The Gophers football team has two primary offensive concerns going into Saturday’s road test at No. 17 North Carolina.
Minnesota has struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone through its first two games and now one of its most-important players in that area is injured going into the Tar Heels game.
In wins over Nebraska and Eastern Michigan, the U has scored touchdowns on only three of their eight series into the red zone. The Gophers kicked field goals on four drives and turned the ball over on downs on one series.
The Gophers’ TD rate (37.5 percent) in the red zone is ranked 119th in the country after two weeks.
“We get down inside the 5 (-yard line) and that is not our style of football coming away with three points, three points and zero,” head coach P.J. Fleck said Saturday. “That’s not what I want. That’s not how I’m built. That’s not what I’m used to.”
And in Saturday’s fourth quarter, key tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford had an undisclosed injured. He jogged off the field after a big hit, but stayed in the medical tent for more than 20 minutes as Minnesota closed out its 25-6 victory over Eastern Michigan at Huntington Bank Stadium.
When Spann-Ford played, the Gophers didn’t throw to the athletic 6-foot-7 target one time in the red zone. All three of his targets Saturday came in the middle of the field.
On third and goal from the 6 in the first quarter, Spann-Ford stayed in to block, while quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis threw to his only option, Le’Meke Brockington. He was covered and the pass fell incomplete.
Earlier in the first quarter, the Gophers went 80 yards over 11 plays but ran a naked bootleg with Kaliakmanis on fourth and 1 from the Eastern Michigan 2. Two Eagles defensive backs weren’t fooled by the play fake and tackled Kaliakmanis for lost yards.
“It’s got to improve,” Fleck continued to harp on his team’s red-zone play. “We are efficient until we get down there.”
The Gophers’ red-zone offense is trying to plow through without Mo Ibrahim, who set a program record with 53 rushing touchdowns, most of which came inside the 20, before running out of eligibility last season.
“It used to be, give it to Mo and we’ll just rhino right ahead and get in there,” Fleck said. “I don’t know if we have that back right now, the rhino, put the head down and go carry four people into the end zone. We have to be a little bit more creative with that, and we will be.”
True freshman tailback Darius Taylor burst onto the scene Saturday with 33 carries for 193 yards and a touchdown. At 5-foot-11 and 218 pounds, he appears to be the Gophers’ best option in short yardage and in the red zone.
Starting tailback Sean Tyler, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, is more of a speed back. Zach Evans, who is listed at 5-10 and 205, has yet to play this season, with Fleck repeatedly saying Evans “has to earn” playing time.
Pro Football Focus said Taylor, the U’s highest-graded offensive player, totaled 68 yards after contact against Eastern Michigan, forcing five missed tackles and rushing for 11 first downs. His TD came on a 2-yard run in the second quarter.
Fleck said Taylor, a four-star recruit from Detroit, did not show that kind of power during fall camp. “He’s developing it,” Fleck said. “That’s not a knock on him. It’s just every day he’s getting a little bit better.”
The Gophers will need to get a lot better in the red zone if they hope to pull off an upset in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Saturday.