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5 Questions with The Daily Gopher: Is Minnesota a real contender in the Big Ten West?

NCAA Football: New Mexico State at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten Conference Play opens up this weekend for Minnesota and Michigan State. The Golden Gophers and Spartans will face off on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time at Spartan Stadium and the game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.

To learn more about the Golden Gophers ahead of Saturday’s matchup, we reached out to Blake Ruane, co-manager at The Daily Gopher — SB Nation’s website for all things University of Minnesota athletics.

Minnesota is off to a 3-0 start, but hasn’t been tested by a team of Michigan State’s caliber yet. Can the Gophers really win the Big Ten West? Can running back Mohamed Ibrahim be slowed down? Do Minnesota fans like what P.J. Fleck has done with the program?

Blake fills us in below.

1. Minnesota is off to a 3-0 start, but has not yet faced strong competition. What are reasonable expectations for the Golden Gophers in 2022?

Blake: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Big Ten West is a bit of a disaster at the moment. Purdue hasn’t beaten an FBS program yet, and Northwestern lost to an FCS program. Kirk Ferentz is convinced he is in a feel-good made-for-TV movie, confident that his love for his son can overcome all obstacles, like said son’s inability to field a functional offense. Nebraska is dealing with its own family problems, having paid its prodigal son $15 million to go home and think about what he’s done to his alma mater.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has avoided embarrassment, steamrolling three inferior opponents in dominant fashion. I think most fans are embracing some form of cautious optimism until seeing how the Gophers fare against Michigan State, their first real competition of the season. But there is no reason Minnesota can’t contend in the Big Ten West this season. At a minimum, the Gophers look solid on both sides of the ball, which is more than most teams in the Big Ten West can say at this point. If they can beat the Spartans on the road Saturday, I’d anoint the Gophers the favorites to win the West moving forward.

2. Minnesota is led by quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim. Morgan has had an efficient start to the year (albeit a limited sample size), while Ibrahim comes into the game with 464 yards (6.9 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. It’s clear Minnesota is a run-first team, but what can Michigan State do to limit this duo’s effectiveness?

Blake: If the Spartans’ defensive front can contain Ibrahim, I’ll tip my hat to them, because that is no small task. He has rushed for 100-plus yards in 12 consecutive games now. That streak was interrupted by Ibrahim tearing his Achilles tendon in the season opener last season, but he picked up right where he left off this season. His patience and vision are what set him apart, and he rarely goes down on first contact. Try to arm tackle him and you’re likely to lose the arm. Your best hope of slowing Ibrahim down is to win at the line of scrimmage and limit his running lanes. The Gophers have four new starters on the offensive line, but the unit as a whole has looked solid through the first quarter of the season.

Morgan is a bit of an easier target for opposing defenses. He struggled the last two seasons under an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who hasn’t succeeded anywhere in those roles, before reuniting with Kirk Ciarrocca, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who helped guide him to a record-breaking season in 2019. This season, Morgan looks more comfortable in the offense and more poised in the pocket. He even made some very difficult throws against Colorado, a game in which he threw for three touchdowns. But he also hasn’t been pressured much. The more Michigan State is able to pressure him in the pocket, the more likely he is to fall back into bad habits.

3. Speaking of offense, Minnesota’s leading wide receiver, Chris Autman-Bell, is out for the season. How will Minnesota look to replace Autman-Bell’s production and what other players could make an impact for the Gophers on Saturday?

Blake: Replacing Autman-Bell will require a group effort. His biggest impact was in the vertical passing game. Autman-Bell has been the Gophers’ most dependable downfield threat with his ability to stretch the defense. Most of the wide receivers behind him on the depth chart are unproven. Dylan Wright is a former Texas A&M transfer who has the highest ceiling of any receiver on the roster, but consistency has been an issue for him. Daniel Jackson missed the first two games with an injury, but returned last week in time to help carry the load. Mike Brown-Stephens and Clay Geary play in the slot and are possession receivers more than anything.

The name you’ll want to watch out for is Brevyn Spann-Ford. The 6-foot-7 tight end is a mismatch nightmare in the passing game and he figures to see more targets with Autman-Bell out.

4. On the defensive side of the ball, who should Michigan State fans look out for this weekend and why?

Blake: To be honest, there is no one name to single out. This is a defense that plays as a unit. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The anchor is linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, who leads the team in tackles and serves as the defense’s field general. The defensive line has been stout, especially against the run, though the pass rush has been hit or miss with only six sacks through three games against overmatched opponents. The most interesting matchup Saturday will be the Spartans’ passing game vs. the Gophers’ secondary. The secondary is the strength of the defense, with a veteran at nearly every starting position. This Michigan State receiving corps will be the most talented group Minnesota has faced up to this point, so we’ll get a better sense of how good this secondary really is.

5. Now in his sixth season at the helm, does it seem like Minnesota fans generally trust and believe in P.J. Fleck and his coaching staff, or if the 2022 season isn’t successful, might the feelings be that it’s time for a change?

Blake: P.J. Fleck’s seat isn’t remotely hot. The COVID-shortened season, which saw the Gophers finish 3-4, looks like a hiccup between two pretty good seasons in 2019 and 2021. I think fans are eager to see this team take the next step and win the Big Ten West for the first time in program history. If that doesn’t happen this year, there will certainly be frustration and disappointment, but no reasonable fan is going to be calling for a change of leadership.

Bonus: What is your final score prediction?

Blake: To me, this is a coin-flip game. I could see it going either way. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t be betting anything on this game. That said, I’m going with Minnesota by a score of 24-21. No one really knows how good this team is yet. I think — or hope? — we find out on Saturday that they’re actually pretty good.

Thank you to Blake for his analysis and thoughtful responses. For those looking for more coverage on Minnesota, be sure to follow Blake and The Daily Gopher on Twitter.

To read my responses to Blake’s questions, head over to The Daily Gopher.