How do the Gophers get past a truly deflating opener to such a highly anticipated season? By reexamining the team and understanding some difficult truths about this year’s squad.
Michigan entered the season with first-year starting quarterback Joe Milton making his Big Ten debut on the road against a ranked opponent and some question marks in their secondary. Milton was up to the task. He shined, exceeding expectations in the 49-24 win.
Milton threw two touchdowns and used his mobility to evade the Gophers defenders. Not only did he have room to run — so did running back Hassan Haskins, who had two touchdowns and 82 yards in the game.
The Wolverines’ offense was game-ready. On the other hand, the expectations surrounding Minnesota’s defense were unrealistic, and they gave up the third-most points in a single game in head coach P.J. Fleck’s four years. The two others that surpassed Saturday’s rout were a pair of games in 2018 that got then-defensive coordinator Robb Smith fired. The Gophers gave up 35 points in the first half alone.
Overall, last year’s success hid the potential setbacks for the defense after multiple notable departures. Fleck himself said that there is no replacing the talent of Antoine Winfield Jr. at safety, and Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, Thomas Barber and Chris Williamson were heavily relied upon not only for leadership but for above-average defensive play. Replacing each of those entrenched starters was going to be difficult even for the most experienced defensive coaches and highly-touted recruits.
It was an offseason of uncertainty that saw the team’s top wide receiver opt out and then back in again. Rashod Bateman’s presence solidified much of the continued promise of a dominant Gophers’ offense. Many thought if Minnesota’s offense returned to 2019 form, the defense’s growing pains wouldn’t be much of a factor. After the initial game against Michigan, that theory was emphatically shut down.
While the story of 2020’s edition of the Little Brown Jug game was a combination of both Michigan excelling and Minnesota falling short of expectations, the factor of illness keeping other key starters out of the game sunk the Gophers further than the defense did.
There’s no confirmation as to why these starters were out, but Minnesota had a much tougher time against Michigan with two top offensive linemen out and the team’s top kickers all out. Grant Ryerse and Michael Lantz were out for the game, leaving the backups to the kicking duties. Unfortunately for Minnesota, it ended up in a special teams disaster. Despite beginning the game with a blocked punt, the punts and kickoffs gave the already thin defense less field to work with to stop Milton and the Wolverines.
Brock Walker had the kickoff and field goal duties. While he was 1/1 for field goals, his kickoffs left a lot to be desired for Minnesota’s defense. He had five kickoffs total for 184 total yards — an average of just under 37 yards. These included a mix of sky kicks and squibs, and most left Michigan’s fresh offense with good field position.
Graduate transfer Matthew Stephenson struggled mightily punting as well. He had four punts in the game that totaled 140 yards. He averaged just 35 yards per attempt, including one punt that went just 18 yards and failed to get the ball out of Minnesota’s own territory.
In the new age of COVID-19 adaptations, Minnesota didn’t have to release that these players would be out until they weren’t on the field for the game. Though it is unsure currently why these players are out, it’s one of the many uncertainties and setbacks that teams will have to deal with in 2020.
Minnesota fell flat because Michigan exceeded expectations and their defense was missing a step. They will need to rebound quickly both defending and on special teams to return to the success they enjoyed in 2019.