As 2020 has demonstrated time and time again, it sure isn’t 2019 anymore.
That certainly was on display Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium, when the 21st-ranked Gophers opened the COVID-19-delayed Big Ten football season with a 49-24 loss to No. 18 Michigan.
A Minnesota team that a year ago found ways to prevail in three tight nonconference contests, win seven of nine Big Ten games and take down an SEC power in the Outback Bowl, this year had no answer against an explosive Michigan squad that exploited the Gophers defense and feasted on their special teams.
The Wolverines, 9-4 last year, used a 70-yard touchdown run by Zach Charbonnet, a fumble return touchdown on a sack of Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan and a 66-yard kickoff return to set up a TD and help build a 35-17 halftime lead. Also big for Michigan: Gophers coach P.J. Fleck’s decision to try a fake punt from the Minnesota 31 late in the second quarter. It didn’t work, and the Wolverines cashed in the great field position for a touchdown, their fifth of the half.
In retaining the Little Brown Jug, Michigan rushed for 256 yards (8.6 per carry), taking advantage of a Gophers defense that was replacing seven starters, including four NFL draft picks. The points were the most Minnesota has given up since 55-31 loss at Illinois in 2018.
“It was hard,” Fleck said. “Some guys were trying to do somebody else’s position at times. … There’s a lot of experience and youth on that side. Again, not an excuse. We’ve just got to coach it better, and it starts with me. We’ve got to get it better.”
Hassan Haskins rushed six times for 82 yards and two touchdowns, while quarterback Joe Milton went 15-for-22 for 225 yards and a score and carried eight times for 52 yards and a TD. Michigan’s six offensive touchdowns came on drives that averaged a little more than five plays.
“Defensively, we know we are much better than we showed tonight,” Gophers linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. “ … The biggest thing was our communication and guys fitting the run and doing their job. Defense is about all 11 guys.”
Morgan completed 18 of 31 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown, including nine completions for 101 yards to reigning Big Ten receiver of the year Rashod Bateman. Mo Ibrahim rushed 26 times for 140 yards and two TDs.
Minnesota’s special teams, aside from an early blocked punt, had a tough night. With regular kickoff kicker Grant Ryerse and starting punter Mark Crawford both sidelined by what Fleck hinted were positive COVID-19 tests, the Gophers had Brock Walker pooch or squib on kickoffs. Matthew Stephenson, a graduate transfer from Middle Tennessee, had a 31-yard punt and an 18-yarder.
The game, played in front of 589 fans because of COVID-19 restrictions, started well enough for the Gophers. Preston Jelen blocked Will Hunt’s punt, setting up Minnesota at the Wolverines 17. Two plays later, Morgan found tight end Ko Kieft all alone in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown and 7-0 Gophers lead only 2:16 into the first quarter.
Michigan wasted no time tying the score 7-7 on Charbonnet’s 70-yard run. The Wolverines’ lead grew to 14-7 when Michael Barrett, on a blitz, sacked Morgan. The ball popped in the air, and Donovan Jeter grabbed it and ran 15 yards for a touchdown.
Minnesota responded with a 10-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a 29-yard field goal by Walker to make it 14-10.
Michigan’s special teams struck with a 66-yard kickoff return by Barrett to the Minnesota 8. Two plays later, Milton connected with Ben Mason for an 8-yard TD strike and 21-10 lead.
After the teams traded second-quarter TDs, a key decision by Fleck backfired.
Facing fourth-and-4 from their 31, the Gophers ran a fake punt, with Kieft taking a direct snap. He was stopped for a 2-yard loss, Michigan took over at the Minnesota 29, and Haskins’ 4-yard touchdown run made it 35-17 with 1 minute left in the half.
“We were playing catch-up,” Fleck said. “ … At the time, that’s when I said, ‘We’ve got to fake a punt.’ … We just didn’t execute it well enough.”
Minnesota cut Michigan’s lead to 35-24 on Ibrahim’s 4-yard TD run to open the third quarter, but that would be it for the Gophers scoring.
“There’s no use crying over spilled milk,” Fleck said. “This one’s over, it’s done with.’’