A few seasons ago, when the Minnesota Golden Gophers won 11 games, identifying a player or player(s) to watch for would have been a much more difficult task. Not to say that the 2021 version is without talent – they are a solid group, and should give Ohio State a challenge Week 1 – but gone from the 2019 roster are Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, Rodney Smith, Antoine Winfield Jr., and others. Johnson and Winfield Jr. just won Super Bowl rings and were legitimate contributors for Tampa Bay, and Bateman was on his way to starting for the 2021 Baltimore Ravens before an unfortunate injury. Rodney Smith has not made much noise in the NFL, but he is notable due to the fact that he ran for nearly 1,200 yards and was named Second-Team All-Big Ten for the Gophers during that 2019 season. Minnesota is not Ohio State, where they can simply reload on an annual basis, so their 2020 drop-off was not a surprise.
P.J. Fleck and his boys will be looking to rebound from a tough season, and they do have a few offensive playmakers to lean on as they attempt to do so. Tanner Morgan is back for a fifth season and looking for a return to his 2019 form, but the running game should be their bread and butter. Mohamed Ibrahim will lead the ground attack, and he is a damn good player. He broke out nationally during the 2020 season, but he is no one-year wonder.
Ibrahim rushed for 1,160 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2018, starting in place of an injured Rodney Smith. His yardage total was second all-time for a Minnesota freshman, and he added nine touchdowns… oh by the way, this was in 10 games. Ibrahim missed three with an injury, making his totals as a freshman even more impressive. He took a backseat to a fully healthy Smith in 2019, but still ran for 600 yards as a part-timer, and averaged over 5.0 yards per carry.
Ibrahim was the better back, but Smith was a sixth-year senior coming off of injury, and loyalty likely played a factor in that 2019 pecking order. However, during the 2020 Outback Bowl against Auburn, Fleck favored Ibrahim — and for good reason. Ibrahim ran all over the Tigers to the tune of 140 yards, and along with Tyler Johnson, led the Gophers to victory. The running back room now belonged to Ibrahim, and he would go on to impress in 2020.
Last season, the former 3-star recruit from Maryland was a true workhorse for Minnesota. He averaged nearly 29 carries (!) and 154 yards per game, on his way to Big Ten Running Back of the Year and Third-Team AP All-American honors. If not for Justin Fields, he may have been named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Ibrahim rushed for over 100 yards in every game Minnesota played, and totaled 462 yards and eight touchdowns over a two-game span against Maryland and Illinois. Those two teams are not Ohio State, but his body of work indicates that the Buckeyes need to focus heavily on the fifth-year running back.
Despite Tanner Morgan being a former All-Big Ten performer and fifth-year senior, Minnesota will likely go to Ibrahim early and often on September 2nd. Not only did the Golden Gophers lose Rashod Bateman, but their top returning receiver (Chris Autman-Bell) may not be 100 percent. The wideout suffered a recent leg injury, and his status is week-to-week. With the relative inexperience of the other WR’s, I would not be surprised if Ibrahim gets 30+ carries in an attempt to keep the Ohio State offense off the field — and also to wear down a number of new starters on the Buckeye defense.
Ibrahim is not the biggest back in the world, but he will dish out punishment. At 5’10”, 210, Fleck described him as a “bowling ball downhill with razorblades”. He also possesses great stamina. You don’t average nearly 30 carries a game – topping out at 41 – without impressive conditioning and endurance. Ibrahim is the sort of running back that might average 3.0 YPC during the first half, but wear you down in the second. He will not tire easily, and may not come off the field very often.
What the Buckeyes can do, is focus on containment with Ibrahim and get the Golden Gophers in passing down situations. Minnesota has an experienced offensive line, but they should be no match for the interior of OSU’s defense. Their running back is quick to find lanes and cut, but he does not possess truly top-end speed. If Haskell Garrett and Co. are able to impact the line of scrimmage, it should make gang-tackling Ibrahim much easier for their new linebackers.
If the Buckeyes are able to get Minnesota in long-yardage situations, it should minimize the impact of their stud running back. For as skilled as he is, and as productive as he has been, Ibrahim has shown virtually no receiving acumen. He has 15 receptions in his entire career, with eight of those coming in 2020. It is possible that the team has not given him much opportunity, but he is clearly no Alvin Kamara out of the backfield. There is a gameplan to stopping Ibrahim, and the Ohio State coaches have forgotten more football than I will ever know, so I am sure they will put something together.
Mohamed Ibrahim is a really good running back, and poses a legitimate threat to Ohio State. The coaches and the players need to take him out of the game and let Tanner Morgan try to beat them, if they are to open the season with a comfortable win. Based on what we saw last year, the d-line is lightyears ahead of the back end, so their play will be vital to stopping the run. If they do not play up to their potential, Ibrahim will be running towards a lot of inexperience on the second and third levels. He is without a doubt Minnesota’s offensive player to watch, and it should be an interesting chess match Thursday night. Go Bucks!