With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
The Golden Gophers went 5-7 last season, a disappointment in P.J. Fleck’s first season. There was talent on the roster, but the quarterback play was downright awful, making it difficult to compete. Year Two of the Fleck era should be better, but that isn’t really saying much. How much better will Fleck’s group get? Here’s a look at the 2018 Gophers:
Returning Production: 68 percent (69 percent on offense, 66 percent on defense)
2017 Record: 5-7 (2-7 Big Ten)
Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (Entering second season, 5-7)
2017 S&P+ Overall: 97th
2017 S&P+ Offense: 120th
2017 S&P+ Defense: 45th
2018 S&P+ Projection: 67th
Minnesota got the Fleck era rolling with three straight wins to start the season, but those wins came against Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee — the average S&P+ of those teams was 90.
The Gophers then lost three straight games to open Big Ten play at the hands of Maryland, Purdue and Michigan State. All three games were relatively close, but Minnesota’s win expectancy was 14 percent or less in all three games.
Beating a bad Illinois made bowl eligibility look possible with five games to notch two wins, but Fleck’s team couldn’t must enough down the stretch. Minnesota beat a fading Nebraska team, before losing to Northwestern and Wisconsin by a combined score of 70-0.
The offense was putrid for most of the season, especially during the teeth of the Big Ten schedule. With no quarterback taking control of the job, there was little rhythm (or scoring). The defense kept the Gophers in games, but the team just wasn’t good enough to compete against good teams, with the exception of Michigan State. Missing out on bowl eligibility with such a soft non-conference schedule was not what Fleck had in mind for a debut campaign.
As mentioned earlier, Minnesota’s quarterback play was brutal. Demry Croft completed just 42 percent of his passes for 674 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions. Northwestern fans saw him at his worst, when he threw more interceptions (three) than completions (two). Croft did run for nearly 500 yards, but still. Those passing numbers are 2016-Northwestern-vs-Illinois-State bad. Croft since transferred to Tennessee State.
Connor Rhoda was slightly better, but not by much. He graduated after last season.
So, there’s really no experience coming back at quarterback for the Gophers. Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan was the only scholarship signal-caller on the roster heading into the summer, and incoming preferred walk-on Zach Annexstad will be in the mix. Fleck is going to have to rely on a freshman, and it may not be pretty.
What’s at least somewhat encouraging for Minnesota is that running back Rodney Smith is back for one last go as a senior. Smith rushed for 977 yards last season, and will feature heavily this season. Minnesota has had balanced rushing attacks in past seasons, but that will come into play more than ever this season.
Leading receiver Tyler Johnson turned in a solid sophomore season with 677 yards and seven touchdowns, and provides a solid security blanket on the outside. Aside from Johnson, though, other receivers didn’t give much in terms of production. The second-leading receiver, Phillip Howard, had just 132 yards receiving.
The offensive line projects to be pretty good, but the success of the offense will come down to the readiness of the freshmen quarterbacks.
For all of the offense’s ineptitude, the defense was at least a competent in 2017.
The defense ranked 59th in passing S&P+, but just 102nd in rushing S&P+. Yet somehow, Minnesota ranked 29th in points per game allowed last season. The last two games of the season helped tank the Gophers’ numbers on defense, especially in the running game.
As the rushing numbers indicate, the front seven struggled last season. There could be depth problems on the line this season, but the top four havoc defenders in the front all return. Linebacker Thomas Barber returns after racking up 95.5 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss. Along with linebacker Carter Coughlin, who had 11.5 tackles for loss last season, the Gophers should be strong in the middle of the defense.
There are also plenty of names returning in the secondary, which bodes well. Returnees Jacob Huff and Antoine Winfield Jr. will form a secondary that could very well improve with better injury luck than last season.
Minnesota’s defense should be fine on the back end, but the run defense and pass rush, especially from the D-line, are major concerns.
Three players to watch
RB Rodney Smith
Smith has amassed over 2,800 yards in his career, though he has struggled in matchups with Northwestern. With young QBs on the roster and unproven options at receiver, Smith will get a ton of work this season.
LB Thomas Barber
Barber was Minnesota’s leading tackler last season, and led the team in run stuffs by a wide margin. He also proved to be a capable playmaker, which will be important for a Minnesota team that plays in a lot of close games and should be on the cusp of bowl eligibility.
S Jacob Huff
Huff is a durable, talented safety. He was both a valuable tackler and cover-man last season, accumulating a team-high three interceptions. Huff will play an important role across the field for a defense that may have to carry the team for stretches early in the season.