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CU Buffs opponent preview: Minnesota looking to rebound

After 11-win season in 2019, Golden Gophers went 3-4 in 2020

Minnesota Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) scrambles for a first down in the fourth quarter of an NCAA football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Friday, November 13,  2020. Iowa beat Minnesota, 35-7. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
Minnesota Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) scrambles for a first down in the fourth quarter of an NCAA football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Friday, November 13, 2020. Iowa beat Minnesota, 35-7. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Outsiders expected the Minnesota football team to be decent in 2019, and the Golden Gophers wound up tying for the Big Ten West division title.

Last year, expectations were a bit higher and the Gophers stumbled.

In preparation for this season, Minnesota isn’t worried about the outside expectations. The Gophers, projected by several publications to be middle of the pack in the Big Ten West, are just aiming to be the best they can be.

“We always know that our expectations are going to be way higher than anybody’s expectations for ourselves and that’s what we focus on,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said this week on the Big Ten Network during conference media days. “Outside expectations could be really high, they could be really low and for us it really doesn’t matter. We’re focused on the vision we have for ourselves for our team and we know that our expectations are incredibly high for ourselves.”

Leading up to preseason camp, BuffZone.com will preview each of Colorado’s 2021 opponents and in this third installment, we look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Just two years ago, Minnesota went 11-2, marking its first 11-win season since 1904.

Minnesota Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck gives quarterback Seth Green (17) (17) a high five after Green’s touchdown against Purdue in the second quarter of an NCAA football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Friday, November 20, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Last year, there were high hopes, but the Golden Gophers, like a lot of teams, struggled in a COVID-19 pandemic-shortened season. Dealing with a disjointed offseason and opt-outs, including star receiver Rashod Bateman sitting out the final three games, they slipped to 3-4. Two of the losses came in overtime, with missed kicks playing critical roles.

With a veteran quarterback in Morgan and one of the best running backs in the country (junior Mohamed Ibrahim), Minnesota is an intriguing team this year and it believes it can get back on the winning track.

“As we get into year five, especially with this team, I really like this football team,” head coach P.J. Fleck, who is 26-19 in four seasons with the Gophers, said at Big Ten media day. “We have to focus on us. Our expectations have to be bigger than anybody else’s, and we have to put more pressure on ourselves than anyone else will put on us, and if we do that, we’ve got a chance to be a pretty good football team.”

Going into the season, the Gophers are led by Morgan and Ibrahim, who was second in the country in rushing yards per game (153.7) last season, just ahead of CU’s Jarek Broussard (149.2).

“He’s kind of like a bowling ball going downhill with razor blades on it,” Fleck said. “He’s not the biggest guy, not the strongest guy, not the fastest guy, but he is one of the toughest guys, I think, in the country, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Ibrahim was named the Big Ten running back of the year in 2020 but isn’t concerned about what he did last season.

“I can’t dwell on it and just sit there and just soak it all in,” he said on the Big Ten Network. “I just let it go, put my head down and just keep on working. I think the most important thing is the work. Without the work, I wouldn’t be here. Without the work, you wouldn’t even know who I am. I always have to lean back on the work.”

That’s the attitude carried by Morgan, as well. He had a sensational 2019 season but struggled a bit last year in first-year coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.’s offense. The Gophers hope a full, normal offseason will help.

“(It’s about) taking the things where I failed personally, being able to learn from them and be able to change my best,” Morgan said. “How can I get better? How can I improve in these areas? That starts with mastery of every minute detail of our offense and spending an incredible amount of time with our offensive coordinator (and with) fundamentals.”

Defensively, the Gophers ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in many main categories and Fleck wants them to focus on creating more turnovers and pressure on the quarterback while improving the tackling and limiting explosive plays.

“When we lost games last year, we lost because of explosive plays,” he said.

With several starters back on both sides of the ball, the Gophers are hoping they can repeat 2019 and rise above outside expectations to put together a strong season.

“We’re not looking back,” Morgan said. “We’re looking forward and taking it one day at a time and doing everything we can to be the best team we can be.”

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Date with CU: Sept. 18, 11 a.m., at Folsom Field

Head coach: P.J. Fleck, 5th year (26-19; 56-41 career)

Series: Colorado leads 3-0

Golden Gophers in 2020: 3-4, 3-4 Big Ten

Offensive players to watch (2020 statistics):

  • OL Blaise Andries, Sr., 6-foot-6, 335 pounds (All-Big Ten third team)
  • WR Chris Autman-Bell, Sr., 6-1, 215 (22 rec., 430 yards, 1 TD)
  • RB Mohamed Ibrahim, Sr., 5-10, 210 (201 att., 1,076 yards, 15 TD; 8 rec., 56 yards)
  • QB Tanner Morgan, Sr., 6-2, 215 (106-of-183, 1,374 yards, 7 TD, 5 INT)
  • OL Conner Olson, Sr., 6-5, 310 (All-Big Ten third team)
  • C John Michael Schmitz, Sr., 6-4, 320 (All-Big Ten honorable mention)

Defensive players to watch:

  • CB Coney Durr, Sr., 5-10, 200 (29 tackles, 1 INT, 5 pass breakups)
  • S Jordan Howden, Sr., 6-0, 210 (37 tackles, 1 PBU)
  • DL Boye Mafe, Sr., 6-4, 265 (27 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 PBU)
  • S Tyler Nubin, Jr., 6-2, 210 (41 tackles, 1 INT)
  • DT Nyles Pinckney, Sr., 6-1, 290 (Transfer from Clemson)
  • LB Mariano Sori-Marin, Sr., 6-3, 245 (54 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3 PBU)

Notable: This is the first meeting between these teams since a 21-20 CU win at Minnesota on Sept. 19, 1992. … The Gophers have been to seven bowl games in the last nine years. … In 2019, the Gophers went 11-2, just their second 10-win season since 1905 (also in 2003). … Ibrahim led the country in rushing attempts per game last year, with 28.7, last year; CU’s Jarek Broussard was second, at 26.0. … In 2019, Morgan threw for 3,253 yards with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Morgan is 18-8 as a starter and has thrown for 6,028 yards, 46 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in his career. … The Gophers added several players from the transfer portal, including defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, who played 55 games (15 starts) at Clemson, with 98 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Last year, he had 27 tackles and three TFLs. … Minnesota also added former Texas A&M receiver Dylan Wright and two kickers from the portal.