The Golden Gophers improved to 3-0 on the season with a victory at home over the Colorado State Rams, and while it may have not have been always easy at times, here are five things I'm going to takeaway from today's ballgame.
I have to get this out of the way early with the Devers sack. You know you all wanted to see it when you clicked this article, so there you go.
1) Defense was very Jekyll and Hyde
I'll go back and watch the film on the game tomorrow, but my initial impression for today's game was that Minnesota's defense needs to continue to work on their consistency from play to play. You'd see a tackle for loss one play, and then a missed tackle, or blown assignment on the next play that allowed Colorado State to extend the drive and subsequently put points on the board.
If I told you before the game that Minnesota had 14 (!!) tackles for loss today, three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception, you'd probably assume that the Gophers defense played a great game. I think they did in spurts, but it's just they need to gain that consistency. Some of it comes from playing four true freshmen on defense as Kamal Martin and Carter Coughlin started at outside linebacker for Minnesota, and Jay Sawvel repped in defensive end Taiyon Devers and safety Antoine Winfield quite a bit as well. Those four will be very talented players by the time their time ends at Minnesota, but they're also going to make some mistakes.
Looking at the statistics, Minnesota's run defense wasn't that bad, they just had some big plays hurt them. The Rams rushed the ball 48 times for 158 yards (3.3 yards per carry) with two rushing scores. Those stats are skewed to some extent as if you take out the Rams four longest runs which totaled 71 yards, the stats put Colorado State with 44 carries for 87 yards (1.97 ypc) and a score. The key point here being that Minnesota needs to clean up some things with those big plays, but the foundation for a much improve rushing defense is there.
Again, I'll have to go back and watch the film tomorrow, but I almost felt like outstanding penetration from the defensive line today was causing the linebackers problems. What I'm trying to say is that the defensive line would cause the running back to cut back so early in the backfield and he'd cross to the opposite side of the formation, and while the Gophers linebackers may have had their initial read correct to the play side, the running back cutting back so early would make the linebacker get caught in the wash and then taken out of the play.
Too many missed tackles today overall as well and Minnesota has to figure out their red zone woes as teams are nine-for-nine in converting red zone opportunities to touchdowns. There's a lot to clean up before Penn State, but I felt encouraged knowing that if this defense can find some consistency, they'll improve quickly.
2) Steven Richardson is outstanding
That may have been the most impressive game I've seen in person from a defensive tackle as Steven Richardson played like a man possed this afternoon. Richardson finished the game with seven total tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack. The junior was constantly in the backfield causing havoc on the Rams interior line, running back and quarterback. The play that will stand out to me from this game was Richardson working against the center, absolutely blew him off the ball five yards into the backfield where the center hit the running back at the mesh point with the quarterback.
That's incredible strength and drive from Richardson.
I've compared Steven Richardson to former Pitt defensive tackle and now Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and while I don't know if Richardson can achieve that level greatness, he's already that for Minnesota and that's all that matters.
Richardson's stat line through three game stands at 13 total tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks.
If Steven Richardson doesn't win Big Ten player of the week after that performance, I'm not sure what else he can do.
3) Running game is humming
I was expecting to see improvement in the run game coming into Minnesota's 2016 season, but I wasn't thinking I was going to see things come together as quickly as they have. The Gophers on the season now after today's 243 yard performance with four rushing scores stand at 685 yards with 11 rushing scores through three games.
I shouldn't have to explain to you how much of an improvement that is from Minnesota's previous season.
Yes, Minnesota has three very talented running backs in Shannon Brooks, Rodney Smith, and Kobe McCrary, but Bart Miller, Jay Johnson and this offensive line need to get their due as well.
Shannon Brooks looked a little rusty to me early in the game as he was hesitant pushing the line of scrimmage early and missed a hole or two, but you could see him gain confidence in the second half and I thought that he looked much improved. He went into halftime with only four carries for 17 yards, but came out in the second half with nine more carries for 68 yards (7.55 ypc) and a score. He was close to breaking one or two as well.
Don't get me wrong when I say that I think Smith and McCrary are good players, but I still believe that Shannon gives you that home run threat on every play and it should be a two headed monster heading into Penn State with Brooks and Smith ready in Happy Valley.
4) Offensive play calling is coming together
Coming into the 2016 season, I thought that you'd see some new wrinkles in the offense, but the play calling so far from Gophers offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has been creative and efficient through three games.
He's given a healthy Mitch Leidner the ability to audible scheme protection and just put Leidner in a position to be successful, and I don't know that I can always say that. There was a lot of talk at Big Ten Media Days from Tracy Claeys about Jay Johnson tailoring this offense to Leidner's strengths, and that's been the case through three games.
I love the route combinations thus far, especially on third down as if Leidner has enough time to go through his progression, he's able to find an open man somewhere.
The play calling also hasn't been tremendously predictable, and that's also a credit to Minnesota being able to do work in the run game, so that Johnson has an expanded play card heading into these third downs.
It'll be a big step up in play for Jay Johnson and his offense heading into Big Ten play next week against Penn State, but the pieces are there for this Minnesota offense to continue to build on their recent success.
5) Penalties, penalties and more penalties
This is one that has to be a thorny prick in the side of Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys as the Gophers had nine penalties again today for 68 yards, which brings their total through three games up to 27 penalties for 220 yards. That's FAR too many penalties, including another five pre-snap penalties today.
I don't know if it's lapses in focus, or whatever it may be, but it's got to cleaned up heading into Penn State as the margin for error gets much smaller with better opponents on the schedule.
Overall, Minnesota exits the non-conference with a perfect record and that's the biggest thing you can ask for. Penn State on the road next week is going to be a big test as Minnesota hasn't won in Happy Valley in 2003, so while the Nittany Lions may not look great on paper, it's going to be a great test for the Gophers on both sides of the ball to see where they stack up in the Big Ten West.
- Tracy Claeys improved to 5-4 since taking over the head coaching duties eight games into the 2015 season. The victory was the fourth-straight for Claeys and the Gophers, dating back to Minnesota’s Quick Lane Bowl win against Central Michigan.
- Minnesota has combined for 119 points (39.7 ppg) over the first three games. It’s the most points for the Gophers over the first three games since combining for 124 points in wins over UNLV, New Mexico State and Western Illinois during 2013.
- Minnesota improved to 5-0 at home since 2012 when wearing today’s uniform combo – Maroon helmet, Gold jersey and Maroon pants.
- Minnesota ended the game with 417 total yards, averaging 6.4 yards per play.
- The Gophers had three sacks against the Rams, and have now totaled nine sacks through the first three games. Last season, Minnesota finished with 22 sacks in 13 games.