This Gophers football team sure looks an awful lot like last year’s team.
“This team is completely different from the last team,” coach P.J. Fleck said.
... Err, scratch that first sentence.
OK, so Fleck knows his team best, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities in the results, statistics and Saturday’s schedule.
The 2017 Gophers went 3-0 in the nonconference season, outscoring opponents 99-24. They held the ball for an average of 36 minutes, 44 seconds (third best nationally) and limited those nonleague foes to 59 rushing yards per game (second nationally).
The 2018 Gophers went 3-0 in the nonconference season, outscoring opponents 95-27. They held the ball for an average of 35:13 (eighth nationally) and limited those nonleague foes to 72 rushing yards per game (sixth nationally).
But when the Gophers open the Big Ten season Saturday at Maryland — the same opponent but different venue as last year’s conference opener — they’ll aim to put any comparisons in the past and forge their own identity for 2018.
“This season has nothing to do with last season,” said Fleck, whose 2017 squad fell 31-24 at home to Maryland, a loss that began a three-game slide in a 2-7 Big Ten season. “It’s an extension in a way, but it’s really not. There’s so many different faces.”
It’s understandable that Fleck wants this year’s team to write its own story. He’s raved about how cohesive this team is, and how the immediate impact of several true freshmen — most notably quarterback Zack Annexstad — bodes well for the future. And his players, especially the upperclassmen, see how important winning the Big Ten opener can be.
“Last year’s [Maryland] game was definitely a defining moment in our season,” senior safety Jacob Huff said. “At the start of the Big Ten [season] last year, a lot of the young guys, the new guys didn’t understand how that was going to impact the team. This year, we do understand that because all those guys are back.”
The young and old
Huff and his defensive teammates believe this unbeaten start has staying power. Eight starters are either juniors or seniors, and do-it-all sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. has given the team a big lift in his return from a hamstring injury that ended his 2017 season in the Maryland game. Add true freshman cornerback Terell Smith, who’s playing like an upperclassman, and the unit is filled with confidence.
“The three [nonconference] wins we had last year were a lot different than the three wins we have this year, based on a defensive perspective,” said Huff, who has two pass breakups and a forced fumble to go along with his 13 tackles. “Our confidence is way higher. We have an identity we hold strong to.”
Part of that identity is speed. Smith ran a 10.32-second 100-meter dash in high school, and linebacker Blake Cashman, who leads the team with 21 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, routinely disrupts offenses with his quickness.
“I’d say we’re a lot faster — not only athletically, but mentally. Yeah, sure, you can recruit guys who can run 4.3s and that would be great, but if you don’t have it up here …” Huff said, pointing to his head for emphasis. “One coach told me a while back that a 4.3 is really slow going the wrong way.”
Their mental quickness will face a test in Maryland, which amassed nearly 1,000 yards in wins over Texas and Bowling Green before fading to 195 in a loss to Temple last week. Last year, the Terps rushed for 262 yards against the Gophers, marking the beginning of a trend. Minnesota went from the No. 2 national ranking against the run in nonconference to No. 99 in conference games (209.9 yards allowed per game).
“Every game is an independent event, every year is an independent event,” defensive coordinator Robb Smith said, shooting down comparisons. “Our focus is always, ‘Hey, once we clean things up from the week before, we move on to the next week.’ ”
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca hasn’t shied away from saying how much he likes this team. Three true freshmen — Annexstad (537 passing yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions), wide receiver Rashod Bateman (13 catches, 124 yards) and running back Bryce Williams (a team-leading 67 carries for 259 yards) — have been solid in key roles.
“They’ve exceeded my expectations of where they’d be right now, but they’ve got a long way to go,” Ciarrocca said. “There’s still some growing pains that are going on.”
With Tyler Johnson, Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell powering an improved receiving corps, and Seth Green quickly growing into a wildcat QB weapon, Ciarrocca has more tools in his toolbox. That should help the offense stay on the field longer. Last year, they went from third nationally at 36:44 in time of possession in nonconference to 29:02 in Big Ten play, which ranked 89th.
“We’re a better offense than we were last year at this point in time,” Ciarrocca said. “I feel better about us.”
But he also cautioned, “You never know after the first three games. … I know I feel better about where we’re going with this group than I did at this time last year. I felt like we had some real weaknesses, major weaknesses, at this time last year and it was going to catch up to us at some point.’’