Photo Credit: Brad Rempel/University of Minnesota

Minnesota Preview: Mar’Keise Irving, Yet Another Strong Edge Rusher and a Transfer Wideout to Know

October 15, 2021

Nebraska (3-4, 1-3 in Big Ten) is looking to win its first road game of the season Saturday as it travels to Minneapolis to play the Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-2, 1-1).

Here’s a quick breakdown of three players Husker fans should know as their team looks for its second conference win of the season.

Mar’Keise Irving

At the beginning of the year, Minnesota had one of the best running backs not only in the Big Ten, but in the nation with Mohamed Ibrahim. But near the end of the Gophers’ season opener against Ohio State, a game where Ibrahim rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns, he went down with a season-ending Achilles injury.

Trey Potts was the backup, and a good one at that as he rushed for 552 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry in five games. But Potts was lost for the season as well following the Purdue game on Oct. 2.

So it’s next man up for head coach PJ Fleck in the running back rotation. The carries in the run game against Nebraska this weekend might fall to a true freshman in Mar’Keise Irving. Irving, a Chicago native who came to Minnesota as a consensus four-star prospect according to the 247Sports composite, has 112 rushing yards on just 25 carries this season. His biggest workload of the year came in the Gophers’ 30-0 win at Colorado—he rushed for 89 yards on 15 attempts.

Since the Colorado game, Irving hasn’t had more than six carries in a game and a run longer than 6 yards. Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said it’s always an uneasy feeling when trying to game plan for a running back who doesn’t have much film.

“You don’t know, he could be not as good as those guys (Ibrahim and Potts), he could be better than those guys,” Chinander said of Irving. “He’s the next guy up because of his youth. He could be the next great one, so we gotta prepare like it’s the best running back we’ve seen back there.”

One thing kept popping up while watching Irving at Colorado—he’s a tough runner who’s hard to bring down despite his 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame.

On the play below, Minnesota comes out in a heavy formation with six offensive linemen and Ko Kieft, who is listed as a tight end on the roster but is more of a blocking lineman at 6-5, 265 pounds. Instead of running into the teeth of Colorado’s defense, Irving bounces the run and takes advantage to the non contain from the Buffaloes. You can see the speed and physicality Irving has as he breaks three tackles on the play.

On the play below, Minnesota again comes out with a heavy personnel and six o-linemen, including another big body in tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, a 6-7, 270-pounder. The Gophers look like they run a counter, pulling the right guard and Spann-Ford. Irving takes a false step to the field to let his blocks set up, and again bounces the run outside before cutting back and breaking a tackle for a first-down run:

On the third example below, Minnesota again uses six o-linemen with Spann-Ford as the H-back/tight end. The Gophers look to run a split-zone action with Spann-Ford coming across the o-line to block the end man on the line of scrimmage. Irving initially runs into a wall, but stays active and keeps the play alive for another first-down run:

 

Boye Mafe

There’s no shortage of hard-to-block edge rushers in the Big Ten. Last week, the Husker o-line had to go against two NFL-caliber edge rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. This week, it’ll be Boye Mafe, a 6-4, 265-pound redshirt senior who leads the Gophers with five sacks and six tackles for loss.

Nebraska offensive coordinator Matt Lubick didn’t talk about Mafe directly during his media availability on Tuesday, but he did mention that the Huskers drill plenty of pass-rushing situations at practice and noted other ways to slow down talented players on the edge.

“When you can run the ball, sometimes that helps you with your pass rush,” Lubick said. “Being balanced so you’re just not standing back there throwing it every snap. Being able to run the ball in throwing situations helps. Also, having pass concepts where the ball can get out fast, and with the quarterback, more importantly, can make quick decisions and know where to go with the ball.”

On the example below, watch how Mafe works his offensive tackle up the field, and disengages at the right moment to catch Colorado quarterback Brendon Lewis trying to maneuver around the pocket:

It’s a pretty similar play for Mafe on the example below. Lewis moves up in the pocket but Mafe gets to him before he can escape. Lewis is a dual-threat quarterback, so it makes sense that Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi would spy him with a defender—in this case, d-lineman Thomas Rush:

Rossi knows what kind of threat Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez can be with his legs. He spoke on him and the option runs the Huskers have been using lately. Don’t be surprised to see spies on Martinez Saturday.

“He has called quarterback runs, but then also some of his biggest runs are just scrambles when the defense has the back turned. They’re doing a good job with option,” Rossi said according to GopherIllustrated.com.

The example below is what happens when Mafe’s momentum doesn’t get stopped. Mafe takes on Purdue right tackle Eric Miller and loses the battle. It’s plays like these that Nebraska’s tackles—Turner Corcoran and Bryce Benhart—will need to win:

While Mafe may have a future rushing passers in the NFL, he’s pretty good in run support, too. On the below example, watch how he easily walks back Purdue tight end Paul Piferi to make the stop behind the line of scrimmage:

And on this below example, Mafe darts into the backfield to disrupt the run play before Purdue’s blockers can do anything about it. Minnesota’s entire d-line made the stop on third-and-1 possible, though:

 

Dylan Wright

After losing receivers Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson to the NFL, Fleck dipped his toe into the transfer waters and found an absolute stud receiver in Dylan Wright. Wright, a 6-3, 215-pounder, never recorded any stats when he was in College Station, Texas, but that doesn’t mean he’s not talented.

Wright was a consensus four-star prospect and picked Texas A&M over offers from Alabama, Georgia and just about everyone else. He made his Gopher debut in the season opener against Ohio State and caught five passes for 57 yards and a touchdown.

Here’s Wright’s touchdown against tight man coverage from Buckeye corner Lejond Cavazos:

Since the Ohio State game, Wright’s production has tailed off. He caught three passes and one touchdown in the loss to Bowling Green, and hauled in just one catch against Colorado.

Wright was excused from the team and missed the Purdue game because he was back in Texas mourning the death of a childhood friend who had passed away, but he’ll play against the Huskers. Here’s his lone touchdown pass against Miami (Ohio):

Minnesota has a strong 1-2 punch at receiver now that Chris Autman-Bell has returned from injury. Autman-Bell, who has 85 catches for 1,378 yards and seven touchdowns in his career, has hauled in seven passes for 128 yards and one score this season.

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