Gophers Undefeated
September 24, 2016

The University of Minnesota Gophers completed their non-conference season with a 3-0 record after topping Colorado State at home, 31-24, but failed to gain any national notice despite an unblemished won-loss record.

Voters in the weekly AP poll gave no support to possibly placing the Gophers in the top 25 teams, preferring instead to honor teams with records no better than 2-2. This is where “strength of schedule” enters the equation and where it is deemed that Minnesota’s wins over Oregon State, Indiana State, and Colorado State are too weak to create attention nationally.

This means little, however, in the Gopher quest for bowl eligibility, something that has dominated Athletic Department thinking throughout the 21st century. No season can be considered successful without a bowl appearance, no matter what the bowl. (Last season, a 5-7 mark was good enough for the Quick Lane Bowl.)

The emphasis is placed on not winning a championship but playing a 13th game each season and thereby staying ahead of Purdue, Rutgers, Maryland, and Illinois. Minnesota is not alone in this. Teams across the country schedule games in such a manner to insure success. The proliferation of bowls encourage the picking of low-hanging fruit.

Last year, Colorado State put up a fight against the Gophers in Fort Collins, losing in overtime when Ryan Santoso kicked an 18-yard field goal after a Ram turnover gave Minnesota possession. Prior to overtime, Minnesota had trailed CSU for the majority of the spirited contest.

Despite an early 44-7 loss to arch rival Colorado in Denver, the 2016 Rams rejuvenated themselves with a freshman quarterback, Collin Hill, who provided the Gophers all they could handle, passing for a 15-yard touchdown to Michael Gallup to draw CSU to within a touchdown of Minnesota with six and one-half minutes left in the game.

Prior to the season’s start, Minnesota was acknowledged by experts to be “solid” at all three phases of defense. This feeling was bolstered by the fact that coach Tracy Claeys is a “defense first” type of guy. So far, the Gophers have found themselves somewhat lacking in the defensive backs and linebacker areas. Injuries and the mysterious suspensions of defensive backs KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford have left the Gophers thin with the Big 10 season opening Saturday at Penn State.

The Gophers have scored 30, 58, and 31 points, respectively, against three non-conference opponents, but need a defense that will keep quarterback Mitch Leidner and a trio of running backs on the field at Penn State. Of the three, it was Rodney Smith’s turn to shine against CSU with two touchdowns and 101 yards gained on 17 carries. Shannon Brooks added 90 yards on 13 carries.

Leidner guided Minnesota to a 17-7 halftime lead, and it seemed a rout was possible, but Hill continued to pick apart Gopher defensive efforts. And a two-yard plunge by Detrich Clark made the lead 17-14.

“We’re playing good enough defense to slow people down a little,” Claeys said after the game. “We’re obviously not where we need to be heading into the Big 10.”

After the Rams scored, Minnesota went on a four-play, 76-yard drive highlighted by a 35-yard Brooks run that led to a Emmit Carpenter field goal and a 24-14 lead. Colorado State was not intimidated and responded with a field goal of its own, and it was 24-17 at the close of the third quarter.

The final quarter witnessed an 81-yard touchdown drive capped by a Smith TD run and a 31-17 lead. From there, the Gophers hung on, allowing another CSU touchdown but summoning the strength to halt further Ram scores.

Leidner was superb, completing 16 of 20 passes for 174 yards while running for an additional 61 yards.

It is the shaky defense that is cause to worry. “Good enough” will not be good enough at Penn State,

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