Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Game and Where We Go From Here

Let’s get the nasty part out of the way first. The two losses that marred an otherwise incredible season for Minnesota shared a handful of features in common. Minnesota was out-schemed by teams that comprehended the Gopher’s strengths and weaknesses and schemed to put points on the board quickly. Minnesota also called a conservative offensive game that got away from many of the facets that made its offense so successful earlier in the season, making uncharacteristic decisions (a 50-yard FG attempt against Iowa and a punt from the 35 yard line against Wisconsin, both early in the game). Offensive line injuries compounded the challenge of mounting a comeback and magnified the effect of other mystifying decisions such as multiple running calls against Wisconsin from 3rd and long. For whatever reason, whether the intimidation of the big stage, distraction of national media attention, or old-fashioned nerves, the Minnesota that owned most of the game against Penn State was mostly absent.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Tomorrow is for Everything. Or is it?

Yeah, so, tomorrow, huh? Pretty, pretty, pretty big day for our favorite team, the U, the State of Minnesota, the Arctic ice cap, and cosmic justice. I’m going to do my best to just take it all in; but getting started at 5.30, watching GameDay, wandering bars/tailgates, hitting GopherHour and then sitting down for 200+ minutes of ulcer-inducing drama where the payoff is everything we’ve ever wanted is going to be a lot for my monkey brain to manage.

“A LOT” is about the only way I can describe tomorrow. The B1GW, the Axe, a chance at the Rose Bowl, a chance to knock off Ohio State for a B1G championship and a shot at the College Football Playoff, another year of not having that rancid fan base constantly chirping. It sucks that most of that list is still in play if we execute in the red zone just a little bit better at Iowa. Then tomorrow is just about the Axe and a better shot at the Playoff. It sucks if we lose, because it always sucks to lose to Bucky. Beyond that though, we win the division and have bragging rights and everything else to play for. Alas.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

So You Want to Beat the Badgers

I made my decision to go to the University of Minnesota on Saturday, October 9th, 1999. I was on campus that day for a formal visit, the details of which escape me other than the fact that it was a beautiful early fall day, and the 4-0 Gophers were playing the 3-2 Badgers at the Metrodome. I was in a tour group of several dozen high school seniors, almost all in maroon and gold. In those days before smart phones we got our score updates from our tour guides at the quarter breaks.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

On Losing and Moving On

After the victory over Penn State we experienced a week unlike any I can remember as a Gopher fan. Unprecedented levels of local coverage and interest (at least, unprecedented positive coverage), significant national exposure, and 4 separate blog posts from 3 separate authors on Still Got Hope dot com. And yet, for many it didn’t take long for the fear of a major letdown against Iowa to take the foremost place in a lot of minds. It’s an understandable response given our past Gopher fan experiences. Moreover, the Gophers haven’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999 and its associated curse is well documented. I was not immune from these feelings, but my efforts to turn over a new leaf led me to focus on the concept that this year and program is different.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

PJ Fleck has Already Won

PJ has been working to the point of exhaustion capitalizing on the opportunity of the unexpected and remarkable 9-0 start to the season. Watching him appear on ESPN’s College Football Playoff rankings show this past Tuesday, he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days as the media roadshow to promote the hell out of the program reached a fever pitch. It shouldn’t be surprising that he’d be pressing, considering what he told Adam Rittenberg in the wake of beating #4 Penn State:

"It's been so long, but that's what's so fun about hope*,” Fleck said in his stadium office about two hours after Saturday's game. "I'm a Chicago Cubs fan. Everybody always said, 'The lovable losers,' and then all of a sudden, they did it. They got the right people, they got the right GM, they got the right manager, and then they found a way to put the right team together to do it.
"It's going to happen here, and we just want to do everything we can to get our shot at it. What you saw today is the hope for the future, to say it's not just what used to be, it's what's going to be."

Thing is, if you’re measuring a program by interest, fan or general, PJ has already succeeded at changing the narrative. The 9-0 start has catapulted the Gophers into such rarified air that, short of a narrowing list of postseason accomplishments, what else does PJ need to prove to people who matter?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The TCF Bank Stadium Slip

It's the 4th quarter. Two minutes and three seconds on the clock. Fourth-ranked Penn State has the ball on their own 40, down 31 to 26 to the 17th ranked Minnesota Gophers. The Gophers have been in control for most of the day, but Penn State is making a run to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and leave Gophers fans wanting in their bid for a Rose Bowl.

On first down, quarterback Sean Clifford drops back and finds Jahan Dotson wide open at the Gophers' 45. The defensive back guarding him, Benjamin St. Juste, loses his footing and falls over. A collective moan emanates from TCF Bank Stadium.

Smokey and the Frost-bit

There is a Big Ten football program that was once a national power. It was built on the backs of strong, corn-fed Midwestern farm boys wearing iconic uniforms that practically became their own mascot. When football changed they changed with it, finding speedy athletes in other parts of the country to bring into the fold, adopting new styles, and embracing innovation. Over thirty years they won over two-thirds of their games, boatloads of conference championships, nearly half a dozen National Championships, some of the biggest bowls in the game, and never finished lower than 5th in their conference.

After years of success, their long-tenured coach departed, taking an assistant role in the athletic department. Most assumed the successor would pick up where he left off. The decline started almost imperceptibly and took nearly a decade to pick up steam. Frustration from administration and alumni, tough questions from what used to be an obedient local media, increasing surliness by coaches, and suddenly what used to be considered “fluke” performances became something closer to the norm. After a decade or so, the fans looked around, realized that it was more trend than phase and started to wonder aloud what the hell happened.

If you think that sounds a lot like Minnesota football from the 30s to the 80s, well, you’re close but not quite.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

St. George and the Dragon

Have you ever found yourself burdened by the weight of past events and your mistakes? Not consequences necessarily, but the feelings associated with the memory weighing on your mind. Perpetually feeling the pressure to avoid the pitfalls of the past and judging yourself by a self-imposed standard that may not reflect reality, the caveman parts of your limbic system constantly engaged in a fight-or-flight tug of war that eventually leads to more mistakes, more failures, more regrets. Or maybe it’s just me; an anxiety disorder, predisposition to rumination, and an interest in history that goes beyond mere hobby will tend to do that. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, congratulations! That’s awesome, I invite you to still play along.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Changing the Narrative

This is kind of weird, right? Second week of November, undefeated, playing the 4th-best team in the country in a nationally televised game. Win, and we’re in the top 10 with a very, very credible track to the Rose Bowl. Lose and we’re still the prohibitive favorite to win the West. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to use halcyon days in the present tense – today is halcyon! – but, regardless of what happens the rest of the season and in the years to come, right now feels pretty effing terrific.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Was Matt Limegrover Calling Plays Last Night? A Look at what Minnesota's Offense Did- and Mostly Didn't Do- vs South Dakota State

Minnesota won it's season opener 28-21 over a very good South Dakota State team last night. I couldn't help but notice the jarring difference in offensive philosophies between the two squads- and despite the loss, how much better SDSU's was compared to Minnesota's. The Jack Rabbits had Gopher defenders moving- and usually in the wrong direction- all night long while Minnesota was basically doing the same thing on every play- a play-action pass or, on about 2/3 of their snaps, the return of the dreaded #RUTM. Watching Minnesota on offense I couldn't shake the feeling we were watching a Matt Limegrover offense from three or four years ago.

The Classic "Limey" formation was a QB in shotgun, a RB beside him, and then one-three TE's. Receivers? Probably one or two of those on the outside, but really none of that mattered because the defense knew exactly what was coming- a "run up the middle" by the running back, or a Mitch Leidner keeper to the outside. And while sure Leidner was a tough runner, he was the furthest thing from fast. Any opposing defense knew the Gophers were going to lineup and run right at them- over and over and over again. And if the QB kept it he wasn't getting more than a few yards. Pass? The few DB's they kept back in the secondary could handle it, and they usually did.

Sound familiar? Because that's about what SDSU saw from Minnesota. OC Kirk Ciarrocca added a bit of pre-snap motion, but the Jacks Rabbit D saw it for what it was- window dressing. They stayed home putting 7 or 8 defenders in the box knowing more often than not that the one RB in the backfield was getting the ball and running between the tackles. And on more than 60% of the plays that's exactly what happened, which is why it seemed like SDSU had multiple defenders waiting at the line of scrimmage to make the tackle. There were no designed runs for the backs outside the tackles, no counter plays that changed the direction after the snap, no quick screens to receivers (can we please take that looooooooooonnnnnnnnnnngggggggg developing wide receiver tunnel screen and throw it in the garbage? It hasn't worked in two years and it fooled no one again last night), no quick slants or hitches, and no RPO's (at least that I could tell).

Most concerning to me though was that despite the obvious struggles of Minnesota's O-line, Ciarrocca did little to help them out. No designed rollouts or bootlegs to give Tanner Morgan more time to throw and actually get SDSU's D moving away from the line of scrimmage and outside the tackle box. Ciarrocca came in with a vanilla game plan and when it was clear to everyone it didn't work instead of trying to mix it up or add in some new wrinkles, in classic Limey fashion he just stubbornly stuck with the same old thing. Was he too stubborn to change- or incapable? We shall see in the coming weeks.

Flip over to when SDSU had the ball and you saw how to run a true spread offense- and I'm sure that sounds ridiculous considering the Jack Rabbits lost, but with an inexperienced freshman QB, on the road against a Big Ten opponent, SDSU was still moving the ball all game long and almost pulled off the upset. Two crucial "freshman" mistakes from their QB killed them- and ended up being the difference in the game- but Minnesota's D was scrambling to keep up and keep track of where the ball was going from the first play.

Unlike the Gophers who were pretty transparent about what they were doing, SDSU used multiple backs in the backfield and had them going in different directions, and with a speedy QB at the helm, any of the three could be getting the ball. When they put just one back beside the QB, they could bring a slot receiver in motion for the jet sweep (and might actually give it to him!), OR sometimes do this crazy thing where they would give the RB the ball to the OUTSIDE! (I know, I told you it was crazy.) Actual runs off tackle or sweeps, which would set up not only a QB keeper the other direction but then also the play-action pass the other way. TE's leaking out, or those same backs that had gone in motion as potential runners were now sprinting downfield as potential pass catchers.

Yes, the Gopher D weren't great last night and looked out of position a lot, but the scheme SDSU ran was consistently forcing them to make decisions and NOT stay home. When you don't know what's coming or where the ball is going, it makes it a lot more difficult for even the most experienced defense to stick to their assignments and stay in position. This will serve as a great learning experience for Minnesota's D, and Joe Rossi and the coaches will have a lot of tape to help prepare for more offenses like this coming up on the schedule.

As for the offense? As bad as they were it's also only one game, and only the first game. The line needs fixing, and they need to figure out better ways to get Tyler Johnson open even when he's being double-covered. Throwing more and more to Bateman will help with that since #13 is going to torch single coverage all season long no matter who is defending him. And throwing more to other receivers will help too- Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas combined for 3 catches for 18 yards. They're both much better than that. After all the hype we heard all off-season about the TE's and how good they are and how involved they'll be the total catches by TE's were zero.

More than that though Ciarrocca and the offensive staff should join Rossi and the defense when they watch game tape, and take as many things from that SDSU offense as they can. Two of Minnesota's best players are RB's Rodney Smith and Mo Ibrahim- can you get them in the backfield together on occasion? The threat and movement of both of them- plus Morgan as a threat to keep it on the run or pass- would give an opposing defense some pre-snap and after-snap motion to actually worry about.

But since we seem hell-bent on nothing but one-back formations who about quick screens and slants, RPO's (from my very primitive and uneducated viewing last night looked non-existent), mixing in veer-options runs that take the RB outside the tackle instead of always #RUTM, and whether your O-line is struggling or not- but ESPECIALLY when your O-line struggles- bootlegs, and rollouts off your option run fakes.

This remains an offense with a ton of skill position talent and what SHOULD be a massive and talented offensive line. Now we'll find out if Ciarrocca and staff are up for fixing the issues and getting more out of them than we saw last night.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

I Can't Live Without Claeys Love

There's a swath of the Gopher fan base that can't let go of Tracy Claeys. This is what I imagine being part of that group must feel like.

"(Can't Live Without Claeys') Love & Affection*"
*sung to the tune of "(Can't Live Without Your) Love & Affection" by Nelson

Here he comes
Mmmm, just like an angel
Seems like forever that he's been on our mind
Nothing has changed
Cause PJ's a waste of our time

There he goes
Oooh, it's Claeys we're missin'
Hope he sees we'll never give up the fight
We'll do all we can
To fulfill our Tracy desire

We've been on the outside looking in
Don't want to get in the boat, oooohhh
There's nothing on earth
That should keep us & Claeysie apart

TRACY! We can't live without your
Love & Affection
We can't face another damn
We just can't abide
That snake PJ Fleck as our coach
Cause we can't live without your love.
Ooooh, your love.

So we bitch
Cause it's all we've got
And wonder if the snake oil will run out someday
We keep holding on
Can't stand cheering for F.A.M.I.L.Y.

Tracy, We've been on the outside looking in
Don't want to be get in the boat, ooooh
Not even Goldy can make us pretend
Oh yeah

TRACY! We can't live without your
Love & Affection
We can't face another damn
We just can't abide
That snake PJ Fleck as our coach
Cause we can't live without your love.
Ooooh, your love.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Past Performance is not Predictive of Future Results

I get it. I really do.

You hear people like me talking about how good we’re going to be this season, how #TITTY and we’re going to Indy. I know you look at me and think “You poor, stupid tub of gravy. Yeah, the schedule looks good; yeah, we looked amazing at the end of last season. Doesn’t matter. I’ve gone into the season with high hopes before. I’ve died a thousand deaths. Never again. Never again.”