After a crushing loss in East Lansing, the Wildcats head to the Twin Cities to take on PJ Fleck’s Golden Gophers — or so they hope. COVID-19 cases within the Minnesota program derailed their annual matchup versus the Badgers last week for the first time since 1906, ending a 113 year streak of battling over the Axe. Nevertheless, Minnesota has disappointed so far as high expectations from last year’s historic season fall with the Gopher’s 2-3 record.
While no decision on this week’s game has been released yet, here are three things to know about the Gophers assuming play resumes at TCF Bank Stadium.
Rashod Bateman’s opt-out leaves inexperienced receivers behind
The Gopher’s star receiver has decided to forgo the rest of the season and declare for the 2021 NFL Draft following Minnesota’s COVID outbreak, he announced on Twitter last week. Though Bateman led the Gophers in receiving with 472 yards through five games, the team’s mediocre 2-3 record with virtually no hope for a bowl berth likely made this an easy decision.
Bateman is superseded by redshirt junior Chris Autman-Bell, who, despite seeing the field often the last three years, has only caught more than one pass in three of the five games this year. Nearly the rest of the receivers on Fleck’s depth chart are freshmen or redshirt freshmen, so Tanner Morgan will have limited reliable targets beyond Autman-Bell — especially against a tough Northwestern secondary looking for redemption.
Mo Ibrahim is a threat in the running game
Given little chance to shine last year in the shadow of Rodney Smith, Ibrahim has taken off in his first year as a starter in the Gopher offense. The redshirt junior leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (817) and total touchdowns (13), most recently rushing for 103 yards and three touchdowns in Minnesota’s 34-31 win over Purdue.
Ibrahim is the anchor of the Gopher offense, putting up points in over 50% of the team’s touchdown drives this season, and he shows no signs of stopping. Without Bateman out wide, it is likely that the running back will continue to make his name heard, permitted the offensive line has recovered from enough injuries to make room for him coming out of the backfield.
The Gopher defense has underperformed so far
Minnesota’s defense has allowed opponents to march up-and-down the field all season, sacrificing over 450 yards and 34.8 points per game — some of the worst defensive totals in the conference. The secondary is feeling the loss of Antoine Winfield Jr., allowing an average of 60 more yards per game than last year while the run defense struggles as well, allowing close to 80 more yards per game.
This year’s defensive deficits come from a combination of inexperience among Fleck’s inaugural recruiting class and a lack of leadership from veterans Micah Dew-Treadway and Keonte Schad, who has had minimal playing time due to COVID. The ‘Cats should be able to bounce back this week by taking advantage of holes in the Gopher defense, that is, if the matchup goes on as scheduled.