Whistles buzzed and game officials extended their arms to signal Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim’s six-yard touchdown run. The special teams unit was set to sprint onto the field. This time, a routine extra point turned into a breathtaking moment.
When college football fans saw No. 14 running onto the field, time stopped for a second. The Gophers’ holder got into position and prepared for the snap of a lifetime.
The ball swirled back to the holder, who perfectly placed the laces out. Kicker Michael Lantz swiped his leg and split the uprights. It was finally time to celebrate the debut of Minnesota’s strongest player — Casey O’Brien.
A smile stretched across the four-time cancer survivor’s face, as his teammates embraced him. O’Brien was greeted by a sideline full of coaches and players, but he stopped to share a long hug with head coach P.J. Fleck. After spending more than 200 nights in a hospital battling osteosarcoma, Casey O’Brien achieved his dream of playing college football.
It was a moment that players, coaches and fans will remember forever.
Outside of the perfect hold, Minnesota used a dynamic rushing attack to power past another opponent. Running back Rodney Smith rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the Gophers’ 42-7 win.
Minnesota started the season 7-0 for the first time since 1960. Dating back to last year, the Gophers’ nine-game winning streak is the program’s longest since 1939-1942 (18 games).
The Gophers’ offense starts slow, but gets going
Despite starting a little slow offensively, the Gophers got back into a rhythm in the second half. A combination of zone running and quick passing, helped Minnesota’s offense catch fire.
Following a pair of early three-and-outs, the Minnesota ground game came to life.
On the Gophers’ third drive of the game, they rushed the ball seven times for 47 yards and started to get push up front. Rodney Smith broke free for 20 yards off a well-executed inside zone running play. Tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford and Blaise Andries helped seal the edge for Smith to bounce the run outside. Spann-Ford had two critical blocks on the drive and showed he is starting to develop those skills. Rodney Smith found the end zone for a three-yard touchdown and the Gophers jumped out to an early 7-0 lead.
On the next drive, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca dialed up crossers to fuel a 36-yard pass to Tyler Johnson. Rashod Bateman and Johnson each ran shallow crossers, while Bryce Witham stretched the seam. The linebackers bit and Johnson made three beautiful moves after the catch. When tracking plays, it looked like Rutgers played a high volume of man coverage, which freed up the linebackers. Minnesota countered by manipulating the Scarlet Knights’ linebackers with crossing and wheel routes. This helped clear things out and created space for Minnesota’s wide receivers to make plays after the catch.
In the first half, tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford released off the line of scrimmage and grabbed a 13-yard reception. Wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman stretched the deep middle with posts and Spann-Ford had plenty of room to work off the wheel route. A few plays later, running back Rodney Smith burst free for 20 yards. The run was fueled by strong offensive line play and a reach block by center Conner Olson. Quarterback Tanner Morgan also appeared to make a pre-snap adjustment after seeing the front. When Minnesota reached the red zone, Rashod Bateman ran a corner route and Morgan threw the pass off his back foot. They couldn’t connect, but one play later, Bateman used the same route. The duo fixed the timing issue and Morgan connected with one of his favorite targets for a 13-yard touchdown.
Bateman continued to flash, hauling in four catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore wide receiver made a ridiculous one-handed catch near the sideline for 21 yards. Just a couple plays later, Kirk Ciarrocca dialed up a wheel route to running back Rodney Smith. It was the perfect play call because Rutgers sent a blitz package off the edge. Morgan dumped the ball to Smith and picked up 18 yards. Minnesota tried a field goal at the end of the half, but Michael Lantz missed wide-right from 33 yards out.
Minnesota creates more explosive plays in the second half
The Gophers restored their offensive rhythm in the second half. They carried the ball seven times for 50 yards and dashed in the play-action passing game. Tanner Morgan attacked single-high looks by connecting with Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman on a pair of slants. The first drive of the second half was highlighted by a 16-yard Rodney Smith touchdown run. Minnesota established the zone running game and continued to effectively use stretch-style running plays. On the touchdown run, Smith decided the bounce and bang reads weren’t available, but managed to bend inside. He redirected and found a huge backside crease behind a tremendous block by tight end Bryce Witham.
The quick hitting passing game continued to thrive in the second half. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman ran a deep dig route for 27 yards. Quarterback Tanner Morgan drove the ball to Bateman for an effortless completion through the run-pass option game. The Gophers finished the drive with dominant run blocking and a six-yard touchdown by Mohamed Ibrahim.
As the game progressed, Minnesota started to execute explosive passing plays. In the fourth quarter, Tanner Morgan connected with wide receiver Tyler Johnson for a 56-yard touchdown. Johnson ran a double-move and torched the defense for an easy score. The senior wide receiver grabbed six passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.
Rossi dials up pressure, shuts down Rutgers
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi dialed up some creative blitz packages to put pressure on Rutgers quarterback Johnny Langan. In the first quarter, defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere and safety Jordan Howden reached Johnny Langan. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi sent linebacker Thomas Barber up the B-gap and blitzed Howden off the edge.
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. hauled in a diving interception and the Gophers’ defense started the game with a takeaway. Winfield grabbed a pair of interceptions and returned an off-target throw 33 yards for a touchdown.
Rossi continued to dial up more pressure looks, including different blitzes and stunts. At one point, he aligned Carter Coughlin near the A-gap. Defensive lineman Esezi Otomewo and edge rusher Tai’yon Devers crashed downhill, while Coughlin and linebacker Braelen Oliver stunted to create pressure.
The Gophers continued to be creative and held the Scarlet Knights to 29 total yards in the first half. On Saturday, Rutgers only managed to accumulate 189 total yards, including just 48 yards through the air.
Minnesota’s defense created three takeaways, including a leaping interception by cornerback Phillip Howard. With Terell Smith missing the game, the converted wide receiver saw extended action. Howard played well and is beginning to pair improved technique with his athletic ability.
In the second half, Rutgers pushed past the 50-yard-line and reached the red zone off a pass interference penalty. Minnesota backed the Scarlet Knights into a 3rd-and-19 situation and found the quarterback. Carter Coughlin and Tai’yon Devers met in the backfield for a sack. Coughlin used a beautiful inside move to destroy the left tackle. Rutgers missed a 47-yard field goal, which preserved the first-team defense’s shutout.
This week, much of the attention will shift to star linebacker Kamal Martin, who was injured in the third quarter. He got stuck between a cluster of players and his knee appeared to catch in the turf. Martin was down on the field for a few minutes, but walked off with two trainers by his side. The senior linebacker exited the medical tent and sat in the front seat of a cart. It will be important to monitor Martin’s status this week.