Rutgers is in the Big Ten win column. Is there a chance of pulling a major upset in Week 9?
The Scarlet Knights will travel to Minneapolis to take on the Golden Gophers, who are currently a two-touchdown favorite. Rutgers displayed a different offense against Indiana with Nunzio Campanile taking over. Will this be a factor once again?
We sat down with The Daily Gopher Manager Blake Ruane for a Q&A on the upcoming matchup.
OTB: The run game has to be a point of emphasis for both teams. Rutgers has been strong against the run defensively. How important is it for Minnesota to establish Mo Ibrahim early on?
TDG: I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that Minnesota get the ground game going early, because it’s all they have at this point. Week in and week out, the one offensive player the Gophers have been able to count on has been Mohamed Ibrahim. He is the engine of the offense. If he isn’t running, this offense goes nowhere. It’s especially critical that Ibrahim has success on early downs. Minnesota gets in trouble when they get behind the sticks on first and second down, forcing them to try and convert on third and long. That has not been a recipe for success up to this point.
OTB: Minnesota has scored under 20 points in each of its last three games. What is going on with the offense and how can it turn it on a bit against Rutgers?
TDG: To be honest, I’m not sure they can turn it around against Rutgers. The strengths of the Scarlet Knights’ defense match up well with the weaknesses of the Gophers’ offense.
Since losing top wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell to a season-ending injury, the lack of talent at the wide receiver position has been exposed. Minnesota doesn’t have anyone who can stretch the defense and force them to respect the vertical passing game. That has led to teams being aggressive in the secondary, playing a lot of press man coverage, and the Gophers’ wide receivers haven’t been able to beat it and create separation. It has also allowed defenses to stack the box and create havoc at the line of scrimmage, where the Minnesota offensive line has struggled to find consistency in both run blocking and pass protection.
From what I understand, Rutgers has a veteran secondary and a deep defensive front that is playing well, especially against the run. That does not bode well for Minnesota.
OTB: PJ Fleck has spent time under Greg Schiano, both at Rutgers and in Tampa Bay. Joe Harasmyiak was with Minnesota. There are many ties for both sides in this matchup. Will this play a role in the game? Has there been any talk coming out of Minnesota about Schiano?
TDG: Fleck has never had anything but praise for Schiano. He is not shy about discussing the influence that working under Schiano has had on him as a head coach, and he has frequently cited Schiano as a mentor. Harasymiak certainly has familiarity with Minnesota’s personnel on offense, but that only goes so far. I don’t expect the ties between the two programs to have much impact on the game.
OTB: Rutgers has struggled offensively but has a new coordinator with Nunzio Campanile for the remainder of the season. What are the strengths and weaknesses on that side of the ball?
TDG: The strength of the Gophers’ defense is the secondary. Fifth-year senior Terell Smith is their best cover corner, and senior safety Tyler Nubin has a future in the NFL. Sophomore cornerback Justin Walley is the lone underclassmen among the starters in the secondary, but he has a very high ceiling and a short memory to help him move on from the occasional mistake in coverage. Unfortunately, the lack of a pass rush has limited the defensive backs’ effectiveness at times. Quarterbacks have been able to get far too comfortable in the pocket, giving them time to wait for an opening to present itself.
Against the run, the boat has sprung a few leaks in recent weeks. Against Illinois and Penn State, the defensive line looked overmatched, failing to get much penetration at the line of scrimmage. To make matters worse, the Gophers’ linebackers have struggled in their run fits, allowing opposing running backs to get to the second level and spring for chunks of yards.
It’s been discouraging how poorly the defense has played in recent weeks, and I’m not certain what to expect from them on Saturday.
OTB: What is a key matchup, on either side of the ball for either team, that can swing this game in either direction?
TDG: Can the Gophers make Noah Vedral uncomfortable and force him to make a mistake? Minnesota’s pass rush has been almost non-existent in conference play this season. I’m anticipating a low-scoring affair, which means mistakes are going to loom large and could heavily tilt the game in favor of one team or the other. If the Gophers’ defensive front allows Vedral to keep the Scarlet Knights’ offense on schedule, they’re going to regret it.
OTB: Finally, what is your score prediction? Who wins and why?
You may be surprised to hear this, but I like Rutgers’ chances in this game. I think what’s been most discouraging for me is that Minnesota has not improved week to week. They looked bad against Purdue, then worse against Illinois, before finally hitting (what I hope will be) rock bottom against Penn State. And the problems on offense are not ones that I think can be easily solved during the season. Better wide receivers aren’t walking through that door. I expect it’ll be a defensive struggle on Saturday, with the Scarlet Knights squeaking past the Gophers, 17-13.