Colorado State and Minnesota, a pair of bowl teams that met in a 23-20 overtime thriller in 2015, will face off once again on Saturday in Minneapolis in a final tune-up for both squads before beginning conference play. The Rams have won two in a row following a blowout loss to rival Colorado in the season opener. The Golden Gophers are 2-0 and well rested following an off week.
Colorado State at Minnesota
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Minnesota -16
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner will make his 32nd career start Saturday and comes into the game in fifth place on the school’s all-time list with 5,543 passing yards. Leidner ranks seventh with 32 career touchdown passes and leads all Minnesota QBs with 25 career TD runs. The senior has completed 33 of 56 pass attempts for 425 yards and four touchdown passes without an interception thus far in 2016 and has gained 85 yards with two more touchdowns on the ground.
Colorado State will start true freshman Collin Hill, who will be the third Ram to start at quarterback already this season. Hill made his first career start last week and led CSU to a 47-21 win over Northern Colorado. He completed 27 of 31 pass attempts for 351 yards and four touchdowns and added a 51-yard TD run.
Though on opposite ends of the spectrum in experience, both quarterbacks could have success on Saturday. Colorado State has surrendered an average of 290.7 passing yards per game (114th in the FBS) and has allowed an average of 5.56 yards per play this season (81st). Minnesota ranks 77th in pass defense (237.5 ypg) and has yet to force an interception. However, the Gophers have limited opponents to 4.67 yards per play, which ranks 27th, thanks to a solid rush defense.
2. The Line of Scrimmage
Minnesota and Colorado State both enter the game with solid offensive lines that have opened holes for strong rushing attacks in 2016. Colorado State has gained 206.0 rushing yards per game on 5.02 yards per carry. Three Rams – Dalyn Dawkins, Marvin Kinsey, Jr., and Izzy Matthews – have run for more than 100 yards this season. Minnesota has averaged 4.86 yards per carry and 221.0 rushing yards per contest. Rodney Smith (199 yards, 3 TD) and Kobe McCrary (180, 2) are the leading ground gainers.
In addition to opening holes for the running game, the Gophers’ offensive line has yet to allow a sack. Inversely, Minnesota defenders have gotten to the quarterback six times in just two games. Tai’yon Devers leads the squad with two sacks. Also, the Gophers have limited opponents to just 99.0 rushing yards per contest.
The Colorado State O-line has allowed four sacks, but the Rams have averaged three sacks per game on defense. Kevin Davis leads the way with three sacks followed by Jakob Buys’ 2.5. Colorado State also has held opponents to 117.3 rushing yards per game.
3. Special Teams
Often overlooked when running smoothly, special teams are a big part of every college football game. Colorado State has one of the best kicker-punter tandems in the country. All-American punter Hayden Hunt was a Ray Guy Award finalist last season and has averaged 45.6 yards per punt this year. Hunt has placed eight of his last 10 punts inside the 20.
Kicker Wyatt Bryan has converted all five field goal attempts this season, including a career best 53-yarder last week. Bryan has made 17 of his last 19 field goal attempts, including eight straight. Bryan hit two field goals last year against Minnesota, including a 37-yard attempt as time expired to send the game to overtime.
Minnesota’s Emmit Carpenter is a perfect 4-for-4 on field goal attempts this season, all of which have come from at least 40 yards out. Carpenter set a school record with three field goals of 40-plus yards against Indiana State in Week 2. Ryan Santoso has averaged 41.9 yards on seven punts to date while dropping five punts inside the 20.
Both Minnesota and Colorado State can run the football, both are capable of stopping the run, and both squads have been solid on special teams. Of course, the Big Ten Gophers are a more talented team overall, and have the benefit of playing at home following a bye. Also, while the Rams are likely to rely heavily on the running game to take pressure off a true freshman quarterback making his first road start, Minnesota can exploit a young Colorado State secondary with its veteran quarterback.
It’s reasonable to expect a low-scoring affair early as the two teams fight for field position, but look for Leidner and the Golden Gophers to pull away in the second half.
Prediction: Minnesota 35, Colorado State 21
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Kevin Davis photo courtesy of Dan Byers/Colorado State Athletics)