ST. PAUL — The Gophers’ impressive 31-24 win over No. 12 Auburn in the Outback Bowl included many plays that could be harbingers for the 2020 season.
“You have to give them credit; we didn’t overlook them,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the New Year’s Day game in Tampa, Fla. “I think our guys were ready to play. I think our guys played hard. They made the plays we didn’t.”
As fans fast forward to what Minnesota will look like next fall — and whether these performances can become standard — here are flashbacks to some of Gophers’ top bowl-game plays/performances made by players returning for 2020.
Experience in back
After quarterback Tanner Morgan threw only his seventh interception of the season to give Auburn the ball at Minnesota’s 12, Gophers cornerback Benjamin St-Juste made a leaping pass breakup to force the Tigers to kick a field goal on their opening drive.
St-Juste’s impressive play came against the Tigers’ go-to, 6-foot-3 receiver Seth Williams in the corner of the end zone.
While Minnesota will lose unanimous All-America safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to the NFL draft, the U has experience coming back at corner in St-Juste and Coney Durr, and at safety with Jordan Howden.
Special teams stall
The Gophers tied the score 3-3 in the first quarter but then allowed a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Noah Igbinoghene, a junior who declared for the NFL draft days later. Minnesota literally laid one feeble hand on him.
The big return was yet another blemish in a rough season for Minnesota’s special teams. In the regular-season finale, Wisconsin pulled out a reverse on a kickoff to net a 50-yard return and help create separation in the Badgers’ 38-17 win.
Going into the bowl games, ESPN’s analytics formula SP+ had Minnesota ranked 18th overall, dragged down by special teams they had ranked 93rd in the nation. This lagging unit puts the work of special teams coordinator Rob Wenger in the crosshairs going forward.
Bateman's a biggie
The Outback Bowl was Tyler Johnson’s glorious sendoff — 12 receptions for 204 yards, two touchdowns and an MVP trophy. With Johnson preparing for Saturday’s East-West Shrine Game and the NFL draft in April, Rashod Bateman steps into the role of the clear No. 1 receiver.
Bateman showed how dynamic he can be when he took a tunnel screen pass and ripped through the heart of Auburn’s defense for a 34-yard gain to set up a touchdown that gave Minnesota a 17-10 lead in the second quarter.
New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. joined after the bowl but knows how important getting Bateman viable help will be in 2020.
“That development of receivers opposite Rashod is going to be very important for our offensive success,” he said last week. “There (will) be plenty of opportunities for them to get the football as people start zeroing in on Rashod because he is that good.”
Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin immediately read run and filled the gap to keep Tigers running back Kam Martin to a one-yard gain in the second quarter. Sori-Marin had only two tackles against Auburn; that must rise when he takes over for Thomas Barber in the middle.
Boye Mafe’s sack of Bo Nix in a Tigers’ two-minute drill before half was a byproduct of the U’s four-defensive end front and Mafe’s continual pursuit when Nix was forced from the pocket.
Getting to the quarterback will be more important for Mafe and the to-be-named defensive line coach without Carter Coughlin, the program’s third all-time leading sack man gone to the Senior Bowl on Jan. 25 and the NFL draft in April.
Interior defensive linemen Micah Dew-Treadway and Keonte Schad shed blockers and stopped D.J. Williams for a two-yard gain early in the fourth quarter. Auburn, which averaged 2.2 yards a carry against Minnesota, went three and out.
“We only had 56 (net rushing yards),” Malzahn lamented. “That surprised me. …. They got after us up front.”
Holding a touchdown lead midway through the fourth quarter, Minnesota went 71 yards over 13 plays to bleed more than seven minutes off the clock and exhaust Auburn’s timeouts before taking three kneel-downs to end the game.
All told, it was an 8-minute, 38-second drive reminiscent of a 9:16 drive Minnesota used to beat the Badgers at the end of 2018. It was clear who was in charge: the Gophers had nine carries for 4.8 yards behind an offensive line that also didn’t allow Morgan to be sacked all game.
That line was without massive 6-foot-9, 400-pound right tackle Daniel Faalele but included John Michael Schmitz. Next year, the Gophers’ top six offensive linemen are back.
“This will be the first time in a while that I will be able to have an offensive line … returning more than a couple of them,” Sanford said. “That is going to be a focal part of our football program.”
Running back Mo Ibrahim also showed he can handle a bigger in the wake of departures by Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Ibrahim had 20 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers.
Morgan’s Outback Bowl numbers — 19 for 29 passing, 278 yards, two touchdowns, one interception — were pedestrian when compared to the rest of a record-setting sophomore season.
Morgan earned the job after Zack Annexstad suffered a season-ending foot injury, but this is now his team going forward. Head coach P.J. Fleck said last Thursday that Annexstad should be 100% healthy this week.
“You want to go ahead and compete against us?” Fleck said in at the AFCA convention Sunday in Nashville. “Deal with Tanner Morgan, our quarterback. Go ahead. He’s bald, he’s 6-foot, doesn’t have the best arm. He will kick your butt.”