There’s a reason ESPN’s College GameDay is on campus at the University of Minnesota for the second time in as many home games for the Gophers.
The newfound national attention to a once great college football program is back because the Gophers have a chance at continued success for the first time in a long time. Michigan has been championed on this continuity for years, despite repeatedly losing to Ohio State recently. Minnesota now has the pieces in place to flip the script and win the oldest collegiate trophy game.
Think of the historical reputation of Big Ten football. Tough rushing games and strong defenses are the hallmark of the Midwest’s premier football conference.
When the Gophers and Wolverines last met nearly three years ago, Minnesota had a porous defense and a rushing game that had little chance of threatening Michigan’s defenders. It was a 33-10 Wolverines’ blowout in head coach P.J. Fleck’s first chance at the Little Brown Jug. It’s a game that marked the beginning of what ended up being a difficult stretch at the end of Fleck’s first season in Minnesota.
That November day was an absolute downpour in Ann Arbor, limiting each team’s passing ability. Though Minnesota hadn’t been known for its passing game that season, it limited both teams to running the ball. Unfortunately for the Gophers, the Wolverines steamrolled their way to the rout with two backs with at least 190 yards in the game. One had 200 exactly and the second leading rusher finished with a paltry 191 yards. On the other side of the ball, Minnesota’s leading rusher had 38 yards. Two others cracked 20 yards apiece, but still not close to enough to win that water-logged game at the Big House.
Only one player who made an impact that game is still on the roster, Justus Harris with a single tackle. Now the Gophers have a much different roster and a much different offensive attack against Michigan. To say the least, Minnesota has drastically improved in every facet of its football program since. The Gophers have the roles reversed this time around.
This time Minnesota has the advantage, despite all that has happened to get to kickoff in primetime on Saturday night. The Gophers aren’t favored at home, and they are ranked three spots behind the Wolverines. The thing Minnesota has, though, is offensive consistency.
They have Tanner Morgan, a quarterback who has proven he can play at a high level in the Big Ten. He’s conference’s leading passer in terms of yards per game, and he was also near the very top in total yards and touchdowns.
Not only do the Gophers get Morgan back in the fold, but they get the surprise return of star wide receiver Rashod Bateman. It was a touch-and-go situation for a while after he declared he would sit out the season when the Big Ten postponed indefinitely. Since the conference decided to come back, Bateman lobbied the NCAA to return, and did so successfully.
Along with returning wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell and running back Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota’s offense has continuity for the first time in a while. There is no quarterback competition, like Michigan has, and they are not relying on underperforming wide receivers or unproven running backs.
ESPN isn’t making the trek to Dinkytown just because of Michigan’s top-20 ranking. Instead they’re coming for Minnesota. They are banking on Minnesota’s consistency on offense to carry over from 2019, and they want to show their viewers one of the most exciting Big Ten teams that doesn’t exactly play like a traditional Big Ten team.