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Just like old times: Disappointing Gophers are no match for Michigan in season-opening clunker

NCAA Football: Michigan at Minnesota
Oct 24, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins (25) rushes for a touchdown in the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — This weekend was supposed to serve as a reprieve for Minnesota football fans.

With the bumbling Vikings (1-5) mercifully on a bye, the 21st-ranked Gophers had the opportunity to accomplish something they hadn’t done in 43 years: Beat the Michigan Wolverines in Minneapolis.  The Gophers’ 16-0 victory over Michigan on Oct. 22, 1977 was followed by 16 consecutive loss in Minneapolis, beginning in Memorial Stadium, spanning the Gophers’ entire stay in the Metrodome and continuing at TCF Bank Stadium. Some had been heart-breakers, many of them blowouts, all losses.

Saturday was supposed to be different. P.J. Fleck’s team was coming off an 11-2 season that concluded with an impressive victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. The problem is that not only were things no different from so many previous Michigan-Minnesota meetings, but these Gophers seemed determined to give the Vikings defense a run for its money when it comes to ineptitude.

The 18th-ranked Wolverines jumped to a 35-17 halftime lead en route to a 49-24 victory that would have been worse if Michigan kicker Jacob Moody hadn’t missed three field goals. There was no reprieve in watching the Gophers, only further distress for a fan base that entered this pandemic-shortened Big Ten season with high hopes. The only positive was that none of the fans were forced to pay admission to witness this debacle.

“The loss could be the best thing that happened to us in 2020,” Fleck said. “We have a lot to learn.”

That’s one way to look at it. The Gophers have seven games remaining and, after what took place Saturday night, there have to be serious questions about how much can be fixed, at least when Minnesota faces quality competition. A defense that did not allow more than 20 points in the first half of any game in 2019, gave up 28 in the opening half Saturday, including a touchdown after Fleck decided to try a fake punt that failed and gave Michigan a short field. “Good call if it works, horrible call if it doesn’t work, so we’ll call it a horrible call,” Fleck said.

The Gophers lost seven starters from their 2019 defense, including four players who were selected in the NFL draft. The biggest of those losses was All-America free safety Antoine Winfield Jr., whose combination of ability and instincts covered up for many mistakes made in front of him. The Gophers hadn’t given up as many points as they did Saturday since a 55-31 loss on Nov. 3, 2018 at Illinois. Fleck fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith the next day.

The defense wasn’t the only issue on Saturday. Earlier in the week, Fleck declined to reveal who might not be in the lineup because they were dealing with a coronavirus-related issue or had decided to opt-out. As kickoff approached, there was a report from Yahoo Sports that the Gophers would be without the starting right side of their offensive line (400-pound tackle Daniel Faalele and guard Curtis Dunlap. Jr.), as well as two members of the defense in starting linebacker Braelen Oliver and reserve defensive back Phillip Howard.

That wasn’t all. Kicker Michael Lantz, punter Mark Crawford and kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich also were unavailable, turning special teams play into an adventure. The fake punt was done in part because of concerns about how far Matthew Stephenson could boot the ball and because Fleck was concerned about about his defense.

The Gophers got off to a solid start as Michigan’s opening drive stalled at their 34 and Will Hart had his punt blocked by Preston Jelen. The Gophers recovered at the Wolverines’ 17 and Tanner Morgan found Ko Kieft for a 14-yard touchdown pass to give Minnesota the early lead. But Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet dashed up the middle on the next play from scrimmage and went 70 yards for a touchdown. Following an exchange of possessions in the first quarter, Michigan took a lead it would not relinquish when Morgan dropped back to pass from deep in his territory and was hit by blitzing linebacker Michael Barrett.

The ball popped into the hands of defensive lineman Donovan Jeter and he trotted into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown that made it 14-7. The Gophers would twice pull within four points in the opening half before the game started to get out of hand. Michigan finished with 481 yards, was 4-for-7 on third downs and 5-for-7 in the red zone. The Wolverines had 256 yards on the ground — three running backs went for more than 50 yards — and first-year starting quarterback Joe Milton passed for 225 yards and a touchdown.

The clock will be ticking on coordinator Joe Rossi’s defense. The good news is that back-to-back road games at Maryland and Illinois should present an opportunity for Morgan, wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell and running back Mohamed Ibrahim to outscore lesser opponents. Ibrahim rushed for 140 yards on 26 carries with two touchdowns and caught four passes for 17 yards. Bateman caught nine passes for 101 yards. Autman-Bell had a 45-yard reception in the first half but nothing more.

Trying to overpower Maryland and Illinois with offense might be the best case scenario for these Gophers. The worst case? A national television audience saw that on Saturday and it wasn’t any better than that other struggling football team in this town.