For the first time, the Georgia Southern Eagles of the Sun Belt will travel to TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers of the Big Ten. Both teams have had their share of struggles so far this college football season.
Coming off a 10-3 season in 2018 that saw Georgia Southern defeat Eastern Michigan 23-21 in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, the Eagles are sitting at 1-1 at this point in the season. The season opener was a blistering 55-3 loss at LSU. Regrouping in week two, the Eagles were able to secure their first win of the 2019 season at home, defeating FCS opponent Maine 26-18. The Eagles' win was keyed by three players (Matt LaRoche, Justin Tomlin, and Logan Wright) each rushing for more than 100 yards, as Georgia Southern was able to put 395 yards on the ground against the Black Bears. What had to be disconcerting to Georgia Southern was the frequency that the Eagles put the ball on the ground, fumbling it seven times but losing just one of those.
Minnesota enters this game undefeated, but has been winning precariously so far in 2019. In week one, Minnesota was able to get by FCS opponent South Dakota State 28-21 when Mohamed Ibrahim scored the go-ahead touchdown with less than six minutes remaining. Last week, the Gophers needed double overtime on the road to defeat Fresno State as an Antoine Winfield Jr. sealed the 38-35 victory. The win extended Minnesota's non-conference winning streak to 17 games, the nation's longest active such streak. Head coach P.J. Fleck stated, “Really proud of our players on the game they won this past Saturday into Sunday. I think our team showed a lot of courage, showed the character and the culture. They found a way to win. That’s a very good football team. Last year they [Fresno State] finished the season 18th in the country. It’s a very tough place to play.”
Georgia Southern at Minnesota
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 14 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Minnesota -15.5
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
Georgia Southern has made running the ball an art form, with its triple-option attack allowing the Eagles to control the clock and wear down the opposition. A case in point, starting quarterback Justin Tomlin has attempted only 17 passes this season, completing seven for 87 yards. Tomlin is a dangerous runner, averaging more than nine yards a carry. Sophomore running back Matt LaRoche may be small in size (5-9, 180) but he's leading his team with his 12.2 yards per carry average. Minnesota has given up 116 rushing yards per game thus far while Georgia Southern is gaining nearly 235 on the ground per contest.
Gopher linebackers Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, and Thomas Barber will be crucial to limiting the Eagles' running game. Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said of Georgia Southern, "They do a lot of things to get the ball on the perimeter quickly. They got some skill and they got athletes and they want to get the ball on the perimeter now. They’re also doing a good job of getting the ball inside. They have athletes everywhere and that makes them really dangerous."
When Minnesota Has the Ball
The Gophers will show much more variety on offense as sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan is completing more than 70 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and just one interception in the early going. Rodney Smith (153 rushing yards) and Mohamed Ibrahim (124) key the ground game. For big plays from the receiving corps, Rashod Bateman is averaging nearly 20 yards a reception, and he and Tyler Johnson could present a matchup problem for a Georgia Southern defense that is giving up nearly 350 passing yards per game.
While any triple-option offense is difficult to defend against, especially in the middle of a season, the fact that Minnesota has a stout defense that can tee off against Georgia Southern's running game makes it challenging to see how the Eagles will be able to keep up with a Golden Gophers offense that can score through the air and on the ground. Look for the visitors to keep it interesting for the first half, but Minnesota's offensive prowess to be the difference as the Gophers win their 18th straight non-conference game.