By: Justin Gaard | KFAN.com
PJ Fleck’s first season seemed like a good time to bring out the old “Emptying the Notebook” series from years ago. After each game I’ll try to throw a few thoughts on here. What I liked, what I didn’t like and anything I observed on the field or locker room that didn’t make it on the broadcast. Here is the first edition for 2017 after a 17-7 win over Buffalo.
What we liked:
Not going out on any limb here. The defense is once again going to be the strength of this team. Nobody liked how easy the Buffalo scoring drive was or the fact that receiver Anthony Johnson had a huge day (first half)…but save that the defense was pretty dominant. Steven Richardson is a monster, Antoine Winfield Jr continues to get better and better and the linebackers led by Jonathan Celestin turned in a really good performance. I thought redshirt freshman corner Kiondre Thomas did well in his first action and showed by the last coaching staff was so high on him.
PJ Fleck has been raving about him all camp. Guess we know why. He was tremendous (6 catches, 141 yards, 1 TD). Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys were the tiebreakers during the recruiting process: there were questions as to whether Johnson would be fast enough to make the transition to wide receiver in college. Kill and Claeys watched him play basketball and were sold on his athletic ability in general. We saw that on full display against Buffalo, especially on the touchdown. Rising up to catch Rhoda’s high pass, Johnson outran the rest of the Bulls on the way to the endzone. Guess the speed is ok, afterall.
Averaged almost 45 yards a punt. Long of 55. Most important? Three punts inside the 20. The Gophers will need to be strong in all 3 phases, including special teams. They will need to win field position battles. I’ll take my chances with an opponent having to drive more than 80 yards against this defense all day.
What we didn’t like
With the dynamic running backs, everyone knows what the Gophers want to do offensively. Stopping the run will be everyone’s priority, especially with the unproven quarterbacks. Rodney Smith averaged 3.3 yards a carry. Shannon Brooks 3.8. The Gophers ran the ball well enough in the second half to keep Buffalo at bay but it was surprising that they weren’t able to be more effective on the ground. Buffalo was a terrible rushing defense a year ago. When asked this week if their rush defense issues last year were schematic, personnel or execution, Bulls coach Lance Leipold basically said, “Yes.” Offensive line remains a huge question mark. Line coach Ed Warriner is one of the most respected line coaches in the business, maybe the MOST respected. He will have his work cut out for him.
-Leaving points on the field.
A redzone interception. Two missed field goals by 2016 Big Ten Kicker of the Year Emmitt Carpenter. The interception was as deflating as the missed field goals were shocking. Carpenter responded to add the final nail (43 yard FG) in the 4th quarter. I thought Rhoda was pretty good outside of the interception. But the margin of error for this team does not allow for missed opportunities like those.
-The tradition after wins used to be the team would sing the rouser on the big ‘M’ in the locker room followed by remarks from the head coach. The new sequence: PJ sprints into the locker room and jumps into the player arms. He gives them his thoughts on the game and then they all move to the ‘M’ and sing the rouser (CLICK HERE to see the video of this...)
-Following the game the coaches and recruiting staff were waiting for the clock to strike midnight out east. Why? Midnight marked September 1st, which meant the next open period for recruiting had begun. Contact with prospects (including 2019 prospects for the first time) was now allowed. Guessing unlimited talk and text plans got put to use while the rest of us slept.
-Personal note: Great to catch up with former quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, now in his first year at Buffalo. If you ever listened to one of our interviews you heard what a great dude he is. What makes this job great are the people that you meet. Z is one of the best.