Minnesota’s offense looks ready to be a contender in the Big Ten West. Whether the defense can improve in the coming weeks will go a long way in determining if the Gophers have a chance to do so.
Despite an efficient day Saturday from quarterback Mitch Leidner and excellent play by a rotating cast of characters at running back, the Gophers still needed to knock down a fourth-down pass on its own side of the field late in the fourth quarter to preserve a 31-24 victory against Colorado State.
Shannon Brooks returned against the Rams, and now the Gophers have one of the deepest collections of running back depth in the conference. Rodney Smith ran wild in the first half against Colorado State, and Brooks got better as the game progressed.
Smith had the most carries last season, but Brooks finished with more big plays and yards. Both had long runs against the Rams, and Smith looked like an all-conference performer. He slipped through openings between the tackles and churned through defenders for extra yardage.
Brooks bowled over a potential tackler en route to a 35-yard gain in the third quarter. It was pretty much a two-to-one ratio for playing time between the two, though Brooks saw some extra action in the final minutes. Smith and Brooks combined for 184 yards on 30 carries and three touchdowns, and Smith added a twisting, diving 15-yard catch during a key drive in the second half.
Minnesota has three quality options at tailback, though junior college transfer Kobe McCrary’s touches were pretty limited. He’s bigger than Smith and Brooks, and ran through some tackles when he had the chance.
It feels like Leidner has been at Minnesota for seven years, and he is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the country. He provided more big plays with his legs than his arm, but also kept the offense out of danger by avoiding sacks because of his strength, shifty feet and pocket awareness.
Leidner has a reliable target in Drew Wolitarsky, and will have a second one when tight end Brandon Lindgen returns from injury. The Gophers also have a very interesting option at tight end with 6-foot-10 Nate Wozniak, and figuring out ways to work him into the offense more could make this group even tougher to defend.
The defense isn’t at the same level after three games. Colorado State started a true freshman at quarterback, and eventually rotated in ex-Georgia backup Faton Bauta. The Rams struggled to throw the ball and protect the quarterback early in the game, but Colorado State coach Mike Bobo turned to all sorts of different ideas to keep his team in the game.
Bauta became a threat to run, despite never throwing the ball. The punter, Hayden Hunt, did throw on a fake punt for a huge play.
Colorado State’s top tailback Dalyn Dawkins did little, but two reserve running backs, a wide receiver and Bauta combined for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
There are several freshmen seeing significant action for the Gophers defense, and expecting consistency this early in the season is a tough ask. They’ll need to find some, particularly defending athletic quarterbacks, when Big Ten play begins next week at Penn State.
The offense earned strong marks against Colorado State, though the passing game had some issues in the second half. The rushing attack looks diverse and impressive, and the Gophers could absolutely grind their way to plenty of points.
Minnesota’s ability to hang with Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa at the top of the Big Ten West likely will hinge on the development of some of those young players on the Gophers defense.