Colorado State to face big, physical Minnesota team

Eric Wolf

The Colorado State Rams and the Minnesota Golden Gophers met in week two last season in what turned out to be a hard fought 23-20 Minnesota victory in overtime at Hughes stadium.

This year, the Rams travel to Minneapolis for round two when they take on a 2-0 Minnesota team fresh off of a bye week. Minnesota holds wins over Oregon State, 23-20, and Indiana State, 58-28.

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As a whole, Minnesota returns 12 starters from last season; six on offense, six on defense.

Redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Leidner returns to lead the Gophers on offense. Leidner, who has started 31 games in his career, has thrown for 425 yards and four touchdowns in two games this season. At 6-feet 4-inches and 230-pounds, Leidner is a mobile quarterback who brings a physical aspect to the Gopher’s running game. He has run for 25 touchdowns in his career.

“He’s an experienced quarterback that’s been through the battles,” CSU coach Mike Bobo said. “He’s an accurate passer that’s mobile. He’s got big targets, and he’s got a running game that’s a quarterback’s best friend.”

Leading the Gophers running game is redshirt sophomore Rodney Smith, who has run for 199 yards and three touchdowns so far this season. Last year, Smith ran for 108 yards against the Rams.

Senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, Leidner’s favorite target this year, (12 catches for 178-yards and three touchdowns) also had a big game against the Rams last year, catching 9 passes for 114-yards and a touchdown.

The physicality and size of this Minnesota offense was stressed at the CSU game week press conference on Monday, and for good reason, as the Gophers’ starting offensive line averages 6-feet 5-inches 322-pounds. Couple that with 6-foot 10-inch 275-pound tight end Nate Wozniak, whom Bobo called the biggest tight end he has ever seen on a football field, and the Rams will be at a significant size disadvantage when on defense.

Minnesota’s offense racked up 435 yards per game in the first two weeks and has been impressive in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on all nine of their red zone drives.

The offense is threatening, averaging 45.7 points a game, but it’s the defense that was talked about the most by the CSU coaches on Monday.

Offensive coordinator Will Friend said that it is the best defense he has faced while at CSU, adding, “They are very good up front defensively and they have a lot of guys that play for them. They have speed off of the edge and they have size in the middle.”

The Minnesota front seven boasts six players with significant starting experience from a season ago: Defensive lineman Hendrick Ekpe (11 starts), Scott Ekpe (five starts), Andrew Skelter (seven starts), Steve Richardson (nine starts), and linebackers Jack Lynn (10 starts) and Cody Pock (8 starts).

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Lynn, a senior standout linebacker, currently leads the team in tackles with 16.

The Rams got a taste of the physicality of the Minnesota front seven last year, and this season, they expect much of the same.

“Their front seven is great,” CSU tight end Nolan Peralta said. “They got big guys all across the board. They fly to the ball and they are very quick. It’s an exciting challenge for us because we really get to see how we stack up against guys who are a great front seven.”

The Gophers rank 70th in the country in scoring defense through the first three weeks of the season allowing just over 25 points a game, but the Gophers have swallowed up their opponents running games, only allowing 99 rushing yards per game in their first two contests.

The Minnesota defense has also registered six sacks on the season. The pass rush is led by lanky freshman Tai’yon Devers, who burst onto the scene against Oregon State in week one, recording two sacks and two forced fumbles in his first collegiate game.

It is a caliber of pass rush that the Rams have yet to see this season, and one that looks to significantly challenge the Ram’s offensive line and freshman quarterback Collin Hill.

If there is a weak spot in the Minnesota defense, it is in the secondary, which lost three starters after last season, including NFL draft picks in corners Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun.

So far, the Gophers have given up 237.5 passing yards-a-game, good for 77th in the country.

The Rams and Gophers kick off at 11 a.m CT, 10 MT on Saturday, September 24th. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5