Preview: Unbeaten Gophers visit overmatched Rutgers
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Minnesota is back in the Top 25 for the first time in five years and it has a shot at staying there a while.
The Scarlet Knights have been outscored 165-7 in their conference games and have won twice in their last 18 overall. The university fired coach Chris Ash at the end of last month and the job is being handled on an interim basis by Nunzio Campanile.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck was a Rutgers’ assistant for two seasons (2010-11) under Greg Schiano. The Gophers are 10-2 in their last 12 games and 18-13 overall under Fleck.
The last time Minnesota started a season 6-0 was 2003. They went 7-0 in 1960 and won the national title. The previous eight-game win streak bridged the 1948-49 seasons.
“We are the same as we were when we started the season in terms of our mentality,” Fleck said. “We’re 0-0. We want to be 1-0 in the Rutgers championship season, period. I’m proud of our players for adopting that because it’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to have your players actually respond to it and then have them become messengers of that.”
Putting the coach talk aside and looking ahead, Minnesota will face an inconsistent Maryland (3-3) next weekend and then it will have a bye to prepare for a home game against No. 7 Penn State (6-0). The rest of the schedule is at No. 23 Iowa, at Northwestern and the season finale at home against No. 6 Wisconsin, its bitter border rival.
“We want them to enjoy the process,” Fleck said. “The dream is the journey. So many people think the dream is the result. When the result happens, no matter what it is, people are going to look at you and say, ‘Can you do it again?”
ON THE MARK
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan is fourth in the nation in passing efficiency at 195.1, trailing only Joe Burrow (LSU), Jalen Hurt (Oklahoma) and Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama). Morgan is tied for 12th in the country with 14 passing touchdowns. His career completion percentage of 63.4%, would place him first in school history (he is 24 attempts shy of the minimum 300 attempts needed).
Linebacker Kamal Martin is considered one of Minnesota’s best NFL prospects, a long-armed, 6-foot-3, 245-pound athlete who was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after collecting a career-high 15 tackles in a win over Nebraska. Despite playing in four of Minnesota’s six games this year, with one absence due to an unspecified violation of team rules and the other because of a foot injury, Martin leads the team with 41 combined tackles and is tied with safety Antoine Winfield Jr. for the lead with two interceptions.
SCARLET KNIGHTS MVP
Rutgers punter Adam Korsak is averaging 45.44 yards per punt (19th nationally) on 41 punts. The former Australian rules football played has had 20 punts inside the 20-yard line. He has been named the Ray Guy Award Punter of the Week twice this season.
ABOUT THAT DEFENSE
The Gophers defense went 111 minutes and 27 seconds without allowing an offensive touchdown until a late score by Nebraska ended the streak. The Gophers gave up a total of 547 yards over the last two games against Illinois and Nebraska, and 14 of the 24 points allowed were from defensive touchdowns by the Illini. Last year against Illinois and Nebraska, the Gophers surrendered a combined 1,305 yards and 108 points.
WHAT A HOMECOMING
Saturday’s game marks the 18th time Rutgers has faced a ranked Big Ten opponent since joining the conference in 2014. They are 0-17. The Scarlet Knights have played at least three ranked Big Ten opponents each year since joining the conference. They are currently ranked last in the conference in scoring (11.8 points), scoring defense (36), total offense (266.7 yards) and total defense (450.2).
No. 20 Minnesota (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten), Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT (BTN).
Line: Minnesota by 28.
Series record: Minnesota leads 1-0.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Minnesota is riding an eight-game winning streak, tying the school’s longest since 1948-49. Going for first 7-0 start since 1960. It has secured a post-season bowl berth. It has won consecutive conference games by at least 20 points for the first time since 2005. After Rutgers, the Gophers return home to face Maryland. No. 7 Penn State up next at home Nov. 9. The season can’t end soon enough for Rutgers.
Minnesota’s offense against Rutgers’ defense. The Gophers have won their last two conference games by a combined margin of 74-24. Rutgers has been outscored 165-7 in its four Big Ten games this season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Minnesota: LB Kamal Martin. The senior had a career-high 15 tackles against Nebraska last weekend and was named the conference defensive player of the week. Leads Gophers with 41 tackles.
Rutgers: P Adam Korsak. The Scarlet Knights don’t have much. The former Australian Rules Football player is third in the conference and 19th nationally with a 45.4 yard average. Twenty of his 41 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line. He has only one touchback.
FACTS & FIGURES
Minnesota won 34-32 in 2016 in the only meeting. … Rodney Smith is third in the league in rushing, averaging 112.5 yards for Minnesota. … Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan has thrown five of his 14 TD passes to Tyler Johnson. … Morgan’s pass efficiency average of 195.1 is best in the league and fourth nationally. … Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck was a Rutgers’ receivers coach in 2010-11 under Greg Schiano. … Scarlet Knights special teams coordinator/outside linebackers coach Vince Okruch spent seven seasons on Minnesota’s coaching staff. … Rutgers last faced an opponent with a 6-0 record or better on Oct. 24, 2015 (No. 1 Ohio State, 7-0). They lost 49-7. Rutgers is averaging 65.3 yards in penalties, second worst in the conference.