It has been a up-and-down season on offense for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The team now heads out on a two-week road trip, and if they are going to have a shot at staying in these games, their offense has to find a way to play consistent football. Game one is against the Iowa Hawkeyes.
The Gophers have two key components to build around: Defense and Kobe McCrary.
Despite plenty of injuries on the defensive side of the ball, as both Antoine Winfield Jr. and Kiondre Thomas have fallen recently, the Gophers have persevered. Even controversy like the Duke McGhee suspension has not derailed a defensive group that has played stout football through seven games.
Their defense did not let up a single point in the second half of the opening three games of the season. So what happened when they hit the Big Ten? Wins and losses are deceiving stats, as the defense of the Gophers never really fell off in the skid.
Against Maryland, a Gophers interception helped lead to seven points the other way. The Gophers special teams then missed a field goal while the offense threw another interception in the last 1:10 of the game. To add insult to injury, all this took place on a drive that could have tied the game. The one truly terrible drive the Gopher defense experienced was the final touchdown drive let up in the fourth quarter, when they needed a stop to stay tied 24-24.
In the Gophers game with Purdue, the defense was able to come up with four first half turnovers for their offense, which only led to 14 points. As the Purdue offense started to break through in the second half, the game was still within reach. Ultimately, a back-breaking pick-six threw the game away for the Gophers.
Then Michigan State rolled into town. The Gophers defense responded with a forced fumble on the opponent’s own 4-yard line, all on the first drive. The Gopher offense failed to find the end zone, instead turning the ball over in their own red zone later in the first quarter. The defense forced another turnover in the half, also good for just three points.
Yes, the defense has had their share of struggles against running backs like Ty Johnson and L.J. Scott. But the defense has taken losses off lazy offensive turnovers. When the Gophers roll into Kinnick Stadium, the defense will show up. Now the offense has to meet the same level of play.
They are up against a Hawkeyes team that runs their offense through Akrum Wadley in both the passing and running game. Wrapping up and tackling Wadley, while applying pressure to Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley will give the Gophers their best chance and they have the defense to do it.
The second part of the Gopher game that can be counted on is running back McCrary. He has given the Gophers offense pop and muscle in both games that he recorded over 20 carries. After posting 107 yards against Middle Tennessee and 153 yards against Illinois, McCrary looks to be the Gophers top runner. Both starting Gophers backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have danced in the hole, but McCrary has shown power and burst with no hesitation.
He offers power in the running game that the Gophers need, and has paired incredibly well with Smith, who has topped 100 yards in both games that McCrary dominated the carries. The duo has given the Gopher offense a new look and more power on the ground. McCrary gives his team a hammer on offense against the Hawkeyes. They’ll need it.
The offense has managed to give the ball away 14 times, for the most part neutralizing the 17 takeaways from their defense. The Gophers have also had 28 trips to the red zone, but only produced 17 touchdowns.
Quarterback Demry Croft has had great moments, with a great scoring drive against Buffalo, an impressive run against Oregon State and the 21 point fourth quarter against Michigan State. But the downsides are there too: his suspension after losing the starting job, his underwhelming start against Oregon State and his turnovers to start the Michigan State game. Also, let us not forget that he lost the starting job to Conor Rhoda fair and square.
Croft has to access the part of his game that was electric for a 21-point fourth quarter, instead of the side that threw for only 47 yards and two picks against Illinois.
The Gophers lack a quarterback that plays with consistency, not just from game-to-game, but quarter-to-quarter. Capitalizing on turnovers and red zone trips will keep the team out in front of the Hawkeyes along with help out their top-25 ranked defense.