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Know Your Opponent: Scouting the Minnesota Golden Gophers

The Spartans have a tough opponent to open Big Ten play...

Michigan State (2-1) hosts Minnesota (3-0) this Saturday in the Big Ten conference opener for both teams.

Once a familiar foe, conference expansion and the creation of divisions has faded out this matchup in recent years. The Spartans haven’t played the Golden Gophers in football since 2017, and haven’t hosted Minnesota since 2013.

Michigan State has won the previous five games in this series, with its last loss coming in 2009. That was ages ago, as college football has gone through vast changes over the last decade and a half.

Minnesota is a whole new program than the one the Spartans played in 2017, as is Michigan State. Each program’s head coach has reinvigorated both fanbases, with hopes of making it to the Big Ten championship game.

I said before the season Minnesota was one of the toughest teams on MSU's schedule, and I still stand by it.

Michigan State is looking to bounce back after an underwhelming performance against Washington. Meanwhile, this is Minnesota’s first true test after playing New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado in the non-conference – arguably two of the worst teams in the FBS, and an FCS team.

But, not to be fooled, Washington played an FCS team (Portland State) and an average Group of Five school (Kent State) before handling MSU, so overlook the Golden Gophers at your own risk.

Coaching Staff

PJ Fleck is in his sixth season as Minnesota’s head coach. There have been shaky moments, on and off the field, for the program over those six years. While outsiders may find Fleck’s “Row The Boat” slogan silly, players have bought in and it’s shown. Minnesota has continued to improve throughout his tenure.

The Golden Gopher’s offensive coordinator is Kirk Ciarrocca. He’s been with Fleck since his days at Western Michigan, but left in 2020 to join Penn State’s coaching staff. Ciarrocca returned to Minnesota this offseason after a failed stint with the Nittany Lions.

Ciarrocca’s most successful season as a play-caller was in 2019 with Minnesota, where he elevated their passing game. Minnesota had one of the worst passing offenses in the country in 2021, so he looks to revive that this season.

Minnesota’s defensive coordinator is Joe Rossi, who has been on staff since 2017. He was promoted to defensive coordinator late in 2018, and has had success with the Gopher’s defense. Last season, they were third in the country in total defense, and Minnesota has allowed only 17 points so far this year.

Offense

The Gophers have veteran weapons on offense. Sixth-year senior quarterback Tanner Morgan will make his 46th career start in East Lansing.

Alongside Morgan is senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who returned this season after being sidelined with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in last year’s season-opener against Ohio State. Ibrahim already has multiple 1,000 yard seasons in his career, and is on pace for another in 2022. Achilles’ injuries are difficult to recover from, but it seems that Ibrahim came back the same player.

Like Michigan State, the injury bug has hit Minnesota already this season, as senior wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell was ruled out for the season just days ago. Autman-Bell was another veteran player and the Gophers’ best receiver.

So, who will replace the senior wide-out? Juniors Michael Brown-Stephens and Dylan Wright can be dangerous on the perimeter, while senior tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford is Minnesota’s second-leading receiver so far this season, and is a threat in the middle of the field.

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Minnesota’s offensive line is massive and was a force last season. They only return one starter from 2021, senior center John Michael Schmitz, but they still have great size and have dominated the trenches so far. This will a great matchup against Michigan State’s defensive line, which has been dominant when healthy over the last couple seasons.

Many of these upperclassmen have played in Kirk Ciarrocca’s system before, and this revived offense can be a problem for Michigan State’s secondary, which got torched again by Washington.

This offense has the potential to be dynamic, which does not bode well for the Spartans.

Defense

Surprisingly, the Gophers have produced a great deal of NFL talent in recent years on the defensive side of the ball. This year, Minnesota’s defense is led by senior linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, who has 16 tackles and a pass break-up on the season.

The Gophers’ have a decent pass-rush, with six sacks on the season. Currently, Minnesota ranks fourth in the country in scoring defense.

Defensive back is a position of strength for the Gophers, who have allowed just 100 passing yards per game, with two interceptions. Sophomore Justin Walley is a rising star, and a name to remember. Senior safety Tyler Nubin is one of the leaders of the secondary, and will make a big impact as well.

The Gophers have been stout against the run this season as well, allowing less than 70 rushing yards per game. After MSU’s performance last week against Washington, the Spartans face another strong rush defense in Week 4. It will be tough-sledding for MSU running backs Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard, but it will be necessary for them to find running lanes for the Spartans to be successful.

Matchup Breakdown

Minnesota Offense vs MSU Defense

Michigan State’s defense will have to play its best game of the season to beat the Gophers. The Washington game is in the rear-view mirror, but the need for better defensive back production remains. The Spartans’ pass rush will need to go back to what it was against Western Michigan and Akron as well.

With Xavier Henderson still out, a new leader needs to emerge in the secondary. Head coach Mel Tucker said he made the poor performance against the Huskies personal, and this would be a great time for a redemption game for himself, the staff and the players.

MSU Offense vs Minnesota Defense

Offensively, the Spartans’ offensive line needs to find a rotation that will work, whether it comes from offensive line coach Chris Kapalovic or offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. Michigan State did Jalen Berger no favors in the way they performed up front against Washington, and that halted the whole offense.

Payton Thorne and receiver Keon Coleman were dynamic against the Huskies, and MSU will need that again this week. With Jayden Reed still questionable, Coleman needs to continue to step up. Minnesota runs the same defensive formation as MSU, so Thorne should be used to the fronts from practice.

Final Thoughts

PJ Fleck has built a balanced team, as both sides of the ball are stellar for the Gophers. If there was a season in which Minnesota makes a breakthrough and wins the Big Ten West, it would be this year.

This is a statement game for both teams. Minnesota has already shown its team’s identity, and it is time for MSU to show who they can be. A win for the Gophers is another step towards the Big Ten championship. A win for Michigan State is a bounce back from last week, and building towards potentially another big season.