Episode 27: Defensive struggles hurt Minnesota in its first two games

In this week’s episode of “The Weekly Rundown” our staff discusses the Gophers early season defensive woes, special team’s struggles and how the team can get back on track Saturday against Illinois.

Nolan O'Hara and Brendan O'Brien

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 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 two weeks into the Gophers football season now, and so once again, I’m joined with Brendan O’Brien our football beat reporter. How’s it going, Brendan?

BRENDAN O’BRIEN: I’m doing well Nolan, loving this different weather that we are used to having in November. So, it’s been great for me, but I know that it won’t last too much longer.

O’HARA: No, but I think it is supposed to be like 70 [degrees] on Friday, so I’m looking forward to that. And I mean, it’s nice that just all the snow melted. Pretty, pretty happy about the way the weather is going. But yeah, looking at the Gophers football team, we’re two weeks in and it’s not exactly what, at least I expected. The Gophers lost two games all of last year. They’ve already matched that total in the first two weeks of this condensed Big Ten season. They lost to Michigan Week 1 49- 24.I certainly wasn’t shocked about that one, Michigan is a good team. I could have seen that game go either way. I thought it would have been a little bit tighter, but I’m not surprised. And then looking at Friday’s game, that one, that one definitely surprised me.

They started off in a big hole. I was you know, at a high school football game. They announced it over the loudspeaker 21-0 Maryland. I was like, ‘What is going on?’ And the Gophers came back unshockingly, but eventually fell 45-44 in overtime in a very tight game.

Were you as surprised as I was by this one?

O’BRIEN: Ah, I wasn’t surprised that Maryland found ways to score against the Gophers defense, given what we saw in Week 1 against Michigan. But I was surprised that for the first three drives, like you had mentioned, you heard over the loudspeaker that it was 21-nothing. I was surprised those first three drives. Maryland was able to pretty much score almost at will on the Gophers. It looked like some players on defense weren’t necessarily in the right spots, either bone coverages or on runs, just not hitting the right angle or taking the right angles. I know we’ll get to that in a little bit later, more in depth. But overall, yes, I’m surprised that they’re sitting at 0-2 just given you know, Maryland’s previous game and how they played last season, but obviously, they were spot on with the talent that Maryland has on offense. Tagovailoa looked really good. And they had some good playmakers at wide receiver as well.

O’HARA: Yeah, Talia Tagovailoa making a lot of plays, looking a little bit sharper than he did in that first game against Northwestern. But going into this game, we’re kind of looking at it as a bounce back week for the Gophers, you know, Maryland got blown out, after the Gophers loss to Michigan I kind of expected them to take it to Maryland similarly to how Northwestern did. I thought we like you said we kind of both said Maryland is gonna be able to score this Gophers defense is not the same as it was losing seven starters last year, including a lot of the NFL talent that did leave. We questioned it but we didn’t, I don’t know if we saw quite this coming on. What did you see is like the biggest challenge for this defense overall in this game on Friday? And is P.J. or any of the other coaches said anything to kind of address what’s happening defensively?

O’BRIEN: The biggest problem that I think is evident to anyone that’s watching the games are just the big plays that the defense has given up. There’s been a lot of bigger chunk plays, whether it was that long run that Tagovailoa had for a touchdown or it’s just, you know, first and 10 and they throw it in the pickup 15 yards and then they’ll be first and 10 again and they’ll run it for another seven or eight yards and put their own offense and good positions.

What P.J.’s basically said as one like you quickly mentioned there they did lose a lot of experience and kind of doing some prep before this I did kind of remember just besides the guys they’ve lost to the NFL they have you know Martin’s gone and Thomas Barber’s gone to big keys at linebacker you’ve got Carter Coughlin add an edge rusher but you also have experienced guys like Winston DeLattiboudere, Sam Renner. And then obviously Antoine Winfield Jr., who’s looking like a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in the NFL. Knowing that you’ve got that kind of talent that’s now all of a sudden gone and you’ve got other players coming in. It does make sense why their weakness would be just their inexperience compared to the defensive players they had last year. And so what P.J.’s really said is it’s simply that they are a developmental program. And they just need to make sure that these guys keep getting reps. And that obviously in the COVID-19 season and a shortened condensed season when you start out with Big Ten opponents right away that it’s going to look a little bit different than it would in a traditional season.

O’HARA: Yeah, looking at like some of the inexperience you mentioned, they lost kind of players on all levels. They lost, obviously, star safety, they lost some corners, they lost some linebackers. They lost some defensive line. I think I didn’t see all of the Maryland game. So kind of film in here. In the first game against Michigan, there wasn’t really a ton of pass rush. Boye Mafe got to Joe Milton, I think once maybe twice. But other than that, it seemed like they were pretty comfortable back there. What was it like against Maryland?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, for the most part. In my opinion, there wasn’t as much of a pass rush either. There were some times where I think one of the broadcaster’s actually mentioned this, I might be wrong. But one of them mentioned that on one of Talia Tagovailoa, has long runs, the edge rushers actually over pursued, and then got behind the quarterback and then caused a big running line. So it’s one of those things, the defensive line, just from my understanding, obviously, coaches and players obviously know a lot more football than I do, but it’s one of those balances between Do you pursue a quarterback? You know, aggressively? Or do you let them kind of sit back and let them sit in the pocket and not address those running lines? And then it just puts your second level guys in spots where it’s tough for them to make plays as well?

O’HARA: Yeah, it’s, it’ll be interesting to see what they can kind of work out with this, with this defense. There isn’t too many positives you can take from looking at giving up you know, 49 in Michigan and 45, the next week to Maryland. But offensively, the Gophers definitely seem to be clicking. Tanner Morgan is looking pretty good through his first two games. He only threw the ball 15 times against Maryland, but he didn’t turn it over had a touchdown pass.

You know, kind of surprisingly, Chris Autman-Bell was a leading receiver for the Gophers over 100 yards and a touchdown. Bateman wasn’t as involved, but he had over 100 yards in the first game. So it looks like both, you know, through the air and on the ground. You’re looking at Mohammed Ibrahim, who had 41, carries for 207 yards and four touchdowns, carrying the team on his back arm. You wrote about his performance, you know, after the game. What can you say about the way he’s just kind of stepped up these first two weeks from Minnesota?

O’BRIEN: So Ibrahim is a guy that we talked about quite a bit in the preseason. And we said that he’d probably be the guy that’s at the top of the running back depth chart, but we’d expect other guys to get some work, given what we’ve seen in the past, just and what, you know, P.J.’s offense has looked like, and it’s been surprising, and it was addressed this week. Why? You know, he gave it to him the ball a lot. And a lot of it comes down to what information he’s getting, and how much of a how much he likes Ibrahim as a player. And he mentioned that he you know, in the next couple of weeks, we could see more of Trayson Potts and Cam Wiley because those are two extremely talented running backs, as well as what he said. But what flex said after the well, this week, not necessarily directly after the game, he did say that he just felt like Ibrahim was in a groove and wanted to just keep giving him the ball.

He saw what he was doing offensively on the ground and helping not only just create yardage and create scores, but also turn the clock, keep the defense off the field and help the Gophers get back into this game in a less conventional way than just throwing down the field and trying to pick up some quick scores. So it in my opinion, it looked like by the end of the game, and this isn’t, you know, a knock on Ibrahim, he just looked gassed. He looked really tired after the 41 touches. So it wouldn’t be a surprising move to see him get a little bit less touches in the next few games and see Wiley and Potts. But, again, just to kind of put a cap and I’ll cap this all off is that Fleck has said a lot of his decisions this year come down to trust and how much does he trust, some younger backs and a shortened season and he’s also just said it’s a shortened season so we’re just gonna try to work everyone as soon as we can.

O’HARA: Yeah, if I think 41 carries that would definitely wear somebody out. There’s a wild to see that that many carries especially. Tou talked a little bit about getting some of these other running backs involved, is that going to be one of the goals? And then I also want to address your saying, you know, trying to keep the defense off the field, which is pretty good for this this team, you don’t really want to see the defense on the field too much. Do you think both like running the ball effectively trying to, you know, keep taking away at that clock? Do you think that’ll be kind of one of the keys for the team the rest of the year here?

O’BRIEN: I think it’ll be a key. But I think and this is something that we’ll probably get to a little bit later in this next upcoming matchup. But I think what they’re going to have to do is establish the run game, but also find ways to get production from the receivers. Because one, obviously, we know Bateman is projected to be a first-round draft picks. So he’s obviously very talented. And then Chris Autman-Bell showed us against Maryland. And he showed sparks last year as well. But just obviously being the third receiver behind Johnson and Bateman, just didn’t have as much production as the other two last year. But when you run the ball so much as they did, then you got to expect the other team to make adjustments and they ran the ball heavily in the second and third quarters, and then by the fourth quarter, Maryland adjusted and they were able to shut down the Gophers often. So I think moving forward, it’s going to be a key for them to establish the run just as a way to keep their defense off the field, give them opportunities to just get make their own adjustments, maybe catch a breather, if they’re tired, and that’s part of it. They haven’t said that, oh, the defense has been really tired, that’s why they’re giving up points. But then they’re gonna have to find other ways to do it rather than just running Ibrahim 41 times on similar plays as well if teams like Maryland are gonna adjust to that pretty quickly.

O’HARA: Right, and just running 41 times a game that’s not going to be sustainable for this or any team no matter how good your running back is and clearly Fleck trusts Ibrahim but it’s that’s just not going to be the model to for this team this year. But just kind of moving to the offense overall between the way Tanner Morgan and the passing offense looked and then Ibrahim in the backfield, what have you thought, or what is P.J. or Sanford said about the way things are kind of going offensively these first two weeks?

O’BRIEN: I think overall, they’re happy, maybe not satisfied with the way things have gone. Obviously, the Michigan game, in Week 1, they probably they’ve mentioned that they wanted to execute a little bit better and, and if they had made a few plays in that first half, they think that they would have had a better chance, and they would have been in that game for quite a while. And wouldn’t have put their defense or special teams in as tight of positions. But I mean, they put up, you know, 44 points, 43 points in the last game to Maryland. So when you’re doing that, you’re obviously doing something right on offense. They haven’t had, you know, obviously a defensive score this year. So they’re playing well on offense.

But I think the biggest thing, the biggest takeaway from the Maryland game, and we kind of hit on you need to close that game out with your offense, they had their offense on the field. And they were, instead of being able to drive it down, either kick a field goal or score a touchdown, to give them a little bit more of a lead, they had to go, I believe three out maybe they converted one quick first down, but they weren’t able to finish the job with their offense. So I think moving forward, if they’re in some more of these close games, they’ll need their offense to kind of close it out and make sure that they’re able to kind of be the reason that this team is winning, and they’re gonna be if they win other games this season. They’re going to be the reason this team wins games.

O’HARA: Absolutely. And that’s kind of you know, a nice segue into you know, getting stopped third and three and out is kind of a nice segue into the special teams’ unit. Because after the game against Michigan, we noticed you know, during the game that Mark Crawford and Michael Lantz were out. P.J. announced after that they both wrote because of COVID. Lantz returned this week for kickoffs but not field goals and Crawford was still out if I’m remembering correctly. We don’t really know a timetable on him and we saw obviously Walker missed the extra point in overtime that would have kept the game alive. Pretty big play in that game. What did you think? Was it better or worse, comparable, the special team’s was playing on Friday? And as P.J. given any updates on when Crawford might be back?

O’BRIEN: I think to answer your first question just about special teams in general, I think it’s fairly comparable except it didn’t really put the team in a noticeable hole other than the last play of the game. And to P.J.’s credit, or, you know, just what he said after the game is that the reason they didn’t they lost that game was not because of the missed extra point, it was just because they shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. Their defense should have played better. offensively. Obviously, they should have closed it out. But punting, the situation didn’t look great. They weren’t necessarily hitting booming punts pinning Maryland, deep in their own territory. But it wasn’t something that was that noticeably hurt. The Gophers having Lantz on the kickoffs actually did kind of help because they were able to get some depth rather than the squibs that we saw in week one. As far as updates, we haven’t had any really on Lantz or Crawford. Maybe now with Lantz having that week to under his belt, maybe he’ll kick extra points now against Illinois, it would make sense some sense of Fleck and special teams staff just didn’t want to put them out on extra points, given maybe his lack of practice with COVID.

But he hasn’t given us any kind of timetable as far as Crawford being back.

O’HARA: But overall from the special teams unit where I’m hearing not great, not terrible, doesn’t sound like the you know, obviously no more squib kicks, like you said, and no more 18 year punts, I’m assuming?

O’BRIEN: I don’t have the exact stats in front of me, I do remember, there were a few where they could have went up, you would have liked them to go a little bit farther if you are a Gophers fan. But overall, it wasn’t as noticeable of a difference. And I mean, they didn’t have to fake a punt. And obviously, you know, I think why I’m also kind of having a hard time remembering is because after the first quarter, the Gophers really didn’t have to punt too much. Obviously, their offense got going behind Ibrahim. So if they can just obviously do that, that would be a good way to alleviate the punting situation as well.

O’HARA: Absolutely just need to pick up first downs and you don’t have to don’t have to punt away and honestly just feels like a lifetime ago that that game was even so I definitely understand not remembering super clearly. But overall right now, you know, this team, it’s got some issues on special teams, certainly on defense, and then well, offensively right now it seems they have it figured out. But kind of looking to Saturday against Illinois here, what needs to be fixed and what have some of the coaches that are P.J. or Sanford or Rossi said about this matchup?

O’BRIEN: I think the one thing and it’s obviously really simple for us to sit here and say, rather than go out and obviously have them executed, but and it’s it is pretty obvious, but it’s keeping the other teams out of the end zone. Instead of letting them just run all over you and find, you know, an easy way to six, seven points on each possession. If they were able to tighten up in that zone, I think in the red zone or the goal line. There, again, they’re playing complimentary football, they know their offense can score points. So, if they can limit teams to field goals, it’s going to be a lot easier. And the reason I say keep teams out of the end zone is because right now what we’ve seen, it’s going to be hard for them to get stops and have them have the other team forced to punt.

So, I think it’s obviously a team’s main priority to get punts when you’re on defense. But I think, you know, given where they’re at right now, on how they’re playing on defense, giving up big chunk plays, I think a specific goal would be against Illinois, if they get to their own 20 their own time or keeping them out of the end zone. And we’re gonna force them to kick a field goal. Because then the other thing is, in the NFL, we’ll see kickers that will usually, you know, for the most part, they’ll make field goals if the weather’s bad, maybe we’ll see a mess and we’ll see some messes every now and then. But we saw against Michigan they had three field goal attempts and Michigan missed all of them. I think the kicking game is a lot different in college football, special teams, we kind of hit on that just need to make sure they’re managing the field position as best as they possibly can.

So, if they’re punting it, just not putting their defense in poor situations. And then this Saturday against Illinois, I think one of the things that might need to be fixed, would be throwing a little bit more to receivers. Illinois secondary so far this year has not been good against Wisconsin primarily. They’re primarily known for their rushing attack. They threw for 248 yards, not a ton, but they threw for more yards than they rushed for. And then against Purdue, they gave up 371 passing yards. So, they’ve given up a lot of yards in that secondary within the first two games. So, I think last week, we said Minnesota will need to run the ball a lot against Maryland because Maryland’s run defense has been suspect. Well, this week, Illinois pass defense has been suspect. So, it’s not that they’re going to turn away from the run game, but you know, lean on the run game and then get in situations where you’re putting the opponent’s defense on their toes and able to throw some passes to Autman-Bell and Bateman as well.

O’HARA: It’s an opportunity this week for Tanner Morgan and company to kind of get things going we saw you know, Ibrahim shine last week, it’ll be time for the passing attack to go to work here. And just kind of looking at the Illinois side, I mean, they’re in the same boat as Minnesota, they’re 0-2. They got blown out Week 1 by Wisconsin, lost by only a touchdown last week to Purdue. What do we know about this Illini team, kind of overall.

O’BRIEN: The first thing that really stood out to me when kind of doing a little bit of research about them was they’ve had they’ve been bit by the injury and COVID bug. They’ve had some players that have been out. Due to this, I believe they’re playing a four stringer at quarterback, at least that’s what they did against Purdue Corine Taylor. He redshirted as a freshman, and then he played in one quarter as a sophomore. So obviously, when you look at that, we talked last week about Tagovailoa, being a younger quarterback, maybe they could take advantage of him and try to get him rattled. Obviously, that really didn’t happen. This week, when you’re playing against a guy who’s that low on the depth chart, either third or fourth string.

You would think again, that’d be an opportunity. Let’s try to get after him, get some pressure, and maybe see if we can get a couple of sacks, forced fumble turnovers like that. Illinois, speaking of turnovers has lost the turnover battle. Thus far, six to three, they gave up four turnovers against Purdue last week. So that’s something to keep an eye out for six turnovers in two games is a lot so far. We mentioned the bad secondary, and their offense for the most. I mean, obviously week one, they got blown out by Wisconsin, and their only score was actually a fumble recovery for a touchdown. So they didn’t even score off on solely. But against Purdue, they played pretty well. They did have to play catch up. So the stats might look a little bit better than they might have actually been at certain points. But that’s kind of what we know on the outset about this Illini team.

O’HARA: Yeah, and kind of looking at it from the outside, they just they don’t look like a great team. But neither did Maryland and P.J. Fleck said last week, you know that they’re not looking over this Maryland team, they think they’re going to be a lot better this week than what they showed against Northwestern. He turned out to be right about that, just turns out they weren’t quite prepared enough. What does he said about the Saturday’s game against Illinois?

O’BRIEN: They haven’t really said anything specific about this team other than the normal arm, you know, coach, player complements, they’re really well coached team they’ve got a lot of talent. They’re very, you know, focused a lot of you know, basic compliments to the other team. And that makes sense. That’s kind of this program’s MO, they usually will compliment you know, other teams and take other team seriously and they’ve got the whole culture about it’s they’re 0-0 in the Illinois season. They’re 0-1 in the Maryland season, 0-1 in the Michigan season. So, they’re going to take this opponent seriously, but they haven’t said any specifics as far as which players they’re going to key on or what they think they can take advantage of going into this week. But I would imagine again, given the statistics they their offense should find ways to take advantage of Illinois defense.

O’HARA: Yeah, it’s gonna be an interesting game, especially with, like you said, the fourth string quarterback here for Illinois, what they can kind of put up here. But that being said, you know, what is the key for each team to come up with the victory? What’s the key for Illinois behind this young quarterback, and what’s the key for this Gophers team that’s really looking to get back on track after a not expected start to the season?

O’BRIEN: For the Gophers, it’s making sure that you’re you get out to a good start offensively. And defensively, again, like I said, just keep, let’s keep Illinois out of the end zone has got to be on the defensive mindset. For Illinois, the biggest key this week, especially with a young quarterback, is making sure that you don’t turn the ball over. And that’s not just him. But that’s everyone, you know, making sure running backs aren’t turning the ball over, fumbling, receivers aren’t fumbling. And that he’s not throwing, you know, costly interceptions. Because that’s one thing that this Minnesota team that we’ve seen so far, they’ve only been able to create, they obviously had the block punt, that’s a little bit different, because it was going to be their ball. But then they got the tipped interception by the defensive tackle last week. So, they haven’t really been able to get those spark plays from their defense. So of Illinois, able to not turn the ball over like they have in these first few weeks. And, you know, make it easier for this defense, then that’ll be a big key for them.

O’HARA: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know, we’ve been pretty bad with these predictions so far. You know, we both picked the Gophers the last two weeks, neither of which panned out, do you have a score prediction for this week?

O’BRIEN: This is probably I’m just looking at the schedule, just to confirm because we talked a little bit about this beforehand to this is probably going to be the last week I’ll pick the Gophers if they’re to lose this game, just because right now, I also don’t know what to make of a lot of these other Big Ten opponents. Illinois, they’re never a team that you’re that threatened of. But, again, with this Gophers defense, they haven’t instilled any hope in fans. So, I would go, I’m gonna pick the Gophers, mainly because of the young quarterback play from Illinois. And not only the young quarterback play, but if he’s a junior, and if he’s that far down on the depth chart, you know, who knows why if the other guys are just that much more talented, or if he’s just the third or fourth string. So I would go with Minnesota 37, Illinois 29.

O’HARA: 37-29, Minnesota. Yeah, I was leaning against picking Minnesota after the last two weeks, but because Illinois is on their fourth string quarterback, and frankly, not the team; they haven’t been the historically the best Big Ten team, I’m going to say 40-35, Minnesota. So, I think it’s going to be close. I think Illinois is going to be able to score regardless of the young quarterback play. But I think the Gophers should be able to come up with this one. Although we said the same thing last week against Maryland. So, we’ll see what happens. And you know, be sure to check our website mndaily.com on Saturday for a coverage of the Gophers game. We’ll have coverage for you. Brendan will have instant breakdown here against Illinois, and he’ll be keeping us updated throughout the game on Twitter as well. Appreciate everyone tuning in. And Brendan, thank you for joining us.

O’BRIEN: Yeah, thank you, Nolan.

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O’HARA In other news: the Gophers’ men’s basketball team still doesn’t have its schedule, but it does have the game. Minnesota will take on Boston College and the Big Ten/ACC challenge on Dec. 8 at the Barn. The Gopherss women’s basketball team announced two departures in Barbora Tomancova and Daja Woodard. Whalen said Woodard had informed her that she will no longer be with the program, but no other details were provided in a media release. Woodard had previously transferred to the University in April. That’s all for this week. Be sure to check our website mndaily.com for more info about other sports and tune in again next week to get the “Weekly Rundown” on all things Gopher sports. Thanks.