The Aggies ran into a bit of a brick wall last weekend when Craig Bohl's Wyoming team dominated them defensively, limiting New Mexico State to just 135 total offensive yard — including minus-nine on the ground.
This week, they'll face a Minnesota team that will present some matchup problems athletically on both sides of the ball.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers are embarking on the second year of the P.J. Fleck era. Year 1 probably didn't go as well as the young, energetic head coach would have liked, as the Gophers finished the 2017 campaign with a 5-7 record, failing to punch a ticket to a bowl game.
Fleck and Co. will be looking to make as much of a statement as possible when the New Mexico State comes to town.
New Mexico State at Minnesota
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: BTN
Spread: Minnesota -21
Three Things to Watch
1. How fast can Minnesota quarterback Zack Annexstad grow up?
It's not often that a true freshman starts a game at quarterback in the Big Ten. It's even more rare to see a true freshman who is also a walk-on get the nod. That's exactly what will have on Thursday when Annexstad jogs onto the field and into the Minnesota huddle. Fortunately, he'll be greeted by an athletically superior offensive line that should allow him to remain upright and deliver the ball downfield to a host of experienced skill players regularly. If he can come out and lead a couple of long drives early, his confidence will soar, the Gophers will likely take a lead they won't relinquish and Fleck can worry about the next hurdle.
2. Can New Mexico State figure out how to move the ball on the ground?
As mentioned earlier, the Aggies were held to minus-nine yards on the ground last week against Wyoming. That's simply not going to be good enough to win any games in 2018. Granted, many of those yards were lost via quarterback sacks, but running back Jason Huntley was still only able to manage 2.4 yards per carry on nine touches. Minnesota may not have the same number of future NFL players on their current defensive unit as what Wyoming had a week ago, but they will have athletes –- particularly on the defensive line — who will present problems all night for the Aggie offensive line. Finishing with positive yards on the ground should be considered a moral victory for a New Mexico State squad that will struggle all season.
3. Can Minnesota's new recruits be "elite?'
P.J. Fleck hauled in a top-40 recruiting class in 2018. There is a good chance we'll get to see a handful of those players on Thursday — albeit mostly in "garbage time." Nonetheless, all eyes will be on that young talent, looking for glimpses of what may be to come as Fleck continues his efforts to build Minnesota into a serious contender in the Big Ten West. This should be a game where the Gopher faithful are more excited about what they see in the fourth quarter than what they see in the first.
New Mexico State is not a very good football team — it's that simple. They were dominated on both side of the ball by an good-but-not great Group of 5 squad one week ago. P.J. Fleck understands that, and he'll make sure to set the tone early with a dominant rushing performance early on, featuring a heavy dose of running back Rodney Smith. Once the Gophers have a comfortable lead, look for Fleck to keep his foot on the gas and see what his young quarterback can do. The Aggies don't have anyone in the secondary who can match up with Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson alone. That will mean either a big night for Johnson or plenty of other open options downfield for Zack Annexstad. It's difficult to see this game being much closer than New Mexico State's season opener last week.
Prediction: Minnesota 48, New Mexico State 6
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! SBNation and Bleacher Report. He is a two-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(Top photo courtesy of gophersports.com)