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Behind Enemy Lines Q&A: Minnesota Golden Gophers

The Daily Gopher previews Saturday night’s Michigan-Minnesota showdown.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Minnesota vs Auburn Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan’s season begins on Saturday night when they take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers. After an 11-2 season in 2019, there are high expectations for the P.J. Fleck led program this season.

To get some intel heading into the matchup, we spoke to Daily Gopher managing editor GoAUpher, who shared his insight about the Minnesota program.

Minnesota has two new offensive coordinators. How will the scheme be different, how will it be the same?

We honestly don’t know for sure how it will be different. Fleck has been very coy about what exactly Matt Simon’s role will be as co-offensive coordinator, so we don’t know for sure how much tinkering will happen versus sticking with what has worked. I think we have to assume the RPO/slant game will remain a huge part of the Gophers offense given the success they’ve had, but I’m interested to see what wrinkles get added. Kirk Ciarrocca wasn’t big on passing to the tight ends and a lot of Gophers fans are hoping to see that change

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown likes to dial up the blitz aplenty. How does QB Tanner Morgan fare against the blitz?

Up until the Wisconsin game last year I’d have said Tanner was feasting on the blitz. The difference against the Badgers was the UW defensive backs won a lot of the battles with Minnesota’s wideouts at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the quick passing game wasn’t as open and Tanner took more hits.

So I’d say it’s more about how Don Brown has your corners playing on Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman Bell, and whatever young WR is in the #3 spot than it is about how the blitz gets handled.

Minnesota had a heck of a year in 2019, going 11-2. There’s a lot of warranted hype around the program and P.J. Fleck. How do you expect the team to perform overall against Michigan on the national stage factoring in the buildup to this game?

I’m going to say Minnesota wins, because I’m a homer and because all things being equal I think Minnesota is good enough to win this matchup even if both teams are playing well. I don’t think the national stage has much to do with it. Fleck has always done a nice job of keeping his teams in a “1-0” mindset and they’ve shown themselves capable of performing in big games before.

But of course this is 2020, which means I don’t really know anything. Heck, none of us will know how many players (if any) either team will be without come Saturday due to COVID restrictions.

What’s the biggest strength and weakness for Minnesota on both sides of the ball along with the No. 1 player to watch out for.

Offensively the strengths for Minnesota are clearly at the skill positions, where they return plenty of experience and talent at QB, WR, and RB. The weakness for the Gophers is that they are not deep at offensive line (which is a spot we are thinking we might see a COVID loss come Saturday).

Defensively, the cornerbacks are strength. The question marks are who steps in for Antoine Winfield Jr, how do the linebackers look, and do the promising young defensive lineman step up?

Rashod Bateman is your player to watch every time he’s on the field. That kid is so much fun.

Minnesota opened up as 2.5 point favorites over Michigan before the line moved to favor Michigan. Do you sense Minnesota is perceived as the underdog, or is it Michigan this time around?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’d have considered Minnesota the underdog in this game based on rankings and general perception of the programs (you might be aware that Michigan keeps the Jug more than it loses it). But there are a lot of folks out there who get really into Vegas lines (that’s not me) who might feel differently. Put it this way, if Minnesota loses I won’t feel like they got upset by Michigan.

Minnesota hasn’t had much success against Michigan in decades, but is that irrelevant now during the Fleck era or does history still matter on this front?

I think history is generally irrelevant for any one game. The reason you end up with a history is because of the players and coaches from each of the previous games, not the ones who step on the field this week. Fleck has only played against Michigan once as the head coach at Minnesota, and the team he had was completely outclassed in every way. That’s not true this year, though I still think across the board Michigan is the more talented team. Minnesota’s ability to come into this game with multiple weapons on offense is FAR more important than the last time Minnesota beat Michigan at home. The preparation that each coaching staff has been able to bring to this game matters more. Heck, the weather on Saturday will matter more to the outcome than history will.

History is about a storyline. If Minnesota wins it will make for a great newspaper lead. If Michigan wins, it’ll be another footnote. That’s it.

What are your initial impressions of Michigan heading into the game and how they stack up against Minnesota?

My quick answer would be “talented team that underachieves on the big stage.” I think Michigan’s question marks look good to Minnesota fans and Minnesota’s questions marks probably look good to Michigan fans. It’ll be fun to see which team puts things together faster.

What should Michigan expect schematically from the Minnesota defense?

Joe Rossi’s philosophy is generally to not ask his guys to do too much. Since he’s replacing a lot of talent and leaders, I’d expect a fairly simple game plan to start. I’d also expect Minnesota to come with a little bit of pressure to get after Joe Milton early.

Give us your prediction. Who comes out on top and how will it happen?

Minnesota 27 - Michigan 21. Rashod Bateman scores your game winning TD in front of some absolutely hyped cardboard cutouts.