Happy Thursday TOC Nation. I hate to do this to you all. Last night, MSU’s basketball team won an exhibition game against Hillsdale College (I had to look it up, it’s about 40 minutes south of Jackson, MI), and based on Andy’s article and the two comments that have been posted at the time of this writing, the young guys are going to provide this team with some significant and effective depth. So yes, continue to be amped for the coming season. But we can’t just pretend our football team doesn’t exist, no matter how badly we just want to tune it out and focus 100% on hoops. Begrudgingly, we have to talk about this weekend’s game.
After losing at home to the cheaters last week, MSU goes on the road to visit Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are having a season we Spartans would all be delighted to trade for at this point. Blake Ruane from The Daily Gopher was kind enough to join me to talk about this weekend’s matchup.
TOC: I have been asking this of a lot of our Big Ten opponents. What is the consensus among Minnesota fans toward the upcoming B1G expansion? In football, you had a path to the conference championship game by winning the significantly easier West Division. But with the new alignment next year, that won’t be an option. Does Gopher Nation mostly oppose the expansion?
BR: Far be it for me to speak on behalf of Gopher Nation, but I don’t see or hear a lot of excitement. I wouldn’t say Minnesota fans are opposed to expansion. I think most have resigned themselves to the inevitability of expansion. Even with the path to the Big Ten Championship being easier in the West, Minnesota has failed to punch their ticket to Indianapolis even once in the nine years since the West was established. When you have Top 25-ranked programs like Washington, Oregon, USC, and UCLA joining the conference, what once seemed like an uphill battle suddenly looks like an insurmountable mountain for a program like Minnesota. And I don’t think Minnesota fans are alone in feeling that way. I think it’s going to be a challenge for a lot of fans of the mid-tier Big Ten programs to fight apathy in a world where a conference title is seemingly out of reach.
TOC: Speaking of winning your division, you currently are one game behind Wisconsin in that race, and you host them in the last game of the season. Aside from that game, your schedule looks favorable the rest of the way minus the game at Ohio State the week prior. How are you feeling about this team’s chances of getting to Indianapolis?
BR: Even with their loss to Minnesota, I still think Iowa is in the driver’s seat in the West. The Hawkeyes have the easiest remaining schedule, with a neutral field game against Northwestern (3-4), home games against Rutgers (6-2) and Illinois (3-5), and a Black Friday road trip to Nebraska (4-3). Meanwhile, Minnesota and Wisconsin each have a date with Ohio State, in addition to having to face each other. But as we’ve learned in the past, a lot can happen in the final month of the season to alter the standings. Iowa may have the scheduling advantage the rest of the way, but their offense (or lack thereof) makes them extremely vulnerable. We’ll see what chaos awaits in November. The Gophers would be in a lot better shape if not for their inexplicable loss to Northwestern in September. I have a feeling that loss could come back to haunt them when all is said and done.
TOC: Minnesota has won at least 9 games in each of the last 3 non-Covid seasons. What are the sentiments on Coach Fleck? What has he done best for this program? Is there belief that he can make Minnesota a perennial contender in the Big Ten, even after it expands? Is there concern he would leave for another program?
BR: First, I don’t think there is much concern about him leaving for another program. I don’t think he has been successful enough at Minnesota to warrant that kind of interest from the upper echelons of college football. Then there is also the P.J. Fleck brand, which he will be the first to admit is not for everyone. Not every program is looking for someone like him to come in and be the face of their program.
I think the best thing he has done for Minnesota is establish stability and consistency. As you mentioned, he has won at least nine games in each of the last three non-COVID seasons. That’s not nothing, especially at a place like Minnesota. Fleck has also breathed new life into their rivalry with Wisconsin. What was previously a one-sided affair for much of the 21st century has been more competitive under Fleck, with the Gophers winning three of their last five games against the Badgers. Conversely, he has struggled mightily against Iowa. And as I mentioned in a previous answer, the Gophers have never won the division in his tenure.
So I’d say fans have mixed feelings about Fleck at the moment. I think most appreciate what he has done for the program, but question how high his ceiling is at Minnesota. Fleck has also drawn a lot of understandable criticism for his inflexible offensive philosophy and his seeming indifference towards special teams. He seems unusually obstinate for a younger coach. Many fans, myself included, wish he was more willing to adapt.
TOC: Looking at this year’s team, the offense has not been great. Other than Iowa, who does not play offense, you are just about at the bottom of the B1G in terms of yards/game (NW is 2 yards below). What has been the biggest problem? Is it QB Athan Kaliakmanis? Is there a lack of skill players? Poor line play? Or is it coaching and scheming? Any reason, other than the schedule, to think you could see improvements before the end of this season?
BR: It probably starts with the quarterback position. In his first year as starting signal caller, Athan Kaliakmanis has been wildly inconsistent. His issues have been largely mechanical, missing open receivers down the field or putting too much mustard on short passes. In his defense, though, I don’t know if offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh Jr. is making the most effective use of his skill players, either. Brevyn Spann-Ford was one of the top tight ends in college football last season, but he has vanished from the face of the earth this season. There is too much talent at the skill positions for this offense to be stuck in the mud as often as it is. True freshman Darius Taylor and redshirt freshman Zach Evans have both earned their spots atop the depth chart at running back operating behind an offensive line that has held up well for the most part this season.
TOC: Tell us about your defense. What is your base formation? What level of the defense is the best? Who is the player on this side of the ball that MSU needs to scheme for?
BR: Minnesota operates out of a base 4-2-5 formation, but they will swap out their nickel back for an outside linebacker and switch to a traditional 4-3 against teams that prefer to run the ball. This might be a controversial take among Gopher fans, but I think the strength of their defense is up front. I like what I’ve seen from their defensive line, especially of late. Fifth-year senior Kyler Baugh and redshirt sophomore Deven Eastern have been disruptive up the middle at defensive tackle, and I love the growth we’ve seen from rush end Danny Striggow and defensive ends Jalen Logan-Redding, Jah Joyner, and Anthony Smith.
Where the Gophers lack experience is at linebacker. Because their top linebacker has been out all season, they’ve been forced to rely heavily on redshirt sophomore Devon Williams and redshirt freshman Maverick Baranowski, neither of whom came into this season with meaningful game experience. They’ve both taken their lumps but they are coming off their best game of the season, putting the brakes on the Hawkeyes’ ground game.
The player that Michigan State needs to scheme for is safety Tyler Nubin. As a fifth-year senior, a third-year starter, and an All-Big Ten performer, Nubin is afforded the freedom to roam center field and look for opportunities to make plays. He has three interceptions this season and was a menace against Iowa, forcing one fumble on a strip sack and recovering another. With a redshirt freshman under center for the Spartans, I would think Nubin is champing at the bit to lure him into making a freshman mistake.
TOC: What one thing does Minnesota need to do on Saturday to win?
BR: Finish drives on offense and execute in the red zone. They were fortunate to beat Iowa without scoring an offensive touchdown. That’s not a sustainable recipe for success. Against Michigan State, they need to be more dynamic on offense and find enough balance between the run game and the passing game to keep the Spartans off balance and move the chains consistently.
TOC: Bonus Question: Predict the final score.
BR: Minnesota 18, Michigan State 10
TOC wishes to thank Blake Ruane for taking the time to answer these questions. I have been saying each week to our guest that I hope they are wrong in their prediction, but that does not seem to be working out. So I will skip saying that this time. Good luck on Saturday.
GO GREEN! GO WHITE!