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Staring Down The Minnesota

Penn State v Minnesota Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

A big thanks to Blake Ruane over at TheDailyGopher for answering a few questions about Minnesota and the upcoming bowl game between the Golden Gophers and the Mountaineers. We’ll have a few more articles over the next couple of days as we preview the bowl game and get ready for a late night tussle with a Big Ten team.

1. “Row the Boat”, I’m sure most Mountaineer fans know that PJ Fleck and Minnesota are known for the mantra “Row the Boat” but where did it come from and what exactly does it mean?

About 10 years ago, Fleck and his first wife welcomed their second child, Colt. They had learned earlier in the pregnancy that Colt had a heart defect that would cost him his life. They knew they were going to lose him, it was only a matter of when. Colt passed away in his mother’s arms shortly after being born. Fleck developed the “Row the Boat” mantra as a way to move forward with his life.

If you think about rowing in literal terms, your back is facing the direction in which you are rowing. You can’t see what is ahead, you can only see what is behind you. In life, you can’t change the past and you have no way of knowing what the future holds. When faced with adversity, you can either put your oars back in the boat or keep them in the water. You can either stop or you can move forward. That is what “Row the Boat” is all about. Fleck describes it as a “never-give-up mentality.” It’s about focusing on what you can control and not letting adversity dictate the direction of your life.

2. I saw that the Gophers rushed for over 2,000 yards and was surprised to see that no running back had more than 680 yards. Then I learned that the Gophers lost several running backs to injuries. What can you tell Mountaineer fans about the rushing attack and how the Gophers coped with all those injuries.

It certainly helped that the Gophers have one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. The five starting offensive linemen came into the season with a combined 140 career starts under their belt. So there were always going to be holes to run through, but at several points throughout the season it was a question of who would be running through them. Down the stretch, the answers were redshirt freshman Ky Thomas and true freshman Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving. Both can operate between the tackles, but Thomas is the more physical back. He runs through tacklers and is very difficult to bring down. Irving is more dangerous in the open field. He is most comfortable when he can get to the sideline, and don’t be surprised if he catches a few passes out of the backfield, either.

3. As I researched this game, I found that Minnesota had a top-10 defense for completion percentage, allowing opponents on complete only 55% of their passes. What surprised me was that the Gophers did it without sacks, ranking near the bottom in sacks per game and sack percentage. How does the defense defend the pass so well without pressure?

Discipline. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s philosophy is predicated on keeping everything in front of you and not giving up explosive plays. Rushing the passer, the worst thing Minnesota’s defensive ends can do is break contain. Their focus is on setting the edge and keeping the quarterback in the pocket while they try to collapse it, limiting the amount of time he has to throw the ball and preventing him from extending plays. They don’t always get home, as you pointed out, but they often succeed at making the quarterback uncomfortable, forcing him to make an errant pass or throw the ball away. The secondary also deserves partial credit for the latter.

The Gophers’ secondary is very good, with veterans at cornerback (Coney Durr), slot corner (Justus Harris), and safety (Jordan Howden). They rarely get beat deep and they have Rossi’s trust to hold their own in man coverage. Rossi’s at his best when he can mix and disguise coverages, and this veteran group allows him to do that. Minnesota also has a rising star at cornerback in true freshman Justin Walley, and safety Tyler Nubin leads the team in interceptions with three.

4. The schedule shows two really strange losses to Bowling Green and Illinois, two losses to ranked teams Ohio State and Iowa and wins elsewhere. How do fans feel about Year 5 and the Gophers moving forward?

It’s been a strange season. I would say that Gopher fans, for the most part, are happy with Fleck as the head coach for the foreseeable future, though it’s difficult not to see this season as a missed opportunity. The losses to Bowling Green and Illinois were inexplicable, and Minnesota outplayed Iowa everywhere but the scoreboard. The Gophers’ first Big Ten West division title was there for the taking, but they squandered it due to struggles on the offensive side of the ball. That’s a big reason why Mike Sanford Jr. was fired as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the end of the regular season. The Gophers were able to run the ball successfully under him, but the passing game bottomed out.

5. To borrow from your questions, who are two players - one on offense and one on defense, that fans should pay attention to?

Chris Autman-Bell is their big play receiver in the passing game. Expect to see him and quarterback Tanner Morgan connect frequently. Defensively, rush end Boye Mafe will be on a mission to add to his season sack total before departing for the NFL.

6. What is your final score prediction for the bowl game?

Minnesota 28, West Virginia 14. The Gophers have generally played well in bowl games under Fleck and I think that trend will continue through the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. The Mountaineers’ passing attack may find creases in coverage, but Minnesota’s defense usually bends more than it breaks.

Again, a big thanks to Blake for answering my questions over the Christmas Holiday. You can find him at @blakeruane on Twitter and over at the TheDailyGopher, SBNation’s site for the Minnesota Gophers.