In this corner, wearing the all-gold ensemble, you have Antoine Winfield Jr., the 5-10, 204-pound Gophers safety wearing No. 11 with a nose for the football and a history of making big plays.
In that corner, wearing royal blue and silver, you have Richie James, the 5-9, 176-pound wide receiver for Middle Tennessee sporting No. 3, who just might be the best college football player you’ve never heard of.
Come Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium, Winfield and James will match skills, with the Gophers sophomore shadowing the Blue Raiders junior playmaker in a middleweight title fight of sorts. Sure, it’s not Mayweather vs. McGregor, but it’s a matchup well worth savoring and one you won’t have to plunk down a $100 pay-per-view fee to see.
Let’s get ready to rumble.
“So far this season, he’s the best wide receiver I’ve seen,” said Winfield, sporting a grin and a twinkle in his eye when talking about his assignment. “This will be the biggest challenge so far.”
“I’ll line up anywhere to help my team win,” said James, admitting earlier this week that he didn’t know who’d be tasked to stop him. “If they need me to line up at quarterback, receiver, running back, I will.”
Gophers followers know all about Winfield, the son of former Vikings All-Pro cornerback Antoine Winfield. He’s picked up right where he left off from a solid freshman season by collecting 11 tackles, a sack, two pass breakups and a blocked field goal through two games this year.
But unless you follow the mid-majors or are a college fantasy football savant, you might not know about James. The Sarasota, Fla., native had a 108-catch freshman season, a 105-catch sophomore campaign and has 18 catches through two games this season. He’s on pace threaten NCAA career records for receptions (399 by East Carolina’s Zay Jones) and receiving yards (5,285 by Western Michigan’s Corey Davis).
“He’s just one of the best players I’ve ever watched on film, as the slot receiver,” said Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, who saw James amass 187 all-purpose yards and three TDs against his Western Michigan team in the 2015 Bahamas Bowl. “They’re going to get the ball to James. That’s a no-brainer. How they get the ball to James, that’s what we have to be able to defend and figure out.”
Middle Tennessee moves James all over the field, in the slot, split out, at running back and even at quarterback. Last year against Florida Atlantic, he rushed 22 times for 207 yards and three TDs and caught four passes for 120 yards and a TD. And, oh yeah, he completed five of six passes for 76 yards in Middle’s 77-56 win.
“It gives trouble to the opposing team because they don’t know what we’re going to come out with or what we’re going to do,” James said.
Winfield knows he’ll have to be prepared for the variety of looks.
“He’s a quick, fast dude, so what I’ll try to do is slow him down,” Winfield said, adding that he knows he’ll have to cover some ground. “It definitely makes it more difficult because you’ve got to go to different sides of the field, wherever he’s at.”
Gophers defensive coordinator Robb Smith knows James is Middle Tennessee’s top threat, but the Blue Raiders have others, too, such as junior quarterback Brent Stockstill, who is questionable (shoulder injury) for Saturday but has passed for 7,714 yards and 65 TDs in his career.
“James is a guy that we have to know where he is on every snap, whether it’s first down, second down, third down. He’s their No. 1 target,” Smith said. “The thing that you can’t fall asleep on is they have excellent skill across the board. We’ve got to pick our spots on how we play him and how we play the other guys, and not always show the same picture to the quarterback.”
Fleck called Middle Tennessee “a scary, scary football team” earlier this week while forming a game plan to counter the Blue Raiders’ scariest player.
“You want to be best vs. best,” he said. “Put your best people on their best people.”
Big against the big boys
James hasn’t been piling up the stats only against Middle Tennessee’s Conference USA foes. He’s feasted on Power Five opponents, too, with 67 catches for 841 yards and five TDs in seven games. He’s battle-tested and not shy about beating his chest about conference pride.
“Here in Conference USA, we’ve got a lot of smaller guys who can just run,” James said. “Our advantage is running, their advantage is size. … [People] say it’s a different level of competition. But as a mid-major, we don’t feel like that. We’ll go out there with anybody. We love it. We love the challenge.”
Evidence of that: The Blue Raiders are fresh off a 30-23 win at Syracuse of the ACC in which James had eight catches for 96 yards and a TD. Need more? He had 10 catches for 95 yards against eventual national champion Alabama as a frosh in 2015.
Part of the motivation Saturday for James is making sure he evens the score with Fleck, whose Western Michigan team beat Middle Tennessee 45-31 in that Bahamas Bowl.
“I told all the guys who played in that game, ‘We can’t go 0-2 against him,” ’ James said, chuckling. “He’s good dude, a good coach, but we can’t go 0-2 against him.”
Winfield, for his part, will try to have his coach’s back by taking on the best that Middle Tennessee has to offer, if not one of the best in all of college football.
“It’s gonna be a good matchup,” Winfield said, flashing that smile of someone relishing a title fight.