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‘Committee’ Likely to Replace Mo Ibrahim

November 22, 2022 - (0) comments

 

Golden Gophers’ All-American running back Mo Ibrahim, who is the focus of his team’s offensive success, plays his last regular season game Saturday against Wisconsin. Next season who replaces the player coach P.J. Fleck calls “arguably” the greatest running back in school history?

Ryan Burns, the Gopher football authority from GopherIllustrated.com, sees a lot of names potentially in the mix, including Trey Potts and Bryce Williams who both have remaining eligibility but aren’t certain to return. Potts had a devastating injury that caused him to miss most of last season and may have an ongoing health concern, while Williams has been in the program since 2018 but given limited opportunities to play.

Ibrahim has been a workhorse with 277 carries this season in 10 games, including 39 against Iowa last Saturday. Potts and Williams have 90 and 48 carries respectively.

“There’s gonna be a lot of carries up for grabs (next year),” Burns told Sports Headliners. “I just think there’s a lot of ambiguity in terms of who is back (returning), who is not. It wouldn’t surprise me…(if something happens) with Trey Potts or Bryce Williams (not returning), but I think there’s definitely going to be more of a committee next year than there is this year.”

While no one is publicly disclosing what Potts’ injury was last season, Burns described it as “scary.” Of late Potts seems more decisive and running better than earlier in the season. “He’s gotten more…back to form the last few games but I don’t know what he’ll decide to do after the season,” Burns said before last Saturday’s game against Iowa.

Burns doesn’t predict Potts will transfer, but sees that as a possibility for Williams whose other options are remaining a Gopher, or ending his college career. Likely remaining on the running back roster for sure is freshman Zach Evans who after being injured and unavailable earlier in the season has played briefly in one game teasing the potential that made him a coveted recruit coming out of Texas. He ran six times for 29 yards against Northwestern.

“I think the highest upside of those guys on the roster is Zach Evans,” Burns said. “You saw a little flash of it (against Northwestern)…where he’s got a little make you miss in his game. Kind of reminds me a little bit of a David Cobb (former Gopher) type. …”

In the 247Sports recruiting listings for 2023 two of the Gophers’ higher ranked recruits are running backs, Darius Taylor from Walled Lake, Michigan and Marquese Williams of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Both have made verbal commitments and could move up from three-star to four-star status by National Signing Day December 21.

Taylor, who is about 5-11 and 200 pounds, has a late offer from Michigan but paid his own way to attend the Minnesota-Iowa game. “When a recruit spends his way to comeback for a game that’s usually a good sign,” Burns said.

Burns likens Taylor’s power running to former Gopher Ky Thomas, now at Kansas. “He’s more your north-south guy, while Marquese Williams is more your east-west type like a Bucky (Irving now at Oregon) would be. He’s a smaller type of kid (Williams), 5-8, 180. So you have a north-south guy to go with an east -west guy, and then you have Zach Evans who can do maybe a little bit more of both.”

Worth Noting

Mo Ibrahim

Ibrahim is Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for a career-high 263 yards and one touchdown against Iowa whose nationally praised defense has held eight opponents to 10 points or fewer this season. Ibrahim’s rushing yards Saturday led the nation last week and they were also the fourth highest in Minnesota program history. He leads the country in rushing touchdowns (19), rushing yards per game (152.4) and is second in total rushing yards (1,524).

The Gophers are trying to improve their pass catching roster. Former Wisconsin wide receiver Markus Allen, a redshirt freshman who left the Badgers last month, attended the Northwestern game earlier in the month. “They really want to add him,” Burns said of Allen who has contested catch potential.

Minnesota’s passing game has faltered this season and Burns sees a need to recruit two types of receivers. “You need one guy for speed and one guy to catch contested catches. …”

The Gophers could have all their main targets return next season, including No. 1 WR Chris Autman-Bell and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford. “If they can’t find consistency amongst a bunch of guys 21 and older, I don’t know when you can,” Burns said.

Ibrahim had a key fourth quarter fumble in Saturday’s 13-10 loss to Iowa. Fleck said it was only the fourth fumble in 800 carries for Ibrahim who is in his sixth year at Minnesota. “It’s not his fault. No one play loses you the game,” Fleck said.

The Gophers, who like Iowa didn’t have a penalty in the rivalry game, had other key miscues including quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis’ fourth quarter interception and a near interception of an Iowa pass by defensive back Terrell Smith. Despite Minnesota’s eighth consecutive loss to the Hawkeyes, Fleck believes narrow losses in the series indicate his program has “closed the gap” with Iowa in various ways.

During Thanksgiving week, Fleck went into detail about the importance of gratitude. “If you’re grateful for your life, you don’t get to pick what you’re grateful for. You’re either grateful for your life or you’re not—whether it comes from the tragedy or the suffering—you have to be grateful for those things. And that’s what’s so hard because we get way down with a loss, we get way up with a win…. I am not saying I am happy we lost but there are so many lessons that come out of it.”

Fleck wouldn’t say what starters may not be able to play against Wisconsin but word is senior quarterback Tanner Morgan, who has missed the last two games, is likely out again.

Iowa is known as a development program but it’s interesting that the Hawkeyes had 45 former players on NFL rosters as of early November. Since 2010, 50 Hawkeyes have been drafted. The Gophers have 16 players in the NFL as of this month.

Daniel House

Gophersguru.com’ Daniel House told Sports Headliners a key for the Gophers Saturday at Wisconsin will be forcing the Badgers into passing situations, an area they struggle with. House excels at crunching data and said numbers show the Gophers are efficient against the pass. He also believes Minnesota needs to make four or five important pass plays on offense.

House predicts a 21-17 Minnesota win. “I think the first team that gets to 20 points will win. I do believe there will be more points scored in this game than the Iowa-Minnesota game.”

The Vikings, whose offensive line was ravaged by the Cowboys in Sunday’s 40-3 loss and gave up seven sacks, are expected to be without standout left tackle Christian Darrisaw who is in concussion protocol. The Patriots, who play the Vikings Thursday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, will be another challenge for Minnesota’s line that will be likely playing with two inexperienced starters in Blake Brandel, Darrisaw’s replacement, and right guard Ed Ingram who has struggled against pressures all season.

Injured Patriots center David Andrews is expected to miss Thursday night’s game. In passing situations, House said, that could offer opportunity for Vikings’ pass rushing specialist Za’Darius Smith to pressure New England QB Mac Jones.

“He (Jones) completes 75 precent of his passes from a clean pocket and that number drops to 45 percent when under pressure,” House said. “He also has five interceptions and just one touchdown in those situations. “

House, who does in depth analysis on the Vikings, thinks Minnesota will “get it together” in the second half and win 24-10.

Bethel senior quarterback Jaran Roste is the MIAC Offensive Player of the Year. Saint John’s senior defensive lineman Michael Wozniak is MIAC Defensive Player of the Year. Gustavus senior defensive lineman Zachary Jakes is the Mike Stam Award winner, presented to the top lineman in the conference, and Bethel first-year defensive back Devin Williams is the inaugural MIAC Football Rookie of the Year. Saint John’s head coach Gary Fasching is the John Gagliardi Coach of the Year Award. All MIAC awards are nominated by and voted on by MIAC head football coaches.

The NFL Films segment featuring Shakopee’s Dick Jonckowski’s debuts tomorrow night (Wednesday) on Fox Sports. Jonckowski relives moments from the famous 1975 Vikings-Cowboys game at Metropolitan Stadium. Drew Pearson, who caught the famous “Hail Mary” touchdown pass in the final minute to give the Cowboys a 17-14 fourth quarter win in the NFC title game, is featured in the film, too.

Jonckowski was a field usher at Met Stadium for that game and on a controversial catch by Pearson before the “Hail Mary” he kicked the Cowboys’ wide receiver on the sidelines.

“I was frustrated,” Jonckowski told Sports Headliners earlier this year. “I just kind of (gave) a sissy kick. I kicked the bottom of Drew Pearson’s shoe which really wasn’t much, but (Dallas coach) Tom Landry’s wife saw it from the stands. After the game was over, she called Pete Rozelle, who was then the commissioner.”

The segment will also air December 5 at 9:30 p.m. on the NFL Network.

 

PAT Misses May Catch up to Vikings

November 20, 2022 - (0) comments

 

The 8-1 Vikings have won four of their games by four points or fewer. “Close shaves” are commonplace in the ultra-competitive NFL and there is reason for concern with kicker Greg Joseph.

Joseph missed four extra points last season and already has that many in 2022. His four misses are tops in the NFL, per Lineups.com. He has failed to convert an extra point in almost half the games so far including last Sunday against the Bills when the Vikings needed overtime to win.

A missed extra point can change the strategy of a game, forcing a team to deviate from preferred options and sometimes compounding a bad situation with poor choices. Missed PATs can also change a season or playoff success. How unfortunate for the Vikings if during this so far magical season things went south in the playoffs with a missed conversion that blocked their postseason path.

Joseph has been okay on field goal attempts, making 72.1 percent. He is a perfect 12 of 12 between 20 and 49 yards but just one of six from beyond 50. He has been mediocre on touchbacks, with 55.3 percent of his kicks not being returned.

Meanwhile the Raiders’ Daniel Carlson, the former 2018 Vikings fifth round draft choice who coach Mike Zimmer became impatient with after just two regular games and released, is a perfect 18 of 18 on field goals including five from 50 yards or more. He has missed one extra point.

Joseph, 28, signed with the Vikings as a free agent in the 2021 offseason and has made multiple NFL stops including game appearances with the Browns and Titans. He told Sports Headliners earlier this fall he hopes to keep playing well into his 30s: “Oh, I feel like I’m only gonna get better and better and stronger and stronger, which is exciting. I keep trying to reset my ceiling every year. So yeah, just excited. …”

Long snapper Andrew DePaola said he and Joseph and holder Ryan Wright are good friends. They will go out to dinner together, golf or shoot paint ball guns. Any miscues on the field are felt by all three, DePaola told Sports Headliners. “…It’s tough when things don’t work out the way you want them to,” he said.

DePaola also said Joseph has the following mental approach: “not too high, not too low, just try to stay in the middle and do our jobs the best we can.”

Vikings leader and safety Harrison Smith said teammates are supportive of Joseph, regardless of results. Smith also said, “Kickers, you don’t want to mess with them too much. Let them do their thing but definitely let them know we have their back.”

Worth Noting

Vikings left guard Ezra Cleveland talking about second year left tackle Christian Darrisaw moving toward the NFL elite at his position. “For sure, with the way he works and the way he has been playing. If he is not already there, then he is on his way.”

Cleveland said with the Vikings playing Sunday and then again on Thursday, players will need to start their recovery process sooner than in a normal week. Instead of Monday, body work will start Sunday night after the game at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Cowboys and in preparation for the Thanksgiving evening home game with the Patriots.

Cleveland said growing up his mom prepared corn beef and cabbage for Thanksgiving dinner. Last year he smoked his first turkey and probably will prepare another this week for his girlfriend and dad. “May be out-source the pie…or something. I don’t know how to make pie.”

Tight end T.J. Hockenson played against the Cowboys earlier this season before the Lions traded him to Minnesota. He said that familiarity with scheme and personnel could be helpful. He caught four passes for 48 yards in his team’s 24-6 loss to the Cowboys.

Smith said the feeling around this year’s team is unique to what he’s experienced before in his 11 years with the Vikings. “We feel good about what it takes to win when the time comes. It doesn’t mean we can’t play better, different spots here and there. …”

Smith on 32-year-old cornerback Patrick Peterson who had two interceptions and three solo tackles against the Bills: “He is running around like he’s a young kid. Looks explosive and springy and just ready for action.”

Former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber on Twitter writing about his old team: “One very noticeable trait to this Vikings team is no matter what happens, there is no flinch… especially on defense. It’s all about lining up and playing the next play no matter what. Incredible.”

Golfweek.com reports Kirk Cousins and his wife have purchased a golf course in western Michigan near Holland. He and Julie have a home in the area, are familiar with the course and know the previous owners, per a November 10 online story in the Holland Sentinel.

Glenn Caruso (photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

Congratulations to St. Thomas for winning the Pioneer League football championship with a 8-0 conference record. The Tommies won a league championship in just their second year as an FCS program with about two-thirds of their 22 starters being Minnesota natives.

Tommies coach Glenn Caruso, who has led a remarkable transition from Division III to Division I, wowed a CORES lunch crowd earlier this month with his authenticity and commitment to his players. He wants his student-athletes to have different experiences and that’s why the Tommies will play a home-and-home against Harvard starting next year in Boston, with a return date in 2029 in St. Paul.

Caruso said wife Rachel has been cancer free now for five years.

Condolences to the family and many friends of legendary University of St. Thomas and Cretin Derham-Hall baseball coach Dennis Denning, 76, who passed away last week. St. Thomas men’s basketball coach John Tauer wrote this on Facebook: “Six state titles and two national titles pale in comparison to the indelible impact he had on all of us. He taught us to ‘Dare to be Great’ and it remains one of our program mantras.”

The Amazing Hondo”, the popular magician and former St. Paul athlete, is among the many mourning the loss of Dennis. He emailed to share the news his former Winona State basketball coach Les Wothke and Dennis both passed away last Wednesday. Wothke, 83, took Winona to the NAIA finals in 1973 and 1975 and later was head coach at Army. “Losing two legendary coaches on the same day is something I shall never forget,” Hondo wrote.

Early season home results: Tauer’s Tommies defeated (on November 11) St. Francis of Brooklyn, 84-48, two days after the Gophers beat them, 72-54. Down the road a game between the two Minnesota Division I programs seems likely.

Don’t hold your breath, though, for a renewal of the St. Thomas and St. John’s football rivalry. FCS teams can’t play Division III opponents.

As of Friday, Ben Johnson’s Gophers had made .543 percent of their free throws in four games, ranking No. 339 in the country.

Tip of the cap to the Twins new uniforms with clean looks and various offerings. Just in time for holiday shopping.

The Athletics latest NHL power rankings have the Devils No. 1, the second-season Kraken No. 12 and the Wild No. 17 among 32 teams.

Dick Jonckowski emcees the Minnesota Old Timers Hockey Luncheon at Mancini’s Char House tomorrow (Monday, November 21). Former North Star and media hockey authority Tom Reid will be the main speaker.

Wild goalie Marc-Andre Fleury turns 38 November 28, while Golden Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck has his 42nd birthday November 29.

 

Redemption Time for Football Gophers

November 17, 2022 - (0) comments

 

What kind of statement will the Golden Gophers football team make in its last two regular season games of the year? The results of Saturday’s home game against Iowa and then November 26 at Wisconsin will say a lot about the program’s status.

The view here is it’s time for the Gophers to earn 2022 and historical redemption. Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, who was hired in January of 2017, is 0-5 against the border rival Hawkeyes from Iowa. Worse, the Gophers haven’t defeated Iowa since 2014. That win was in Minneapolis and the last victory for the Gophers in Iowa City was 1999.

Floyd of Rosedale photo courtesy of Minnesota athletics communications

There have been near misses for the Gophers in recent years but “what-ifs” won’t bring the famous bronze pig, Floyd of Rosedale, back to Minneapolis. Minnesota still leads the all-time series 62-51-2, thanks mostly to a stretch of dominance prior to World War II. But the 5-17 record of the new millennium gives passionate Gophers fans pain—hungry as they are for bacon, pork and ham.

Iowa won’t look much different on Saturday than in the recent past. The Hawkeyes’ defense (again) deserves mention with the best in the nation. Mostly a unit with developmental players, including Iowa natives, the Hawkeyes don’t beat themselves with mistakes and they stay true to their assignments. They’re a physical bunch that can knock the enemy on their collective butts and force turnovers.

As usual, Iowa plays for field position and boasts a great punter in Tory Taylor. College football rosters often have Australian punters these days (including Minnesota’s Mark Crawford) but Iowa’s Aussie is special. Taylor ranks third in the Big Ten with a 44.1 yards average for conference games and is deft at sending the football where he wants it to stop.

If you want to piss off Iowa fans, just bring up the names of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and quarterback Spencer Petras. Struggling offenses are nothing new at Iowa under Brian and there was an offseason fan petition supporting the dismissal of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s son.

Early season offensive production was low even by Iowa standards. The Hawkeyes relied on two safeties and a field goal for points in their season opener, a 7-3 win over South Dakota State. A week later Iowa managed a single offensive touchdown in a loss to Iowa State and even last month the offense was awful in losses to Illinois and Ohio State.

In the last three games Iowa has made strides and totaled 81 points in wins over Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. Iowa’s young offensive line has shown improvement, allowing Petras more time to throw and opening holes for gifted freshman runner Kaleb Johnson.

The Gophers can thump their collective chests over their defense, too. Minnesota ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring defense (16.3 points) for league games, while Iowa is fifth (18). Iowa is giving up 289 yards per league game, Minnesota 318.4, placing both programs among conference leaders. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, like Iowa counterpart Phil Parker, is a gem.

Who wins Saturday? The Gophers could be too emotional for this game at Huntington Bank Stadium and not stay true to their assignments and abilities. But home field and the crowd should be an advantage. If the crowd is at its noisy best, that could cause the Iowa offense to be confused when Petras and the Hawkeyes call signals and attempt to run plays.

Mo Ibrahim

To win, the Gophers will need to find their often missing passing game. Minnesota’s quarterback (either Tanner Morgan or Athan Kaliakmanis) will have to make clutch throws to loosen up the Iowa defense. But even with timely and accurate passes, is the suspect Minnesota receiving group going to get separation from defenders and consistently catch balls? Then, too, the offensive line will have to play at its highest level of the year to pass protect the quarterback and provide All-American tailback Mo Ibrahim occasional daylight.

If the Iowa defense forces the Gophers into turnovers and scores off them, it’s all but certain Fleck goes to 0-6 against the Hawkeyes. But in dreary November, why not be an optimist and predict the Gophers’ defense forces Iowa into mistakes and the Minnesota offense is just good enough in a 16-10 win bringing Floyd of Rosedale home.

Redemption road will then present the challenge of defeating Iowa and Wisconsin in the same season for the first time since 1990. Fleck’s teams have won twice against Wisconsin, most recently in Minneapolis last year.

The Gophers will not have a gimme task in Madison. Not with interim coach Jim Leonhard hoping to get the head job permanently and having a roster of players (presumably) all in on the former Badger defensive coordinator. A Wisconsin native who played for the Badgers, nobody has to give Leonhard a history lesson about another famous travelling trophy, Paul Bunyan’s Axe that annually goes to the winner of the Gophers and UW game.

The Badgers’ defense will challenge the suspect Minnesota passing game and if the Gophers have to rely just on Mo, the Axe could be residing in Madison for the next 12 months. The Wisconsin offense is similar to the Gophers, led by superb tailback Braelon Allen but unable to sustain a top passing attack with inconsistent quarterback Graham Mertz. The Badgers are 5-5 overall and 3-4 in conference games.

The Gophers, 7-3 overall and 4-3 in Big Ten games, will write a fulfilling script if they can finish the season with two wins. Fleck and Henry Williams are the only Minnesota football coaches to twice win nine games. Six Big Ten victories would match last year’s 6-3 record and be one win shy of Fleck’s 7-2 mark in 2019. Going 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the conference would boost Fleck’s record at Minnesota to 44-26. That’s a winning percentage of .628 that would rank third among all Gopher head football coaches who coached 45 games or more.

Expectations before the season were that it was finally time for the Gophers to win their first West Division championship. The talent appeared sufficient and the division competition mediocre, but a three-game conference losing streak in October was a major blow, although mathematically the Gophers are still alive in the race.

Illinois, Purdue, Iowa and Minnesota all have the same conference records as they compete for the West Division championship. Unlikely as it may seem, the Illini, Boilermakers and Hawkeyes could all lose a game before the regular season ends. Illinois and Purdue hold wins over Minnesota, and so any tiebreakers in the division standings with the Gophers will go to the Illini and Boilers.

None of the teams in the West, including the title contenders, will be remembered as great teams stocked with future pros. The Athletic’s Chris Vannini offered a ranking this week of major college football’s 131 teams and the list included No. 27 Illinois, No. 30 Minnesota, No. 40 Iowa, No. 41 Purdue and No. 54 Wisconsin.

Long suffering Gophers fans sometimes feel the program that once specialized in Big Ten titles and national championships is just never going to win the West. Well maybe the ghost of Bernie Bierman will hex the Hawkeyes, Badgers, Illini and Boilers, and inspire the Golden Gophers. Wins over Iowa and Wisconsin, and a first-place finish in the West, would be the ultimate Redemption Road for the Gophers.

 

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