Gophers remind that the ‘sky hasn’t fallen’ after season-opening loss to Michigan | INFORUM

Local News 26-10-2020 IN FORUM 31

After a mistake-prone 49-24 loss to Michigan on Saturday, there were plenty of areas for Minnesota’s offense, defense and special teams to correct in short order, with Maryland up next on Friday night.

The coaching staff “will be in the office early (Sunday) morning, and we will get right on the film — even (Saturday) night — and then we’ll have a long meeting with them,” Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck told reporters postgame. “It’s going to be a long meeting, do a walk-through and then get them out of there. Get their bodies healed. There is no use crying over spilled milk. This one is over, it’s done with.”

The No. 18 Wolverines scored 35 points on the No. 21 Gophers before halftime, the most Michigan has put up in a first half versus a ranked opponent since the Associated Press poll started in 1936, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Michigan received a boost up to 13th in Sunday’s new ranking, while Minnesota dropped out for the first time in nine consecutive in-season polls since mid-October 2019.

Minnesota led early Saturday but quickly gave that away. Michigan started laying haymakers, and the Gophers answered with light jabs and watched the game slip further and further away until it was garbage time.

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“We fought and fought and fought,” Fleck said on KFAN. “Got ourselves in a hole, fought out of the hole, got ourselves back in the hole, fought out of the hole and then we just couldn’t get back out of the hole that was deeper.”

The U’s offense took advantage of a blocked punt — its only bright spot on special teams Saturday — after Michigan’s first offensive series. They employed a new wrinkle from co-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.: a two-running back, tight end-split out formation and had quarterback Tanner Morgan run a play-action bootleg, where he found tight end Ko Kieft for his first career touchdown.

It was their only lead. On the next play from scrimmage, the Gophers had breakdowns on all three levels of their defense: defensive end Esezi Otomewo, linebacker Cody Lindenberg and safety Tyler Nubin. Each were making their first collegiate start.

Fleck anticipated they would be ready for 60% of what Michigan’s offense ran in the opener, but that turned into 40%, including two-back looks of their own, which helped spring Zach Charbonnet’s 70-yard touchdown run that exposed those three U defensive players.

“It was hard,” Fleck said. “I think some guys were trying to do someone else’s position, at times, but we didn’t tackle well, and when we did fit it, they somehow sprung out of it. But we’ll look at it. There is a lot of inexperience and youth on that side. Again, not an excuse. We have to coach it better.”

Tied 7-7, Lindenberg, a true freshman from Anoka, blew up a Michigan run on third down and the Wolverines were forced to kick a field goal and missed. With an opportunity to drive and take the lead, the Gophers missed a cornerback blitz and Morgan was smoked. He fumbled and Donovan Jeter recovered and rumbled in from 15 yards out for a touchdown.

“I have to make better protection calls,” Morgan said. “We just have to be better, and we will be better. We will take this and learn from it.”

The Gophers cut the lead to 14-10 but gave up a 66-yard kickoff return on the next play. Minnesota’s backup kicker Brock Walker was playing soon after a sports hernia surgery and couldn’t kick 100 percent. He lined up on the left hash, but squib-kicked short and to the right, which with poor coverage, allowed up-back Michael Barrett to return it 66 yards to Minnesota’s 8.

The Wolverines scored a touchdown two plays later.

It was 28-17 when Fleck opted to try a fake punt on fourth and 4 from his own 31-yard line. There was nothing deceptive or even tricky about Kieft’s run to the left, and with Thomas Rush failing to block his man, it was stuffed for a 2-yard loss.

Michigan scored a touchdown four plays later.

“The ball wasn’t going very far on the punt as it was, so you got to make those decisions,” Fleck explained. “And that’s what’s really hard. People will probably say, ‘Why’d he do that?’ ”

Backup punter Matthew Stephenson had a 31-yard punt before Fleck’s decision and a 18-yarder immediately after it.

The Gophers cut Michigan’s lead to 35-24 after a touchdown drive to start the third quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, Nubin forced a fumble at the 31-yard line, and it looked like a big swing in momentum was right there. But the Wolverines recovered.

“There was a point in the game where I thought we could possibly get it going back, with the sky kick and it was fumbled. Ugh. That’s the one,” Fleck said. “You need plays like that.”

On top of their special teams issues, the Gophers defense didn’t force any turnovers while giving up 13 plays over 10 yards, seven over 20 and two over 60, including a 66-yarder from Hassan Haskins that led to the 49-24 margin early in the fourth quarter.

Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns, said it wasn’t just what will show up on film that needs correcting. “We have to get our leadership up; the sideline was very dry,” he said.

But Maryland suffered a worse loss than the Gophers on Saturday. Northwestern put up 537 total yards and had three interceptions of new Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa in a 43-3 win. It was Northwestern’s largest margin of victory in a Big Ten game since 1970.

Mid-Sunday, the Gophers opened as 18-point betting favorites against Maryland.

Morgan, who wasn’t his usual sharp self Saturday, with a few notable overthrows in the end zone, worked to not let the lopsided result project onto the rest of the season.

“The sky hasn’t fallen on the season, and we don’t look at it like that,” said Morgan, who went 18 for 31 for 197 yards, one touchdown and one interception. “We will digest this film and get a lot better from it. … Then we will move onto next week.”


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