“Comparisons,” Gophers coach PJ Fleck famously said, “steal your joy.”
For fans and members of the media, however, comparisons are as important as oxygen due to the speculative nature of their roles. Which team is better? Who will win the division?
And as the Gophers head into Saturday’s homecoming game against Purdue with a 4-0 start and 21st in the AP poll, a FAQ has surfaced this week:
Do the Gophers have a different season than 2019?
This team went 11-2, upset No. 4 Penn State and defeated No. 9 Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Losses to Iowa and Wisconsin prevented the Gophers from advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game, but they finished 10th in both major polls and had their most wins in a season since 1904 and their best finishing finish since 1962.
Trying to keep his team focused on the “one-game championship season” each week, Fleck said, “We need the internal message to be a lot louder” than the noise from the outside.
But across four games, there are intriguing similarities between the 2022 and 2019 teams.
Both the 2019 and 2022 teams went 3-0 in non-conference games, but in very different ways. While the 2022 Gophers overwhelmed the states of New Mexico, western Illinois and Colorado a combined 149-17, it took the 2019 team three great escapes to defeat the states of South Dakota, Fresno State and Georgia Southern.
In 2019, the Gophers won six straight Big Ten games before losing 23-19 at Iowa, beating Northwestern the following week and losing to Wisconsin 38-17. The latter was a de facto West Division title game featuring ESPN’s “College GameDay” for the first time on the Minnesota campus.
That year, Purdue visited for homecoming, followed by trips to Illinois and Penn State. The final two weekends, against Iowa and in Wisconsin, could determine whether the Gophers end up in Indianapolis for the conference title game.
With key players like 2019 quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim still on this year’s team, Fleck acknowledged that experience is valuable.
“It doesn’t guarantee you anything, but it definitely helps,” Fleck said during his weekly radio show on KFXN-FM. “We have a lot of people who were with us in 2019 when we had a really good year.”
Just like the old boss
In 2019, as a sophomore, Morgan rushed for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns, both school records, and ranked fourth nationally in quarterback rankings (178.70). Having NFL-caliber wide receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman certainly helped.
This year, Morgan Senior is in his sixth year and ranks fourth nationally in QB rating (198.14). His offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrocca didn’t hesitate to say which version was better.
“He’s just a better player,” said Ciarrocca, who left the program after the 2019 season but returned last December. “I knew that as soon as I got here and watched him prepare the bowl. He has had more experience and everyone learns best through experience.”
After two lackluster seasons with Mike Sanford Jr. as coordinator, Morgan has excelled since reuniting with Ciarrocca. He completed 77.2% of his passes for 886 yards and seven TDs with one interception. Against Michigan State in the first game without injured receiver Chris Autman-Bell, Morgan distributed the ball to 10 passers.
“He works so hard at his craft,” Ciarrocca said.
In 2019, the Gophers running game featured Rodney Smith running for 1,163 yards and Ibrahim (604) and Shannon Brooks (408) in complementary roles. This year, Ibrahim is getting the majority of carries and has rushed for 567 yards and eight TDs. The 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year was mentioned as a Dark Horse nominee for the Heisman Trophy.
The 2019 Gophers had an offensive line that returned most of their starters. Center John Michael Schmitz broke into that lineup and is now among the best in the nation at his position. He’s the only returning starter on the line this year, but the group didn’t miss a beat.
“John Michael Schmitz came back to connect them all,” Fleck said. “He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever encountered.”
A clever defence
Minnesota’s 2019 defense included future NFL players Antoine Winfield Jr., Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Benjamin St-Juste. This year the defense is a balanced group that may not have star power but win with depth. The Gophers lead the nation in total defense (187.8 yards allowed per game) and second in scoring defense (6.0 points allowed per game). The first-team defense is yet to give up a touchdown.
“They play together, and they play incredibly hard, and they play the assignment sound,” Fleck said. “Smarter players are better players. We have a really smart defence.”