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2017 Big Ten football preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson (6) breaks through a tackle attempt by Oregon State safety Brandon Arnold (3) for a first-quarter touchdown on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Head Coach: PJ Fleck (First Season)

2017 record: 2-0

2016 Record: 9-4 (5-4)

All-time record vs OSU: 7-44

What has happened thus far in 2017

Minnesota began the season with a hard-fought 17-7 win at home against Buffalo. The Golden Gophers controlled the ball on the ground, tallying 169 yards on 51 rush attempts, and receiver Tyler Johnson added 141 yards on six catches with a touchdown. The team then went on the road in Week 2, hammering the Oregon State Beavers 48-14 behind another dominant rushing performances from running backs Rodney Smith, who rushed for 92 yards, and Shannon Brooks, who added three touchdowns on the ground.

Impact Player

The Minnesota offense is built around running the ball and then punishing defenses with Johnson in the passing game. A converted quarterback, the sophomore has shown a knack for the big plays, catching touchdowns of 61 and 67 yards so far this year. Last season, he caught 14 passes for 141 yards, a total he matched in the first half of Week 1. He is possibly on his way to becoming a big-time playmaker for this offense.

Strengths

For the Golden Gopher offense to perform consistently, new coach PJ Fleck will likely lean on his pair of workhorse running backs to provide the bulk of the support. Smith is coming off a 2016 campaign in which he rushed for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns, and Brooks is hoping to continue his steady play coming off a 650-yard season. The run defense was strong last season, allowing 117 yards per game, which ranked 14th in the country. It also returns linebacker Blake Cashman, who led the team with 7.5 sacks in 2016.

Weaknesses

The quarterback position is a question mark for this team since senior Conor Rhoda entered the season with little experience and his backup, redshirt sophomore Demry Croft, has stepped away from the team indefinitely with personal issues. Rhoda has emerged as the starter but he lacks the mobility that had allowed Croft to continue to see snaps earlier in the year. Fleck might have some pains in his first few Big Ten games if he can’t solve the situation. The pass defense is also going to be worth monitoring after the unit finished 73rd in the FBS in passing yards allowed and lost two starters in the secondary.

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