The defense on display looked like a throwback to yesteryear.
That’s not a compliment.
Nobody expected a polished product in the season opener, but the Gophers offense better average 45 points if this is the baseline for their rebuilt defense.
That script might — might — be good enough against lesser competition, but relying on one phase against a blue-blood program like Michigan was doomed to fail.
The Gophers offense couldn’t overcome the calamity that unfolded everywhere else and their weaknesses were exposed in painful detail in a 49-24 loss to the Wolverines on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
An overmatched defense and absurd special teams — caused by COVID-19 absences and injuries — turned a highly anticipated opener into a one-sided contest. Michigan’s offense basically did whatever it wanted all game.
Michigan’s only punt attempt of the game was blocked — on the first possession. After that, points galore.
Not every opponent left on the schedule will duplicate Michigan’s athletes, but the Gophers looked like they were trying to sled uphill.
Yeah, their offense is blessed with playmakers, but that’s a tall order to ask them to put the defense on their back and try to win shootouts every game.
Nobody expected the defense to be a finished product in Week 1 after losing four starters to the NFL and basically rebuilding their front seven with inexperienced players. Growing pains are inevitable. But the defense looks miles away from being ready for Big Ten offenses.
Michigan scored points on every possession when the game was still competitive, and made it look quite easy. The Wolverines averaged 8.3 yards per carry in racking up 256 on the ground.
“We didn’t tackle well,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “There’s a lot of inexperience and youth on that side of the ball. Not an excuse. We just have to be able to coach it better. It starts me with. We have to get it better.”
We can highlight the Gophers’ youth and inexperience, but their veterans had a rough time, too. And Michigan’s offense was basically new, as well.
The Wolverines lost four offensive linemen from last season to the NFL. Their top wide receiver, Nico Collins, opted out of the season. Sophomore quarterback Joe Milton made his first career start.
One play provided a perfect snapshot of the difference between the two new sides. On the first play of Michigan’s second possession, Zach Charbonnet took a handoff and rumbled up the gut untouched for a 70-yard touchdown. Multiple Gophers defenders looked out of position.
A gift in field position made life even harder on the defense. Fleck hinted this week that some starters might not be available for the opener after testing positive for COVID-19. He declined to give names or reveal how many, but it was clear that the Gophers were dealing with a situation that has hit other teams throughout college football.
Once the game started, the Gophers were without their No. 1 punter, their No. 1 kicker and their kickoff specialist from last season.
“I’m not going to get into why they missed the game — you can probably imagine,” Fleck said.
Fleck said backup kicker Brock Walker was limited after recovering from sports hernia surgery. The Gophers either squibbed or pooched kickoffs to protect him, thus conceding field position. The Wolverines returned one “kickoff” 66 yards to the Minnesota 8-yard line.
Backup punter Matthew Stephenson was so shaky that Fleck gambled late in the first half. Trailing 28-17 with a fourth-and-4 at their own 31. Fleck tried a fake punt, which got stuffed.
The move seemed unnecessarily risky because his defense showed no ability to stop the Wolverines, but Fleck said he felt like he had no choice because of the punting issues.
“We had a 14-yard punt at one point,” Fleck said.
Michigan turned that short field into a touchdown and a 35-17 halftime lead. The game was essentially over at that point. Even if the Gophers offense continued to score, their defense looked helpless in trying to hold up its end.