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CU Buffs opponent preview: Minnesota looks to stay on winning path

Gophers return several key players, reloaded in trenches

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – SEPTEMBER 11: Dead coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers looks on against the Miami (Oh) Redhawks in the third quarter of the game at Huntington Bank Stadium on September 11, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Gophers defeated the Redhawks 31-26. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – SEPTEMBER 11: Dead coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers looks on against the Miami (Oh) Redhawks in the third quarter of the game at Huntington Bank Stadium on September 11, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Gophers defeated the Redhawks 31-26. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Although the Colorado Buffaloes weren’t sharp in either of their first two games of the 2021 football season, it was Week 3 that really set the tone for a disappointing campaign.

CU had narrowly lost to No. 5 Texas A&M in the second game and carried a measure of confidence into the Sept. 18, 2021, home date with Minnesota.

The Gophers then handed the Buffs one of their worst losses in recent memory at Folsom Field. Minnesota rolled to a 30-0 victory and held CU to 63 yards of total offense, including minus-19 yards on 21 rushing attempts.

BOULDER, CO - Sept. 18, 2021: ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Brendon Lewis is sacked by Minnesota’s Thomas Rush during the Colorado Minnesota NCAA football game on September 18, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

CU and its sputtering offense would limp to a 4-8 season, while Minnesota went 9-4 and won a bowl game for the third time in four years.

This year, the Buffs will make a return trip, facing the Gophers on Sept. 17 in Minneapolis. This summer, will preview each of Colorado’s opponents for the 2022 season and in this installment, we look at Minnesota.

Although not considered among the top contenders in the Big Ten, Minnesota has developed a solid program under the direction of sixth-year head coach PJ Fleck. After a bumpy 12-13 mark in his first two seasons, Fleck is 23-10 over the past three years (with six one-score losses).

Much of that success has come with Tanner Morgan at quarterback, and he’s back for a sixth season. Also back is running back Mo Ibrahim, who missed all but one game in 2021 with a torn Achilles’ tendon.

Six starters are back from a defense that ranked top 10 nationally in points allowed (17.3 per game) and yards allowed (278.8) last year.

Minnesota does have to replace four starters on the offensive line, and the defense line has been rebuilt. One of the biggest changes, however, is on the coaching staff.

Mike Sanford, who was the Gophers’ offensive coordinator the past two seasons, was not retained after last year and is now leading the CU offense. In his place, Fleck re-hired Kirk Ciarrocca, who was the Gophers’ coordinator from 2017-19.

Fleck seems happier, telling The Athletic, “I wasn’t as good of a head coach (in 2021) because I was in that (offensive) room more than I’ve ever been in that room in 10 years being a head coach. I think Kirk makes me a better head coach. And I can make Kirk a better coordinator.”

If that’s true, Week 3 could be another pivotal and difficult game for the Buffaloes in 2022.

Minnesota Gophers

Head coach: PJ Fleck, 6th season (35-23; 65-45 career)

2021 season: 9-4, 6-3 Big Ten

Series with CU: Buffs lead 3-1

The Game

Who: Colorado Buffaloes at Minnesota Gophers

When: Saturday, Sept. 17, 1:30 p.m. MT (TV: ESPN2)

Where: TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis

5 Guys to Watch

  • WR Chris Autman-Bell: Last year, he caught 36 passes for 506 yards and six touchdowns — all career highs. In four seasons, he has 114 catches for 1,756 yards and 12 TDs.
  • RB Mo Ibrahim: The Big Ten running back of the year in 2020, he has two 1,000-yard seasons in his career (2018, 2020). Played just one game last year, though, before tearing his Achilles, rushing for 163 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State.
  • QB Tanner Morgan: The sixth-year senior is 27-12 as a starter, including 3-0 in bowls. He had a down year in 2021, throwing for 2,044 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
  • LB Mariano Sori-Marin: Finished second on the team in tackles last year (85), while also racking up five tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
  • CB Justin Walley: A freshman All-American last season, he had 29 tackles, seven pass breakups, one interception and two fumble recoveries.

Good to know

  • Minnesota has won as many as nine games in a season 10 times in its 140-year history, with six of those coming under coach Henry L. Williams from 1900-1905. The Gophers have hit the nine-win mark just four times since 1905, with three of those coming in the last six seasons. Fleck has guided the Gophers to two of those seasons.
  • Quarterback Tanner Morgan had the best season of his career in 2019, under the direction of coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. That season, he completed 66% of his passes for 3,253 yards, 30 TDs and 7 INTs. In the past two seasons combined (20 games) with coordinator Mike Sanford, Morgan completed 59% of his passes for 3,418 yards, 17 TDs and 14 INTs. Ciarrocca is back in the coordinator role this year.
  • Minnesota lost four of its five starters on the offensive line, but the one who returns is pretty good. Center John Michael Schmitz earned All-Big Ten honors and is a candidate for the Rimington Trophy.
  • CU has played the Gophers in Minnesota twice before. The Buffs won 38-6 on Sept. 23, 1972, and 21-20 on Sept. 19, 1992.
  • Minnesota left Boulder last year with the nation’s longest nonconference winning streak, at 21 consecutive games. That streak ended a week later with a surprising 14-10 home loss to Bowling Green, but the Gophers are 22-1 in nonconference games since a loss in the 2015 opener.
  • Kicker Matthew Trickett was just 1-for-3 on field goal attempts against CU last year, but was 16-for-22 (including 15-for-18 inside 50 yards) the rest of the season.

Portal movement

Since last October, Minnesota has lost 23 players to the transfer portal, according to The most significant losses were running backs Ky Thomas (Kansas) and Mar’Keise Irving (Oregon), who finished 1-2 on the team in rushing yards. The Gophers added eight players from the portal. Former four-star recruits Chuck Filiaga (Michigan) and Quinn Carroll (Notre Dame) are expected to start on the offensive line. On defense, the Gophers added three linemen — Kyler Baugh (Houston Baptist), Darnell Jefferies (Clemson) and Lorenza Surgers (Vanderbilt) — and two cornerbacks — Shannon Bishop (Western Kentucky) and Ryan Stapp (Abilene Christian) — who are all in contention for starting or rotational roles.