Know Thy Enemy: MSU hits the road, visits an injury-plagued Minnesota
Know Thy Enemy is a weekly Q&A where the perspective changes, from the eyes of the Spartans to the eyes of MSU football’s next foe. The State News asks the opposing team's student newspaper a few questions and see football through a different lense.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers, all things considered, had a solid 2016 campaign under first-year head coach Tracy Claeyes. They went 9-4, winning the Holiday Bowl over Washington State 17-12.
However, despite the positive on-field performance, the Gophers went a different way with leadership. They hired former Western Michigan head coach P. J. Fleck to the helm.
To begin the year, the Gophers went an optimistic 3-0, against a trio of Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee. But to open up Big Ten play, they’ve stumbled. A pair of losses to Maryland and Purdue — traditionally middling teams in the conference — has changed the mood some for Minnesota.
The last time the Spartans and Gophers met was in 2013, when MSU tidied up Minnesota in its last game of the Big Ten season. The Spartans won 14-3 to finish a perfect conference record.
To better understand how the Minnesota Golden Gophers have looked thus far, The State News interviewed Jack Warrick, football beat writer for The Minnesota Daily, and asked him five questions about the team.
Q: How is life with P. J. Fleck? He’s been this intense guy. What are Minnesota fans’ opinions of him as of now?
A: I think after those three wins, and even at the beginning of the season that there have been billboards up of him. They have an ice cream flavor that was named after his “Row The Boat,” lots of things going on around campus that have made people real excited for him. After those two losses and all those Big Ten losses, it seems like people are kind of at his throat. It’s been a real big switch. You hear people talking on campus just about him doing not what we’d thought he’d do coming to the Gophers’ program, especially in Big Ten play.
Q: This Minnesota team went 9-4 last year, won its bowl game against Washington State. This was a pretty good team, what happened these last few games?
A: Part of it is the injury-bug that’s been going around. There’s been big players, Antoine Winfield Jr., the ex-Pro Bowler’s son, he got injured last week in the Maryland game. He was one of the leaders of the defense. They’ve had to pull some redshirts. A lineman’s gone down. Some wide receivers have gone down. Fleck has even been talking about pulling some wide receivers and turning them into defensive backs. So I thought that was pretty interesting. They didn’t have big competition from those three preseason games. Oregon State, Middle Tennessee and Buffalo, not really competition for the Gophers. That 3-0 kind of hyped everyone up, the Gophers up. Going into Big Ten, it’s a another league, a whole nother ball game.
Q: How has Conor Rhoda looked thus far? This is his first year starting, he played just three games in 2016. The stats don’t look pretty, but what kind of games does he have?
A: Experience is definitely the big issue with him there. I think he started only one game against Maryland last year. Now he’s a redshirt senior. I guess he’s been around the program but he doesn’t have that game experience that he needed to be a Big Ten quarterback. He started out the season actually with Demry Croft, another quarterback, they were sharing snaps. They’re kind of relying on the running backs, they kind of hand it off mostly. They run the run option a lot. He’s been kind of ridiculed for not pulling the ball a lot. That kind of makes the defense key in on the running backs. So it doesn’t give the variability option game. He kind of needs to pull the ball, but Fleck doesn’t want him to get injured because the only guy that has the experience after those three to four games before Big Ten conference play. He’s decent at passing, I think. He’s more of a pocket-passer than a dual-threat guy.
Q: Shifting to the defense, who is the leader of the defense and how has it looked thus far?
A: They’ve got a lot of real good linebackers, that’s pretty much the only thing that isn’t a short on the depth chart for the defensive side of the ball. Jonathan Celestin is probably the leader, the heart and soul of that defense. He’s up there with the most tackles, the most sacks. And he’s a really disciplined guy. He just cracks players and sets the tone on defense it seems like. Now that Winfield guy he’s one of the leaders, he was in the backfield. Those two guys, Winfield and Celestin, are probably the leaders on the defense. Linebackers are definitely are the most experienced and the most deep position group.
Q: What is your score prediction and why?
A: I don’t think the Gophers, after all the injuries, have been able to show that they can score and actually defend as good and let up points in the Big Ten. I don’t see them being able to put up points against a Big Ten team that’s ranked nationally. And after beating that Michigan team, it seems like Michigan State’s coming off that big win. Teams like that, they’re going to ride that probably, even into Dinkytown and probably take that win. They’ve proved more this year than Minnesota has.
Prediction: 31-21 MSU