MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team opens the Big Ten season at Michigan State on Saturday, and they’ll have to do it without top wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell.
Gophers’ coach PJ Fleck announced Monday at his weekly news conference that Autman-Bell is out for the remainder of the season with a lower right leg injury suffered during Minnesota’s 49-7 win over Colorado on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium. It happened with less than a minute to play in the first half, as the Gophers were driving for points before the break.
Autman-Bell was leaping for a catch when he landed awkwardly on his right leg, immediately went to the ground with a non-contact injury and grabbed just below his right knee, writhing in pain. He was down on the field for several minutes before needing the help of two trainers to get to the sideline, unable to put much weight on the leg. Autman-Bell needed assistance to get to the locker room, and was not on the sideline for the second half.
"He’s a huge member of the football team, will continue to be a huge member of the football team. His leadership is second to none, and we’re going to need that from him as we keep going through Big Ten play. It’s unfortunate, your heart breaks for him because he’s worked incredibly hard," Fleck said Monday. "Chris is a major leader on this team and he will continue to be."
Fleck said Autman-Bell will have surgery on Wednesday. They'll also go through the process of seeking medical redshirt, and seventh year of eligibility so Autman-Bell has the option to return next season.
The last catch Autman-Bell made was for a 39-yard touchdown from Tanner Morgan. He had three catches for 58 yards and the score in the game. For the season, Autman-Bell has 11 catches for 214 yards, averaging nearly 20 yards per catch, and one touchdown. In four-plus seasons at Minnesota, Autman-Bell has 125 catches for 1,970 yards and 13 touchdowns.
It's possible Autman-Bell has played his final college game. He was one of four seniors to come back for a sixth season, joining Tanner Morgan, Mo Ibrahim and John Michael Schmitz. With Autman-Bell now out, the Gophers now turn to Dylan Wright, Michael Brown-Stephens, Brevyn Spann-Ford and Daniel Jackson in the passing offense.
"Heart goes out to him and his family, heart breaks for him because it’s football. You all saw the play. When you watch the play over and over, you still can’t see it. There’s not a twist, there’s not a turn, it just goes," Fleck said. "That’s football. Nothing you can do to avoid it, he plays the game the right way, the hard way and he’s a huge member of this football team."
Spann-Ford has eight catches for 127 yards and one touchdown in three games. Brown-Stephens has six catches for 107 yards, Wright has four catches for 58 yards, and got his first touchdown of the season on Saturday. Jackson played in his first game of the season, making two catches for 26 yards. The Gophers also got four catches for 73 yards, and the first career touchdown from seventh-year senior Clay Geary.
Minnesota will also lean more on Mo Ibrahim in the run game. Ibrahim ran for 202 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday, tying Darrell Thompson for the most rushing touchdowns in program history with 40. Thompson needed 44 games to get there, Ibrahim played in his 31st career game on Saturday.
The Gophers are 3-0 after out-scoring their non-conference opponents by a combined 149-17 in three blowout wins. They’re underdogs for the first time this season, and hit the road for the first time to face Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday. The Spartans were ranked No. 11 in the country last weekend, but fell out of the top-25 after a 39-28 loss at Washington.