Gophers football: 4 eye-popping stat categories after nonconference play

Minnesota (3-0) heads into the Big Ten opener against Michigan State (2-1) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.

NCAA Football: Western Illinois at Minnesota
Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive back Tyler Nubin celebrates after a play Sept. 10 against Western Illinois Leathernecks at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Matt Blewett / USA Today Sports
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MINNESOTA -- It’s hard to glean just how good the University of Minnesota football team might be after its nonconference schedule, but after three dominant wins, there are a lot of sources of encouragement.

The sample size will continue to grow, as will the caliber of opposition starting this weekend. Minnesota (3-0) heads into the Big Ten opener against Michigan State (2-1) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.

“It’s going to be, again, a jump for us from a competition standpoint; there is no other way to say it,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca shared Wednesday. “I’m excited to see where we are at.”

Here’s a look at what the numbers say about Minnesota after 25% of the season:

Best, above average and relatively low

Pro Football Focus College grades each phase of the game, providing a window into how each area has been performing this season.


After easy wins over New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado, Minnesota has emerged as the darling of the popular analytic and grading site. The Gophers have the top overall grade (97.8) given out by PFF.

The Gophers’ top four categories are: overall offense (96.7), passing (92.7), running (92.3) and defensive coverage (89.0).

The university’s bottom four categories are: tackling (69.7), pass rush (73.0), special teams (75.2) and pass blocking (75.7).

Mowing them down

A rushing total of 314 yards would be pretty impressive through three games, given its healthy average of 100-plus yards.

But that number represents Mo Ibrahim’s yardage total after contact. And it leads the nation.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Minnesota
Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Bryce Williams runs through a tackle by Colorado's Jeremy Mack Jr. (3) in the third quarter Sept. 17, 2022, at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Matt Blewett / USA Today Sports

The generously listed 5-foot-10, 210-pound tailback has been trucking opponents through three games. He has 464 total rushing yards and seven touchdowns.

Obviously his low center of gravity helps with breaking tackles, but it’s also his ability to avoid the brunt of the contact and continuing to move his feet after getting hit.

Head coach P.J. Fleck explained to the Pioneer Press some of the intangibles to Ibrahim’s ability after contact.


“He’s better if you hit him,” Fleck said. “(Defenses) are making sure they have a first, second and third level to get him on the ground. He is getting through the first and second level and getting tackled by the third.

“But I think he is so low to the ground and he has a great understanding of center of gravity,” Fleck said. “He knows where the hits are going to come (from). He has great vision. He can anticipate it. He can move his body to absorb the hit but also stay on his feet. … He can spin out of it, run through it, go up and through it, jump-cut it, stop to break that particular tackle.”

First on third

Nobody in the nation is better than Minnesota on third down — on both sides of the ball. The offense converts 77.5% of the time, and its defense allows a conversion only 11.8% of the time.

Those are just outlandish numbers. Over the past five years, the best offenses convert just under 60% of the time, and the best defenses are, at best, around 27%.

In other words, Minnesota’s current level is unsustainable, but this type of start could be a precursor to being among the best come December.

Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said the success comes down to attention to detail and execution. For Ciarrocca, he will need to find who is best in the passing game on third down now that top target Chris Autman-Bell suffered a season-ending injury.

Four deemed best

PFF College has pegged four Gophers as the best at their position among competition within Power Five Conferences.

Two have played at high levels before: Ibrahim (90.7) and quarterback Tanner Morgan (94.1). Two are just now reaching these heights: cornerback Terell Smith (85.1) and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford (90.5).


Spann-Ford is Minnesota’s No. 2 pass catcher and target thus far, and the share of passes thrown his way is expected to up with Autman-Bell out.

“He’s becoming a complete tight end,” Fleck said Monday. “… Brevyn is playing at a high level. But Brevyn also has to finish a catch that turns into an interception (vs. Colorado). Brevyn has to be able to finish some blocks that he knows he can finish. His pad level has got to get lower. His first step can get better. His hand placement can be better. But he’s playing at a high level.”

The win puts the Gophers on a collision course with Ohio State on Thursday in Austin, Texas.
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Mara Braun, who had a career-high 34 points and a buzzer-beater in a 101-99 victory over Lehigh, scored a game-high 27 points.

Smith is responsible for two of the Gophers’ three takeaways — an interception versus New Mexico State and a forced fumble on a sack against Colorado. Rossi praised the senior’s fundamentals.

“I think he’s playing at a really high level, and we need him, especially this week, especially against the offensive weapons (of Michigan State),” Rossi said. “He needs to continue to improve and be a guy that we can count on.”

Minnesota at Michigan State

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.


Weather: 59 degrees, cloudy, 8 mph north wind

Betting favorite: Minnesota, minus-3

Records: Minnesota is 3-0 after blowing out lower-level nonconference foes Colorado, New Mexico State and Western Illinois by a combined score of 149-17. Michigan State is 2-1 after beating Western Michigan and Akron by a combined 87-13. The Spartans were 11th in the Associated Press poll until a 39-28 loss at Washington last week and fell out of the rankings.

History: Minnesota has lost five straight to Michigan State since 2010. The Gophers haven’t traveled to East Lansing since 2013, when they lost 14-3. At Minnesota, head coach P.J. Fleck is 0-1 against the Spartans, falling 30-27 at home in 2017.

Key matchup: Gophers receivers vs. Spartans secondary. Minnesota will play the rest of the season without No. 1 wideout Chris Autman-Bell after he suffered a leg injury in last week’s 49-7 win over Colorado. He led the team with targets on 23% of passing plays. The remaining pass catchers will have opportunities against a MSU pass defense ranked 103rd in the nation.


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