Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Looks Like We Made It! A Team Blooms in Tampa

If Future Frothy approached you in his flying Delorean back in August and told you that on January 1st Minnesota would be 11-2 with two wins over Top 15 teams and a bowl win against #12 Auburn, what would you have thought? Let’s assume he also told you that Auburn’s three losses were all against Top 10 teams and three of their wins were against Top 20 teams including Alabama? I’m assuming once you cleaned up your pants from being approached by a time-traveling giant you might not have believed it.

Yet here we are in 2020 and all of those things are true. It wasn’t a perfect season and there were certainly disappointments, but come on. I find their impact lessened and hopefully you do too, because there’s so much to celebrate. Everyone can tick off several milestones and big events that haven’t happened recently or even in our lifetimes. Maybe someone on the website will do a year-end retrospective to review them again, but I’ll focus on the two that weren’t true until today.

First, 11 wins are the most for Minnesota in the forward pass era. Only two Minnesota squads have ever won more: the 1904 (13-0) and 1903 (14-0-1), but both of those schedules included several high school teams and a variety of small colleges. It’s a huge milestone for the program.

Second and potentially bigger, Minnesota defeated two AP Top 15 teams this season. The last time that happened was 1961 when the Gophers defeated #1 Michigan State and #7 Purdue. Minnesota went into the Outback Bowl ranked #18 in the AP Poll and will likely finish the season in the Top 15, probably in the 10-13 range. This will be their highest end-of-season ranking since 1962 when Minnesota finished #10. These a meaningful changes, and the type of thing that really strong programs need to do regularly.

The Outback Bowl looked like a blast for those who went; the crowd appeared heavily slanted towards the maroon and gold, and the bowl and city of Tampa Bay seemed to have a lot of good events taking advantage of the amazing weather. For those of us watching in the back room at Manning’s it began with the same apprehension and emotional self-defense mechanisms all Gopher fans know well. That gradually gave way to cautious optimism that at least we wouldn’t get blown out, then hope, and then joy. In there was the moment that I felt defined what was different about this team and this season.

In the third quarter the Gophers were up 24-17 when Minnesota encountered series of events that seemed to swing the momentum to Auburn. A borderline pass interference call against Benjamin St. Juste led to a game-tying touchdown for Auburn on the next play. A holding call against the Gopher line that should have been negated by an obvious Auburn offsides prior to the snap, and then a false-start penalty, forced Minnesota to punt. Auburn got the ball on their 20, and then a pair of immediate first downs brought the ball near midfield.

Gopher fans are familiar with this feeling, and even those of us who thought we’d put it behind us felt that old tightening of the gut and other gastrointestinal areas. In the past this is where it all comes apart. With the ball on the Auburn 47, Minnesota stuffed a rush attempt for a 1 yard loss. 2nd and 11 from the 46, Minnesota penetrated the Auburn O-line and forced Bo Nix to scramble resulting in an incomplete pass. 3rd and 11 from the 46, Nix was flushed again but salvaged a 3 yard run to the Auburn 49. It was 4th and 8, and perhaps feeling the momentum swing themselves, Auburn went for it. Like the two plays before, Nix dropped back to pass but the O-line splintered and he suddenly was running for the sideline from two Minnesota defenders. A desperation pass near the sideline fell incomplete and Auburn turned over on downs.

This was what felt so different in 2019. At the moment when everything seemed to be going against Minnesota, the team maintained their cool, the coaches made adjustments, and the Gophers stopped Auburn in their tracks. The team never showed signs of giving up, and their play only improved as the game went on. On their remaining two possessions, Auburn punted both times and gained a total of only 19 yards.

Then the Gopher offense did their job. After an abortive drive and a game of “spot the football” led to a Minnesota punt, on Minnesota’s penultimate possession Tyler Johnson put a bow on an incredible career with a 73 yard touchdown reception that ended up being the winning play. The final Minnesota drive may be forgotten in the narrative of the game, but we can thank Mo Ibrahim and Bryce Witham for burning the remaining 8:38 on the clock and giving us a hint of what we might see with a Coach Simon offense in the 2020 season.

Minnesota came in ready to play and the coaching staff mostly out-schemed Auburn on both sides of the ball. On the season, Auburn’s defense has been one of the best in the country, allowing an average of 20 points per game and a stingy 123 rushing yards per game along with 214 passing ypg for a total average of 337 offensive yards. Minnesota blew these statistics away scoring 31, gaining 215 yards on the ground and 279 in the air for a total of 494. It was the most productive game for the Minnesota offense in 2019 other than the Maryland game where they gained 498 total yards.

As impressive as this was, Minnesota’s defense deserves significant credit as well, allowing 17  points and 232 total yards to the Auburn offense. Auburn’s offense has struggled with its identity at times this season, but Bo Nix is still a good QB and they  have other weapons. They averaged 33 ppg on the season, 199 yards on the ground and 207 through the air. Minnesota held them to a paltry 56 yards on the ground and 176 through the air.

If you’re not excited about 2020 after today you need to figure your life out. We still don’t know who our new Offensive Coordinator will be, but Matt Simon had one hell of a good job interview today. He showed he knows how to use Mo Ibrahim effectively even in the face of a very good run defense; Mo gained 140 yards on 20 carries for a 7.0 ypc average. He used the passing game to open up the run, and with a double-team on Rashod Bateman the whole game, schemed to take advantage of that and feed Johnson instead. But the most exciting thing to me and something that would have come in handy in November was a tight end passing game. Bryce Witham had 2 receptions for 11 yards and 1 TD, but both plays were absolutely critical to the game. If the 2020 Gopher offense can build on their 2019 success at WR and also activate a situational passing game with the TEs, the Running Backs will have a lot of different options to get out into the flats.

It has been an absolute pleasure to get to watch Tyler Johnson’s career blossom under a good QB and WR coaches. His 204 yard performance today gave him the most productive WR season in Minnesota history and a well-deserved MVP. It’s possible that for the past two years, we got to see the two greatest Wide Receivers in Gopher history play together.

The less said about our Special Teams the better. This area has been a liability all season, and Rob Wenger absolutely has to improve it in 2020 or it’s going to cost us an otherwise-winnable close game.

Finally, a tip of the hat to Tanner Morgan and the Gopher O-line. Both adjusted very effectively as the game went along, finally finding a way to be successful without Daniel Faalele. Morgan’s initial skittishness grew to confidence in the pocket as the game went on, and the O-line picked up on Auburn’s schemes and were able to get him a lot more time by the 4th Quarter than they had in the 1st. Morgan was 19/29 for 278 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT.

As we head into the offseason, take time to savor what a fun ride this season has been. Unless you were alive in 1960 or 1961 you’ve never experienced anything like it. Yet we know there’s so much more that can happen, so much more to achieve. As good as this was, 2020 has potential to be truly exceptional. Yes, there are questions, but Coach Fleck and his staff have earned the opportunity to enjoy our trust that they’re going to build on this remarkable success.

Now get off your butts and go get your free coconut shrimp. Let’s bankrupt Outback Steakhouse!

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