The Gophers begin Big Ten football play on Saturday at Michigan State, and they'll arrive on the banks of the Red Cedar toting some lofty national statistics with them.

In overwhelming a trio of winless nonconference football opponents by a combined 149-17 score, Minnesota ranks second in both total offense and total defense among the nation's 131 FBS programs, and its average time of possession of 39 minutes, 56.7 seconds is tops by almost 2 ½ minutes.

What might be flying under the radar so far is how efficient this team has been on third down. The Gophers lead the nation in both third-down conversions (31-for-40, 77.5%) and opponent third-down conversions (4-for-34, 11.8%). In other words, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca is keeping his troops on the field for long stretches, while defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is getting his charges off the field in a hurry.

Such complementary football is just what coach P.J. Fleck would order, and the Gophers will see if they can keep that trend going against the Spartans.

"We said from Day One that our culture travels, and our players really believe in that,'' said Fleck, whose team will make its 2022 road debut at what is expected to be a noisy, hostile crowd of 75,000 at Spartan Stadium.

History shows that converting 77.5% of your third downs and stopping 88.2% of an opponent's third downs are not sustainable rates, and it must be reiterated that the Gophers built those stats against New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado. National third-down leaders at season's end usually land between 53-58% on offense and 73-78% on defense. If the Gophers land in that range against a Spartans team that finished 11-2 last year, they could be well on their way to victory.

Getting off the field

For Rossi, the Gophers' ability to get off the field has been a product of attention to detail and each player sticking to his responsibility. He knows the challenge ramps up Saturday with a Big Ten opponent.

"We know that each week, it's going to get harder and harder,'' Rossi said. "And this week is going to be a tremendous challenge with this quarterback and these receivers. We feel they're very dangerous, so we've got to be better than we were last week. We need to execute the third-down game plan better than we have.''

With his starters in the game, Rossi has seen his defense force an average situation of third-and-8.3 yards and give up an average of only 2.1 yards in those spots. Michigan State will try to change that.

Spartans quarterback Payton Thorne has a 13-4 record in 17 career starts and is a threat to both pass and run. His primary targets include Jayden Reed, an All-America selection last year as an all-purpose player; Keon Coleman, who leads the team with 15 catches for 236 yards with three touchdowns; and Tre Mosley (nine catches, 141 yards, three TDs). Throw in tight ends Daniel Barker and Tyler Hunt, and the Spartans have some offensive options to move the chains. Reed is questionable to play because of injury, but Rossi is planning his defense as if he is playing.

"We've got to get the quarterback on the ground,'' said Rossi, whose team has six sacks this season.

Staying on the field

Ciarrocca also knows the Spartans will be a huge step up in class from the nonconference season. He considers third-down situations important but explained that there's more to that story.

"I've always felt this way: The best third-down offense is to be good on first and second down'' he said. "We've been efficient with it — knock on wood.''

When the Gophers have had their starting offense in the game, it has converted 24 of 28 third-down situations (85.7%). Helping with that stat: The first-team's average third-down distance was third-and-5.3 yards, and it's gained an average of 7.6 yards. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim has moved the chains 14 times on third down.

The Gophers will be tested by a Spartans defense that features linebacker Jacoby Windmon, a transfer from UNLV who leads the nation with 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.

"He can bull rush you, he can up-and-under you, he has it all,'' Ciarrocca said. "He's gonna be a pro. We can't give him anything.''

So far on third down, the Gophers haven't given up much of anything, be it offense or defense.