoring early on their first drive. But then right away, they gave up that long touchdown run on the Michigan’s first play, their second drive, so too many big plays big chunk plays. It just didn’t feel like Minnesota was able to just cause pressure, get bigger stops, put Michigan’s offense in positions where it was going to be hard for them to convert first and get first downs. And they were again, they were just put in bad spots a couple of times to knowing what we know. Now, while the fake punt might be frustrating to some, if they didn’t think that their punter was going to give them you know a good opportunity to stop Michigan’s offense and give them good field position. It makes sense why they do try to convert there with the fake punt, but then you’re giving Michigan the ball deep in their own territory or deep in Minnesota territory, and then it’s much easier for them to score.

So, I think overall, what the defense will need to do, what Joe Rossi said that they’ll need to do this upcoming week and throughout the season to make sure they’re a lot better as one communication. He really highlighted that in this week’s press conference saying that the communication has to be almost crazy and loud and urgent. And part of the reason that might not be as again, we know that this defense is a little bit more inexperienced, and guys just might not know how to communicate as well with each other quite yet. Then the other thing is because they’re inexperienced, they need to play with less hesitancy and just more instinct and react when they see plays. It’s not necessarily that they’re hesitant about, you know, getting hit, it’s more, okay, as this, you know, is this going to be a passing play as it’s going to be running players as a player play action pass. So, if they can kind of shore up some of those things, and those are some things to that will ultimately probably just come with playing more games.

O’HARA: Yeah, for sure. I mean, you talked about, you know, some of those big plays and even not even the big plays like I remember seeing Joe Milton, they did like a sweep with Joe Milton to the right. And it was like an easy nine yards and I just looked at it’s like they could run this the entire game, just run the Joe Milton sweep and probably get seven, eight yards a play. So, that’ll be something that they’re going to have to figure out. They’re going to, they can’t allow teams to run the ball that easily for the rest of the season. And you know, overall, there were a lot of negative so we can take from this game and we’ve kind of hit those but there was anything that either you saw that looked promising, or is there anything that Fleck or the other coaches have said that are positives that they can draw on from the Michigan game?

O’BRIEN: Two easy positives right off the bat: The Gophers run game, and they’re able to still get Rashod Bateman involved. Mohammed Ibrahim was the main focus in the running game with over 100 yards, I think about 142 rushing touchdowns. So, even though they’re losing offensive linemen like Dunlap and Faalele, and they could have probably been helpful in some situations like the sack-fumble, they’re still able to effectively run the football and as some of those guys get, again, more experience, they’re still going to be able to do that effectively. And I know we’ll get into this just a little bit but and some of their next opponents coming up they’re probably going to be able to run the ball, but better than they might have even been, even though most stats were pretty good, they might be able to do even better against some of their other opponents than Michigan. And I think ultimately, what the team has said that they’re, that are positives to draw from the game are just overall, their response. And you’ll kind of see that, depending on how they play tomorrow night, but what they’ve talked about what their culture is their mindsets on how they respond, not necessarily the result of certain games. So, if they responded, well, in practice this week and play better on this upcoming game that’s a positive for them from this game is that they kind of learned what they needed to improve on.

O’HARA: Yeah, I think Ibrahim, big positive, like you mentioned, like he looked great. I think that’s really encouraging sign for the Gophers for the rest of the year. If they can run the ball like that, looks like they won’t be missing, you know, some of the running backs they lost in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.

O’BRIEN: Ibrahim looked really good. And just one other additional note on that, too, with Ibrahim kind of getting most of the workload, I would still kind of expect Cam Wiley and Trayson Potts to kind of play a little bit more of a role. And one thing that was kind of just interesting to note is that they did go to a little bit more of a two-back set with Ibrahim and Trayson Potts on the field at the same time. Now again, it was kind of a point in the game where it might not have mattered, but Mike Sanford co-offensive coordinator was asked about it this week. And he said that they installed those two-back packages when they assumed Bateman wasn’t going to be a part of the team. So, now they still might use those and Potts is more the receiving back. And so I would be interested to see and how those two guys work together, if they’re on the field at the same time in some of these next few games.

O’HARA: Yeah, there were a couple of those two-back sets, which were kind of interesting to watch what they’re trying to do out of it. And also, like you mentioned, you mentioned this before the season two that the Gophers like to get some running backs involved. You know, last year it was obviously Smith, Brooks, and then Ibrahim, to this year we saw we saw mostly Ibrahim, but we did see a little bit of Trayson Potts and Cam Wiley, what do you think of those two guys?

O’BRIEN: With Cam Wiley, it’s really hard because I think I was looking back at the box score and I believe he only had one rush and it was a negative rushing play. So, just going off of that, it’s kind of hard to tell with him like how much more he’ll get involved. And again, since the Gophers were down, it was a negative game script, it’s kind of hard to get multiple guys involved. And with Ibrahim getting 140 yards, it’s also kind of hard to take him out of the mix. Potts looks like he could be a really fast, quick twitch guy on the outside, he had a couple of either runs or short catches from Morgan and look like he was able to gain again gain, not necessarily big plays, but seven, eight yards off of those plays, too. So he’ll be interesting. If they can get him involved in the passing game.

O’HARA:That’ll be fun to watch. Because obviously the season is still young, so kind of see what develops here. And kind of overall, there’s obviously changes coaches want to make each week especially when you get blown out to Michigan at home. What are some of the things that they’re looking for? What have they said about this first game, what kind of changes do they want to make, before Friday’s game against Maryland here?

O’BRIEN: I think the biggest thing would be offensively is execution. And they need to make sure that they execute some plays a little bit better. Tanner didn’t necessarily play extremely, you know, poor football. But there were just obviously some incompletions that they talked about that they could have executed better. There were drives that were either cut short, due to turnovers or just three and outs, they had one drive that they didn’t score on because there was an illegal formation penalty. So, they just kind of talked about making sure they understand those situations and execute some plays better. I mean, there was also one of those plays that you see a lot in the NFL, where receiver motions over and they do a little quick jet motion pass with him. And it looked like they tried to do that with Bateman. And that got shut down within you know, they for a loss of probably around five yards. And, so, it’s things like that making sure that they execute those plays better. And defensively, we kind of talked about it already, but the biggest thing for them is they’re going to have to make sure that they communicate better. And usually what a lot of coaches will say with when they give up bigger chunk plays on a regular basis is that there they aren’t communicating. So, I think that would be one thing to look for in this next game that they’re going to try to change and make sure that guys are almost over communicating with each other on the field.

O’HARA: Yeah, I think you mentioned Tanner Morgan, obviously wasn’t his best game. I didn’t think he played bad by any stretch. But one thing I think is worth noting is he took all the blame on his shoulders after the game, he said, It’s my fault. I need to be better. And that basically just took all responsibility for the loss against Michigan. So, I didn’t think it was on his shoulders. The fumble wasn’t his fault. He played pretty well. Has he played better? Yes. But obviously he wants to play better this week against Maryland and Maryland is also coming in 0-1. And their game was even uglier than the Gophers they got blown out by Northwestern. And Northwestern is a team that hasn’t been historically very good, wasn’t really expected to be very good this year. So, couple questions here about that: Is Maryland that bad where they just got destroyed by Northwestern, or is Northwestern, a team that’s taken to step up in the Big Ten this year, and what do Gophers players and coaches expect from this Maryland team on Friday?

O’BRIEN: So, we’ll save Northwestern probably for a later date when the Gophers are expected to play them. But focusing on Maryland, it is kind of hard to say that when a team gives up 43 points and can’t score more than three that they are a good football team. I just kind of want a quick take you, and I know I brought this up a little bit before we came on Nolan, but the first five drive offensive drives for Maryland. The first one ended in 12 plays with a field goal. So, that’s a pretty good steady drive, but it ended in only three points and their only three points in the game. So, then Northwestern scores a touchdown at 7-3. Maryland second drive ends in three plays with an interception, then that led to another Northwestern touchdown. They’re already up two scores. Third drive ends in two plays with another interception, the second consecutive interception. Northwestern wasn’t able to capitalize though they punted. The fourth drive ended in three plays, they had a rush for no gain, an incompletion and a 10-yard sack. They punted Northwestern, excuse me, kick the field goal. And then their fifth drive ended in four plays and Northwestern scored, it was 24 to three. So, ultimately, you could make your comeback jokes about 28-3 with Atlanta, New England or just Atlanta, any Atlanta Falcons football game.

But I think in college, it’s a little bit harder for a team to get motivated to come back just because they are college kids, and they’re just not in, they’re not used to those kind of mental situations where come back. And when your quarterback is throwing two interceptions and the first two of the first three offensive series, I think his confidence was probably a little bit shaken not necessarily shattered. So overall, while I probably am a little bit more skeptical on how good Maryland is, the Gophers are not, they’re treating them like a worthy opponent. They talked about how they’ve got a lot of talented players on both sides of the ball. One thing that was interesting to note is that they talked about how they aren’t returning a lot of starters this year, they’re bringing in a lot of transfers. The quarterback is obviously a transfer and for college football fans. The name is kind of familiar and Talia Tagovailoa, the brother of former Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa, he obviously didn’t play as well as his brother has played in college before. So they’re, the Gophers are still treating them as a worthy opponent. And they expect them to be athletic on both sides of the ball. But they didn’t really give you any specifics. And from my perspective, I wouldn’t expect them to have nearly the struggles they did against Michigan.

O’HARA: Well, yeah, there’s no question about it that Michigan is a better team than Maryland. I don’t think there’s going to be any argument there. One thing I’m curious about you mentioned Talia Tagovailoa. He threw a couple interceptions, which isn’t great, but we haven’t really seen much of him yet. What are the Gophers, what have they said about him? Is there been anything that they think stands out and kind of just what do you know about him in general?

O’BRIEN: So, P.J. talked a little bit about him and just said that what Maryland’s going to try to do with him, as they’re going to try to get him out in space, kind of move the pocket with him, not necessarily just have them drop back straight. They might run them a little bit, especially in college. Obviously, quarterbacks are known to run a little bit more, but this is this was his first start in college. And obviously, he transferred into he wasn’t on Maryland last year. So he, Joe Rossi, defensive coordinator, did say that he expects his jump from game one to game two to be better. And the biggest thing is because he again, it’s his first game. And he might have just been a little bit shaken and one you throw two, two interceptions. And all of a sudden, you’re down multiple scores. And if your defense doesn’t look like they can stop Northwestern running attack, it might be a little bit more demoralizing. So, they’re treating him like he’s going to be much more prepared for this week. And he’s going to be much more comfortable throughout the game and won’t make as many mistakes. But again, if he, you know, throws two, throws three interceptions total, two picks within the first three drives, there might be some possibilities for the Gophers to capitalize on some turnovers, which they weren’t able to get in the Michigan game. So that will be another thing to kind of watch out for.

O’HARA: Right. Yeah, he is a young quarterback. So, if they can get some pressure on him, we saw Boye Mafe early, get some pressure on Milton, if they can kind of keep that pass rush going, they could force him into some mistakes, which would be helpful for the Gophers. And one thing to note too, is with Tagovailoa, he wasn’t even 100% set to be the starter, he was in a quarterback competition, won the job, and is now playing in his first game. So we’ll see, I’m expecting he’ll get better each and every game, but who knows how much better he’ll be in a week. So, that’ll be something to keep an eye on for sure. And just looking at this game, I mean, we’re obviously not too high on Maryland. But what are what’s the biggest key for either team to come up with a win on Friday?

O’BRIEN: For Minnesota, I would say the big key is really and it’s obviously very simple task to say just on a podcast, but I think it’d be for them really taking notes from Northwestern and just trying to really run the football, while Northwestern was able to get over 300 yards rushing, and we saw Michigan was almost was about 250-260 rushing yards against the Gophers. Just try to keep establishing the run with Ibrahim, maybe Potts will get a little bit more involved, like we talked about before. And because if you’re able to do that, I think they’ll be able to get back to playing the football that we saw them play last year were engaged in big games like the Penn State game and the game against Auburn, they were able to control the clock, play complimentary football to their defense, not put their defense in bad situations, and ultimately give them much better chances to win, unlike games like Wisconsin last year, and Michigan where they just weren’t able to get those things going.

So, I would say just run the ball a lot. And if they’re able to do it successfully, then it should be smooth sailing for the Gophers for Maryland. It’s got to be, just limit the turnovers and don’t get down early if you can stay in the game. Because really, I mean, I read off those drives, and obviously you can look at you can just play the results. But they, if they didn’t turn the ball over and or if they were able to kind of have a few things kind of turn their way within the first part of the game. They weren’t actually down too much to Northwestern early, it just kind of got out of hand for them midway through the second quarter. So, I would say if they’re able to stay in the game, and then actually execute and make plays. That’s one other thing that a lot of the Gophers coaches mentioned is that Maryland missed some plays, and they just weren’t able to execute. And so they are going under the assumption that Maryland will be able to execute those plays. And if Maryland does, they could actually keep it closer, potentially. But again, we’re not as high on them as other people might be.

O’HARA: Right. Well, it’ll be I mean, we saw the Gophers, it snow balled away from them around the second quarter just like it did for Maryland. Different game this week, but we’ll see what happens. Do you have a final score prediction for this this Friday?

O’BRIEN: I do and I’m 0-1 unfortunately. So, hopefully we’ll try to make it a little bit better this week. Get some redemption. I think the Gophers will win pretty handily. I think it’ll be 43-20, I think Maryland will be able to get some points on the Gophers defense.

O’HARA:I kind of had the same, pretty close prediction 45-27. I also think Maryland will be able to score, not super high on the Gophers defense either right now, after seeing that first game against Michigan. I think they’ll struggle a little bit, but I don’t think they’ll have any trouble scoring against Maryland’s defense. But overall, we’ll see what happens on Friday. The Gophers play in Maryland games at 6:30 p.m. Central, and it’s televised on ESPN, so be sure to tune in and watch the Gophers play. And also be sure to check our website mndaily.com after the game for coverage. Brendan will be writing about it. And coverage on all things Gopher sports. We have it all. But Brendan, thank you for coming in. And thank you for joining us appreciate it.

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

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O’HARA: In other news: Gophers cornerback Benny Sapp III entered the transfer portal. The former three-star recruit announced his decision on Twitter Thursday. He’s already received offers from Northern Iowa and UNC-Charlotte. His dad played at Northern Iowa and was a former member of the Minnesota Vikings. That’s it, that’s all we have for other news. Thanks for tuning in. Again, be sure to check our website mndaily.com and tune in again next week for the “Weekly Rundown” on all things Gopher sports. Thanks.