Before you start reading: We will be streaming today’s media appearance for ESPN College Gameday’s personalities (Kirk Herbstreit, Chris Fowler, Rece Davis) at approximately 2:20 on our Twitter account (@RealMNSportsFan). Tune in, if interested!

I hope all of you enjoyed the Wisconsin SZN bye week yesterday. Here’s where I say something generic about enjoying my time with friends and family, and how I hope you enjoyed yours… but I don’t really care and you don’t care about mine either. Honestly, I spent almost all of it talking about what really matters this week…. Gophers vs Badgers.

“Hey, can the Gophers pull it out on Saturday?” was on repeat from the time I saw my first family member on Wednesday afternoon, throughout that night out with old friends, and then continuing until I shut my car door and set the GPS for the 2-hour trek back south to the Twin Cities on Thursday evening, after two Thanksgiving celebrations. This year though, the yearly holiday felt a lot more like a pre-pregame party for the bash that happens on Saturday at 2:30 PM.

I spent a lot more time with real people over the last 48 hours, than I did with Twitter people… and oddly, I’m not sure how much of a difference there is. Here are the biggest worry factors for Gopher fans right now:

  1. Snow
  2. Jonathan Taylor (Yeah this one worries me too)
  3. Minnesota is Minnesota

That’s right, you can definitely feel a bit of optimism in the air with this game. PJ Fleck might be turning fan culture, like he’s been talking about since he got here. I’m not hearing nearly as many people taking the hard stance of, “Minnesota can’t have nice things”…. which is a bit weird, if I’m being honest. There seem to be more and more optimists out there every game.

Numbers 1 and 2 are synonymous with each other. Gopher Nation is worried about Jonathan Taylor. The pending snow storm seems to exacerbate that anxiety throughout the fan base. The logical football mind says, it’s going to be harder to throw the ball effectively in the snow, which hurts the Gophers, given how much they will have to rely on the pass to win this game, making the Gophers one-dimensional. Being very multi-faceted on offense and not allowing opposing defenses to key run or pass all season, has been a main drive to our success. It would be a legitimate worry… if we didn’t have PJ Fleck (more to come on that in a moment). Conversely, the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers are Jonathan Taylor. Snow, rain, sleet, shine…. they are running the ball with Taylor. A lot of snow during the game wouldn’t seem to effect their game plan nearly as much as it would the Gophers.

But, the Gophers will overcome these obstacles and win this game. There is no chance the Gophers come into this game flat so I’ve ruled that out, as a possible reason they lose. With a flat start out the window, this game comes down to a few keys that will pull the Gophers to victory, as long as they play their game tomorrow.

THE GOPHERS CAN BEAT YOU IN MANY WAYS…. WISCONSIN BEATS YOU WITH JONATHAN TAYLOR

Offensively, once you look beyond Jonathan Taylor…. the Gophers are better almost everywhere. Tanner Morgan is not only better than Jack Coan…. he’s better than almost everyone in the country. Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson will both play in the NFL and both have over 1000 yards receiving on the season… Wisconsin’s leading receiver, Quitez Cephus, has just over 600 yards this year. The Gopher backfield is nothing to laugh at either. While Jonathan Taylor leads the country with 1685 yards and 18 touchdowns, the Gophers 3-headed monster of Rodney Smith, Mo Ibrahim, and Shannon Brooks has totaled 1874 yards and 16 touchdowns. In fact, since Big Ten play started, the Gophers rank 4th in the rushing yards gained and only trail 2nd-place Wisconsin, by 312 yards total or 39 yards/game.

Running vs Wisconsin in 2019 isn’t easy, no matter who you are, but the Gophers have gotten a lot better in that category since the start of the season. In all three non-conference games, the Gophers failed to top 150 yards on the ground. They averaged only 3+ YPC once in those three games (3.1 vs SDSU) and it got as bad as 1.9 YPC vs Georgia Southern… 

It’s hard to believe those days even existed now. In Big Ten play, the Gophers have had 3 games where they rushed for over 300 yards (ILL, NEB, MD) and two more where they dance around 200 (NW, RUTG), while averaging 4.6 YPC through all eight of those Big Ten games. This W is going to go through Tanner Morgan but, if he can get help from the run game, it’s almost a lock.

I know we hear about Wisconsin’s offensive lines ALL OF THE TIME but they don’t have the advantage this year… at least not right now. I didn’t watch all of their early games very closely, but I did watch back their game vs Purdue and Coan was under fire all night long. In fact, I’d venture to say that Coan makes me nervous, as a Gopher fan, IF the Gopher defensive line can’t get pressure on Saturday. But, if Purdue’s shitty d-line can get pressure… there’s no reason why ours can’t too. On the flip side, the Gopher offensive line has continued to improve all year long, especially in the passing game, where Tanner has been picking teams apart. Wisconsin’s passing defense (like the rest of it) has been good all season… but did allow 326 passing yards last week vs Purdue.

THE BALL IS THE PROGRAM

The Gopher defense hasn’t put up the numbers the Badgers have BUT they have done something that may be just as important… take the ball away. The Gophers are #29 nationally in turnover margin with (+5). The Badgers like to fumble, 2ND WORST IN THE COUNTRY with 13 fumbles lost this season. They lost three fumbles last week vs Purdue, alone. If they cough the ball up that many times to the Gophers, this game will be over in blowout fashion.

Coan has been mistake-free for most of the season, throwing just 4 interceptions to 15 touchdowns, but he hasn’t played against a secondary that includes Antoine Winfield Jr. If Winfield or anyone else can eat a couple of Coan’s throws… I can’t see Wisconsin overcoming them.

Wouldn’t it be bad if the Badgers jumped out to an early lead or the Gophers turned it over too? Sure it would, but it wouldn’t be as devastating as it would be for Wisconsin. The Gophers and Tanner Morgan have come back and won big games, on his arm, already this season. Wisconsin hasn’t. They won a close one vs Iowa but lost the game late vs Illinois, earlier in the year. Outside of that, they’ve either dominated on the ground and stomped opponents OR they were getting stomped by Ohio State. 

I believe in the multi-dimensional, close game tested, Gopher offense; if they face adversity. If the Badgers have to go away from Taylor….. I think they are fucked. Adversity includes the environment they play in. Even if snow hits hard at gametime, the Gophers will be ready. I don’t know how… but I know that no team in all of college football comes in more mentally prepared for elements, than PJ Fleck’s team. Bad weather might play an affect on most teams, but not the Gophers.

DISCLAIMER: Special Teams

If we lose this game based on Special Teams…… I am going to lose my mind. This is a legitimate worry. Pucker up that butt-hole every time that part of the team trots on the field, because they’ve been trying to fuck everything up all year long.

The Gophers rank 126 out of 130 in ESPN FPI, for special teams play, and they allowed Northwestern back into the game just last week, on that 3rd leg. Wisconsin ranks in the middle of the country, at 71. Please, don’t allow special teams to break our hearts again.

When it is all said and done, TCF Bank Stadium is stormed again after a rather convincing 34-24 Minnesota Golden Gopher victory. See you in Indy.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan