The Minnesota Golden Gophers moved to 3-0 on the season after a 34-3 blowout victory over the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. The Gophers defense had another standout performance, led by a secondary that is shaping up to be loaded with talent.
The secondary bailed out the offense and their slow start early in the game, with an early drive from the Blue Raiders halted after broken up passes from Jacob Huff and Duke McGhee. They both had outstanding performances, compensating for the stud Middle Tennessee receiver, Richie James, with great coverage discipline. The team played plenty of cover-2, with two safeties high and defensive backs rolling to the trips side, with the safeties sticking to their spots on the field and not shading over to open up the team’s backside. The phenomenal play and discipline to stay in the right spot, was highlighted by a 67-yard pick-six from safety Josh Huff.
“I thought that was a phenomenal play by Huff. I mean what a catch. If you ever meet Huff — either of them — their hands are the largest hands you’ve ever seen. They’re big, thick, blue-collar farm hands,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “He reached out and grabbed that thing and it was over. He was down the field and had a nice block from Blake Cashman on the quarterback and anytime you get a pick-six is a good thing.”
The entire team showed their depth, with third-string running back Kobe McCrary running for 107 yards and three touchdowns in the place of the injured Shannon Brooks. Paired with Rodney Smith’s 107 yards rushing, it was the first time since last October against Purdue that the Gophers have had two 100-yard rushers in a game. However, the depth of the secondary has been even more impressive.
Kiondre Thomas and Antonio Shenault are the starting corners with Antoine Winfield Jr. and McGhee holding down the back end. This foursome had 13 tackles and a tackle for loss along with a broken up pass. The secondary depth was almost as impressive, with Josh Huff grabbing the pick-six and Zo Craighton had five tackles and two broken up passes.
The depth of the team also showed up in the linebacking corps, a unit that continually flew all over the field. Thomas Barber finished with nine tackles and an amazing circus catch of an interception. Jonathan Celestin and Kamal Martin combined for five tackles, a tackle for loss and two pass breakups. Lower on the depth chart, Blake Cashman and Carter Coughlin combined four tackles and three tackles for loss.
“That is one position we are deep at, and we are so deep that we move them to rush end,” said Fleck of the Gophers linebackers. “I’m proud of the way they flew around, very physical and that’s a credit to Rob Smith and all the coaches on defense, a great game plan.”
“This is a very explosive offense and I’ve been watching them throughout the year, but our defense stepped up,” said Fleck, continually talking up the linebackers. “I thought our linebackers did a great job on the rub routes and crossers and the screens. Those are tough. You’ve got to read those really quick. It’s difficult because you have to protect the vertical sometimes, and what I loved about the linebackers is every play they put the oar back in the water and the strength of our team is the linebackers — they’re the heartbeat of the defense.”
This came against an offense that runs plenty of complex route combinations and has quick players like running back Ty Lee to pair against linebackers. But the Gophers linebackers — all of them — played fast around the field and kept the Blue Raiders offense to 230 yards and a mere 46 yards on the ground.
The Gophers showed their depth at multiple positions, which has been a strong group on defense that has kept teams from scoring in the second half of games this year and continually churned out running backs on the offense.