College football, of course, does not have an official preseason like the NFL. All games count toward a team’s final record, be it against USC or Directional State U.
In the Gophers’ case, the three nonconference games that started the P.J. Fleck era in Dinkytown have served the purpose of getting Minnesota halfway to the six victories needed for bowl eligibility. The wins over Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee might not impress many when it comes quality of opponent — the trio is a combined 3-6, with two of the wins against FCS opponents — but they have shown a look into what we can expect when the Gophers begin Big Ten play on Sept. 30 against Maryland.
Here is a look at some themes that have emerged this season:
Gophers will run the ball
Despite all his sloganeering and attention-grabbing activities, Fleck at his core is a football coach who’ll play the hand he’s dealt. And with this team, the hand he has is a solid run game.
In Saturday’s 34-3 victory over Middle Tennessee, the Gophers rushed 47 times and passed 18. That’s a similar run/pass ratio to the Buffalo game (51/32) and the Oregon State game (58/8).
“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to put us in the best chance to be successful,” Fleck said. “But we are going to run the football.”
What that run-heavy approach has done is kept the ball away from opponents — the Gophers are averaging 36 minutes, 44 seconds of possession to the opponents’ 23:16 — and enabled a thin, inexperienced offensive line to gain confidence. Case in point: With starter Rodney Smith sidelined in the second half Saturday, Kobe McCrary stepped in and rushed for 82 of his 107 yards after intermission.
“It doesn’t matter who it is back there, when our offensive line is playing like it did [Saturday], we’ve got a lot of special kids back there who can make plays,” quarterback Conor Rhoda said.
Rhoda solid, but more needed
Rhoda, a fifth-year senior, has emerged as an effective game manager and strong leader. He has completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 152 yards per game and two touchdowns with one costly interception. But he knows the Gophers’ so-far vanilla offense will have to diversify and that he’ll have to be more of an option threat once Big Ten play begins.
“What we did well is we kept getting ourselves into third-and-3s and third-and-4s vs. being in third-and-8 or -9 where we’re forced to throw the football,” Rhoda said Saturday. “[But] we will have to throw the ball. Everybody on offense knows that.”
Defense gaining an identity
Entering the season, the Gophers defensive line and secondary appeared to have depth issues, but that hasn’t been a major issue so far. Granted, these nonconference opponents won’t be confused with Alabama or Clemson, but surrendering only 24 points in three games (none in the second half) and creating five takeaways the past two weeks means the defense is doing a lot of things right.
Jonathan Celestin has set the tone for a fast, tough linebacker group, and Antoine Winfield Jr. has been a difference-maker at safety.
“I’m proud of the way they flew around,” Fleck said of the defense on Saturday. “Very physical.”
After their bye this week, the Gophers will start to see how well they develop in Big Ten play, where the level of competition ramps up.
“I’m getting there,” Fleck said when asked if he knew his team’s identity. “I’m getting there.”
Randy Johnson covers
for the Star Tribune.