We asked Minneapolis Star Tribune beat writer Megan Ryan for her take on the Gophers going into Saturday’s game against Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium:
What were your expectations for Minnesota football going into the season?
I had them somewhere around an 8-4 team. I knew the receivers and running backs were good. Defense was a bit questionable since it was the weak spot last year. Some have already exceeded my expectations, like quarterback Tanner Morgan. Some have fallen short, like the offensive line.
The Gophers are undefeated, but not getting much notice in the national polls. Do they deserve a spot in the Top 25?
Not yet. I’d say if they win against Illinois and Nebraska, then they should crack that. While they’re a 4-0 team, they haven’t exactly played great. Close wins against an FCS team and two Group of Five programs, plus letting Purdue creep back in this past weekend even without Elijah Sindelar and Rondale Moore are all a little concerning. And the Gophers have always flown a little under the radar when it comes to national attention, so I’m not surprised they’re a bit overlooked.
How have the Minnesota fans responded to the team? Are they all in or waiting and seeing?
Oh, I think there’s a healthy balance there. I’m sure you can find people that are right in the boat rowing alongside P.J. Fleck. You can also find others that have been really disappointed in the shaky performances against what they feel are lesser teams so far. I’d say either side is too extreme. The Gophers can definitely be better. But they have still won despite that, which is really impressive.
What’s P.J. Fleck really like? How has he been to work with as a reporter?
Honestly, he’s been great so far. I’ve had more access to him than other head coaches I have covered in the past, which is really helpful. I know he can be a bit of a polarizing figure with how energetic he is and whatnot. But it seems to me like he’s mellowed a bit. You can even see it on the sidelines. He still has his culture and speaks of it often, but it’s not as over the top. And I’ll say, he’s been the same with me one-on-one as he has been at the podium.
Who is one under-the-radar Minnesota player Illinois fans should keep their eye on?
Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste. He had three tackles, including a shared one for a loss plus two pass breakups at Purdue. He’s new to the Gophers this season after transferring from Michigan. And while the cornerback unit has been pretty rotated so far this season, he looked really good this past weekend.
Who is going to win?
Just as a disclaimer, I hate doing predictions. I think it’s a futile endeavor. But I have to do them every week, so here goes: Gophers, 31-28. I think both team’s defenses will struggle. And I think both team’s offenses will pick up the slack. The Gophers have prepared themselves for close games this year, and they haven’t made it easy on themselves so far. Plus, Illinois had a bye week for extra preparation.