Minnesota is inching closer to a bowl berth this season, and should have an easy time getting within one win of becoming bowl eligible on Saturday. The Gophers host Rutgers, a program with a first-year head coach with absolutely nowhere to go but up. Since joining the Big Ten, Rutgers has tended to struggle even more when on the road, and that could once again be the case this weekend as the Scarlet Knights look to score an upset in Minneapolis.
Rutgers at Minnesota
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Minnesota -17
Three Things to Watch
1. First meeting between Minnesota and Rutgers
These two schools have been playing football for a long time, but this will be their first head-to-head meeting. It will not, however, be the first time the Golden Gophers’ and Scarlet Knights’ head coaches have seen each other. Rutgers head coach Chris Ash faced off with Tracy Claeys and Minnesota last season when Ash was defensive coordinator at Ohio State. The Buckeyes won that game, which was in Columbus, 28-14.
2. Minnesota cashes in on turnovers
It is one thing to come up with turnovers, but it is another to take advantage of them. So far this season, Minnesota has managed to do quite well when coming up with a free offensive possession. The Golden Gophers have scored 45 points off of 12 total turnovers. Better yet, they have only given up seven points as a result of their own miscues. Minnesota owns a plus-6 turnover differential, good for second best in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Illinois (+8) and tied with Michigan and Iowa. And on paper, it appears that the Gophers may get more scoring opportunities off of takeaways this Saturday. Rutgers enters this game second to last in the conference with a minus-5 turnover differential. Purdue brings up the rear at minus-7.
3. Rutgers’ Big Ten struggles
Last year was a mess for Rutgers in its second season in the Big Ten, and this season is off to no better start in conference play. The last time the Scarlet Knights won a Big Ten game was more than a year ago, with a 55-52 victory against Indiana on Oct. 17, 2015 in Bloomington. Since then, Rutgers has dropped its last nine conference games. The Knights are in danger of going winless in the Big Ten for an entire season, although their toughest games (Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa) are now behind them. After playing Minnesota, Rutgers has home games against Indiana and Penn State and road trips to Michigan State and Maryland remaining on the schedule.
Minnesota should be able to take care of Rutgers by taking to the air as long as it quarterback is on target. Rutgers may rank third in the Big Ten in passing defense by allowing just 170.4 yards per game, but dig a little deeper and it is easy to see other ways teams have had success against the Scarlet Knights’ defense through the air. No Big Ten team has allowed more touchdown passes (14) or a higher passer rating to opposing quarterbacks this season (137.97). This could be just the recipe the Golden Gophers need to get their passing game back on track.
There is some question as to who will be under center for Minnesota. Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner is still dealing with concussion symptoms and as of Tuesday, he was listed as being out for this game. This could mean Conor Rhoda could make his second career start. The junior helped the Gophers beat Maryland last week 31-10, but only attempted 15 passes thanks to a combined 230 rushing yards from Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. As long as Rhoda makes smart decisions with the football, Minnesota should have more than enough offense to get by a Rutgers team that ranks 117th in the FBS in scoring defense (37.7 ppg).
Prediction: Minnesota 31, Rutgers 16
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.