Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo, Matt Charboneau and special guest Chris Howard break down the weekend games: Michigan vs. Minnesota and Michigan State vs. Penn State. Detroit News
Andy Greder, who covers Minnesota for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, breaks down the Golden Gophers for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into the Michigan-Minnesota game. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyGreder.
VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE
Question. The quarterbacks, Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda, have both started this season. How have they been used and who gets the start against Michigan?
Answer. Redshirt senior Rhoda, a former walk-on, started the first six games and won the job outright after the second game. Croft split time with Rhoda the first two games, was suspended for three weeks and took over the job full-time when Rhoda's mistakes added up during the Michigan State game. In his first two starts, Croft has been able to make a few more plays with his feet – rushing, scrambling and stepping up in the pocket. Neither has had a ton of success in the passing game.
Q. Not surprisingly, Minnesota has a solid group of backs. Michigan has, for the most part, been pretty solid against the run. How is the Minnesota offensive line and how do you see this playing out?
A. The Gophers offensive line has been shuffling all season, but they could start the same group in three straight games for the first time this season. They have had some success, including only eight sacks in eight games, but four of those came in last week's 17-10 loss to Iowa. The Gophers have three capable backs, but have been held relatively in check against better defenses, especially without a feared passing game. That episode will likely be on rerun Saturday.
Q. So much has been made of the Golden Gophers' depleted secondary. How much of an issue has that been?
A. They have played 11 guys, including two true freshmen currently in key roles. Despite not having many starters – including stud Antoine Winfield Jr. – they have been a top-25 unit against the pass this season. That said, Iowa had success once the Hawkeyes began attacking Justus Harris, the freshman cornerback, in the second half last Saturday. Only one of those 11 defensive backs has played in every game, safety Jacob Huff.
Q. There's not a lot of film on "likely" starting Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters. What will be the key to neutralizing him?
A. The Gophers have gone back to Peters' high school film to glean insights, but they feel like Michigan will focus on the run and continue to run the same schemes regardless of the quarterback. The Gophers have had an ability to force turnovers this season. If they are able to do so again, they will stay competitive.
Q. How much of a mark has P.J. Fleck made in his first season there?
A. Fleck has caught the attention of casual fans more attune to Vikings, Twins, Wolves and Wild rhythms. While they might have put the Gophers on the back burner since the 1-4 Big Ten start, and some have cracked wise about his "Row the Boat" mantra, players have bought in and so have some recruits. He needs and will receive time to build the Gophers in his image. The diehards and the hopefuls look to what he accomplished at Western Michigan.
GOPHERS TO WATCH
Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft, QBs: Minnesota has used two quarterbacks this year. Rhoda is a fifth-year senior who has played in 11 career games, including six this season, and is 4-3 as a starter. He started the first six games of the season and completed 59-of-109 passes for 839 yards and five touchdowns. Demry Croft was named Minnesota’s starter prior to the Illinois game two weeks ago and led the Gophers to a 24-17 win against the Illini. Croft started last week at Iowa. He also played against MSU on Oct. 14, entering the game late in the second quarter and played the entire second half. Croft led the Gophers to three fourth-quarter touchdowns in the 30-27 loss. For the year, Croft has passed for 412 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 159 yards and one score.
Rodney Smith, RB: Of Minnesota’s three running backs (Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary are the others), Smith leads the group with 627 rushing yards. Brooks and McCrary have each scored five times. Last year, Smith rushed 240 times (10th most in school history in a single season) for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns (third most in school history in a single season). He is the 20th 1,000-yard rusher in Gophers history. In 33 career games, Smith has rushed 550 times for 2,455 yards; both totals rank ninth in school history. In 28 games, Brooks has rushed 336 times for 1,728 yards to rank 27th in program history. Brooks and Smith can strike at any moment. Brooks’ career long touchdown run is 75 yards and came against Illinois in 2015. Smith ripped off a 70-yard touchdown at Maryland in 2016.
Carter Coughlin, DB: Coughlin arrived at Minnesota as a linebacker but switched to defensive end this season. He has settled into his new role and leads the team in tackles for loss with 8.5 and sacks with 4.5 He had a season-best six tackles against Colorado State and he was credited with two sacks against Illinois; he also forced a fumble in that game. He had a 2.5 tackles for loss at Purdue.
FACTS AND FIGURES
Not us, refs: Minnesota is one of the most disciplined teams in the nation, ranking in the top three in the NCAA – and No. 1 in the Big Ten in each category – in fewest penalty yards (second, 267 yards), fewest penalties per game (tied for third, 3.75), fewest penalty yards per game (third, 33.38) and fewest penalties (tied for third, 30). Through eight games last year, Minnesota was 99th in fewest penalty yards and 108th in fewest penalties.
Youngsters: Forty-nine of Minnesota’s 110 players (44.5 percent) are freshmen or redshirt freshmen and 76 (69 percent) are underclassmen. Minnesota’s lack of depth is perhaps most evident in the secondary. The Gophers have played 11 defensive backs this season, which includes four freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors and two seniors. Six of those eleven players have missed time this year.
Big-play success: Four of Minnesota’s touchdowns this year have covered more than 60 yards (two receptions, one rush and one interception return). The last season that Minnesota scored three or more offensive touchdowns of 60 yards or more was 2006.