Rutgers (2-4) vs. Minnesota (4-2)
Time: 11:00 A.M. CT, Saturday, October 22nd
TV: ESPNU - Anish Shroff (Play by Play) and Ahmad Brooks (Analyst)
Last week: Rutgers lost 24-7 on the road vs. Illinois, and Minnesota won 31-10 against Maryland on the road
All-time series: First meeting between the two schools
Vegas betting line: Minnesota (-17)
Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Rutgers Publisher Sam Hellman
Five things you need to know
1. Minnesota welcomes Big Ten opponent Rutgers to TCF Bank Stadium for Homecoming on Saturday. Minnesota and Rutgers, which played its first Big Ten football game in 2014, have never met on the gridiron. Saturday’s contest will be Minnesota’s 96th career Homecoming game. The Gophers are 56-36-3 all-time on Homecoming and have won their last two Homecoming games (27-24 against Ohio in 2015 and 39-38 against Purdue in 2014). Rutgers will become Minnesota’s 16th all-time Homecoming opponent. Minnesota’s three most common Homecoming opponents have been Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan. The Gophers are 8-8-2 against Northwestern on Homecoming and have records of 10- 3-0 and 6-7-0 versus Iowa and Michigan, respectively.
2. Rutgers plays at Minnesota on Saturday and fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland (Gophers won 31-10 at Maryland last Saturday) visits the Gophers in 2017. After Maryland and Rutgers play at TCF Bank Stadium, that means the only Big Ten team to not play a game at TCF Bank Stadium will be Indiana. The Hoosiers are not slated to visit TCF Bank Stadium - which opened in 2009 - until Oct. 27, 2018. The Hoosiers were however the last team that Minnesota beat at the Metrodome before moving to TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota beat Indiana 16-7 on Oct. 4, 2008, at the Metrodome.
3. The Minnesota defense has allowed only 34 points in the first half this season and 28 of those came in non-conference action (14 vs. Oregon State and 7 against Indiana State and Colorado State). The Gophers have not allowed a touchdown in the first half of a Big Ten game this year and have allowed only six points (3 to Penn State, 3 to Iowa, 0 to Maryland) in the first half of their three conference games. Minnesota has allowed one touchdown in each of its last two Big Ten games (vs Iowa and at Maryland). The last time Minnesota allowed one touchdown in consecutive Big Ten games was 2003, when it beat Illinois 35-10 and Indiana 55-7.
4. The Gophers have had a penchant for scoring in the final minutes of the first half or of the game this year. Minnesota has scored 183 points this season and 36 (3 TDs, 3 PATs and 5 FGs) of those (19.6% of total season points) have come in the finals 91 seconds of the first half or of the game. Minnesota scored points in eight of the 12 opportunities and registered points at the end of both halves against Oregon State, Penn State and Maryland and at the end of the first half against Indiana State and Colorado State.
5. The Gophers have scored 45 points off turnovers this season while allowing only seven. They are tied for second in the Big Ten with a plus six turnover margin. Against Maryland the Gophers scored 14 points off turnovers, which included an 82-yard interception return for by Antoine Winfield Jr. His touchdown marked the fifth longest interception return in school history and was the longest since Briean BoddyCalhoun went 89 yards for a touchdown on Aug. 29, 2013, at home against UNLV. Winfield’s pick six was the second longest ever on the road for the Gophers (Gary Hohman went 99 yards at Nebraska on Oct. 4, 1969).
Rutgers players to watch
1) Giovanni Rescigno, quarterback: Rescigno is a mobile quarterback. He's a powerful runner that has a lot of development to do in the passing game. He can throw but not nearly as well or consistently as some other options. It's a change that had to be made. Too much of the Rutgers offense is about read-option and quarterback runs to use a quarterback that can't run. Rescigno brings a spark, and that's how I expect the offense. to change. There's going to be more juice.
2) Julian Pinnix-Odrick, defensive line: Julian Pinnix-Odrick is a powerful defensive end that has enough experience as a 3-technique that he does very well against the run now that he's back on the edge. He isn't a dynamic pass rusher (Rutgers doesn't really have one) but he's consistent and moves well. He leads the Scarlet Knights in tackles for loss and sacks this season.
3) Blessuan Austin: Austin put up two straight strong performances after Ohio State picked on him a few weeks ago. Cornerback was Rutgers' biggest on-field weakness last season and it's now one of the team's strengths. Austin and fellow starter Isaiah Wharton looked like they belonged against top offenses, and true freshman Damon Hayes has been a solid guy in subpackages.
Keys to the game
1. Don't play down to the level of your competition: It's no secret that one of the keys to success for Minnesota on Saturday is to make sure they don't play down to the level of their opponent. Rutgers has been outscored by their opponents 174-14 so far through four Big Ten games, and yes there's a few outliers with Ohio State and Michigan, but that being said, Rutgers is the cream of the crop by any means. I don't expect Minnesota to come out flat at all as it's homecoming and they want to put on a show for the fans. The Gophers just played arguably their best overall game of the season against Maryland and need to repeat that at home this weekend, and not come in overly confident.
2. Get the running game going, and make Rutgers pass the ball: In four Big Ten games this season, Rutgers has given up 1,312 rushing yards. That number is astronomically high as they're allowing 328 yards on the ground per game so far. That sample size is skewed some again because both Michigan and Ohio State put up over 400 yards of rushing, but Iowa and Illinois combined to put up over 200 yards on the ground as well. Rutgers has also given up 15 rushing touchdowns in those four games, so what I'm trying to tell everyone is to expect both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks to touch the ball at least 20 times each, and if that happens, they both should go over 100 yards with a touchdown. Minnesota's offensive line even though they are banged up some, needs to get the Minnesota Moving Company going. Against opponents not named Ohio State and Michigan, Rutgers was able to move the ball on the ground as they rushed for 193 yards and 203 yards against Iowa and Illinois, so on paper the Gophers run defense will be tested once again. Especially with a more agile quarterback in for Rutgers, Minnesota has to maintain their run fit and stymie this Scarlet Knights rushing attack, so they have to move it through the air.
3. Clean up the penalties: I swear I'm not a broken record here, but for the seemingly fifth week in a row now, we have to talk about penalities. 50 penalties through six games, and while we all know that's unacceptable, it needs to start changing. Minnesota's averaging north of eight penalties a game for 68 yards, and that's 68 yards too many that they're just giving away. You can't give away free possessions in the Big Ten and expect to win. The team discipline needs to start to correct itself and it needs to start this week against Rutgers.
Minnesota enters a very critical three game stretch starting Saturday when they cannot afford to lose focus if they want to still be competing in the Big Ten West come November. They have three very winnable games on tap with home games versus Rutgers and Purdue, and an away game against the Fighting Lovie Smith's of Illinois. All three games that Minnesota will be favored in and the Gophers need to make sure that's the result.
With as well as Minnesota's defense has played over their previous two games with the addition of KiAnte Hardin back into the secondary, and Antoine Winfield playing at a high level in his first two starts at safety, I don't see this as a game that Rutgers breaks out of their slump offensively. I think 10-14 points is realistic with a garbage time touchdown for the Scarlet Knights when the game is out of hand. Opponents are averaging over nine tackles for loss and over three sacks a game vs. Rutgers, so Jay Sawvel's defense could have a big day.
On offense, whether it's Mitch Leidner or Conor Rhoda, I don't see Minnesota throwing the ball more than 20 times as there's really no need to do so. As I mentioned earlier, opposing offenses are rushing for 328 yards a game on the ground in Big Ten play thus far, so you'd have to assume Jay Johnson and the rest of the Minnesota coaching staff knows that and we're going to see a steady dose of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks this week with both likely to get 20 carries, 100 rushing yards and a touchdown or two.
Gopher fans coming back to Dinkytown should be able to see a fairly dominating Big Ten win as Minnesota continues to push forward against the Scarlet Knights.