Sunday, September 14, 2014

Catharsis: Post-TCU

Well, that certainly wasn’t the game we were all hoping for. I figured we'd probably lose, but I was really surprised with the way it all went down. Maybe that’s a mistake on my part, certainly the first two games offered no indication that we would have any semblance of a balanced offense. But, I figured it given the inferior opposition we were up against in Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee State there was at least a chance, maybe a good chance, that we were holding the bulk of our playbook back. As I had been saying all week, one of two things was going to happen: either we had some pretty decent cards and were holding them uber close to the vest going into the TCU game or we were spectacularly limited with respect to offensive diversity and would explode in a blinding hot flash of ineptitude. Pretty safe to say the latter came to pass yesterday.

It wasn’t that we lost, it was the way that we lost. I certainly fall on the optimistic side of the spectrum, and even I didn’t hold out a great deal of hope that we were going to win the game yesterday. Despite TCU’s 4-8 record last season, I think they’re pretty good team. They’re loaded with upperclassman on defense, talented upperclassman too, and in today’s college football world that’s going to win you a lot of games by itself. They were limited offensively, but given our complete inability to move the ball their offense really didn’t need to do too much. In the instances where they weren’t given a short field, our defense was typically able to keep them off the scoreboard. Unfortunately, through turnovers and poor special teams play, that wasn’t the case very often.

I just didn’t expect in year four of Jerry Kill’s program we’d lose games in the manner in which we lost this one. Through the first half of the game there were literally no positives to take away. Our offensive line failed to generate any meaningful push, our quarterback play was beyond terrible, we couldn’t hold onto the ball, our special teams was poor and our play calling, at least on the offensive side, was remarkably uninspired. In short, this was Iowa 2013 revisited. (It’s all a little hazy, but if my memory serves me right, I pretty much quit the team after that loss. There’s no danger of that happening right now, though it may be better for my psychological health. I’m upset, but I’m not irate.) Following that loss, the collective Gopher spirit was as broken as it had been since Tim Brewster was canned. Many, including myself, were having a great deal of difficulty finding another win on the schedule. I don’t believe we’re quite at those levels of despair right now, but I definitely have my concerned pants on.

This was a bad loss, a really bad loss. But I don’t think we’ll know quite how bad it was until we’ve seen TCU play a few more games. If TCU’s defense plays as well over the coming weeks as they played against us, they may legitimately be a very good team. By with what they showed yesterday their defensive line and linebackers are more than capable of stopping the run. They are fast, make good reads, and don’t commit a lot of errors. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, that TCU’s defense will be the best we’ll see all season. Certainly, Ohio State will have something to say about that, but I haven’t seen much from our Big Ten competition to suggest that any are defensively elite. If TCU competes for the Big 12 title, or is at least in the conversation a few weeks into the conference slate, then we can conclude that this loss, maybe, wasn’t as bad as it feels today. We may find that we are a decent to good team, and TCU is a good to great team.

This is certainly grabbing at the most optimistic of straws. We will have had a chance to see our Gophers play a few times before we know whether TCU is an elite team. If we lose to San Jose State next weekend, get smoked by Michigan the following week or lose either of the next two games after Michigan (Northwestern and Purdue, both at home), we’ll know that we’re probably not even decent team. Frankly, we just have to hope that yesterday was an aberration. If we are truly as limited as we saw yesterday with respect to passing the ball, it’s tough to see us getting to six wins this season. Yes, TCU may have an elite defense; but we weren’t even close to producing anything through the air. Elite defenses don’t make you consistently throw the ball a full three feet from where you should be placing it (sure, a quarterback will be pressured and under that pressure miss his spot; but there weren’t more than three or four passes in the entire day yesterday that were on target - that’s more on the quarterback’s abilities then it is the quality of the defense). Further, there were at least two instances yesterday were one of our wide receivers was left wide open and the quarterback failed to identify him. If that’s going to be the modus operandi of our quarterbacks, then let’s just wander collectively up to Duluth and be consumed by the cold depths of Lake Superior.

For those who keep track of such things, yes, I was wrong. I genuinely thought that the Gophers had figured out a way to cure the offensive diseases they had last year. I watched Leidner in the open practices and it really looked like he knew what he was doing. He was poised, he checked down on occasion, he made the appropriate reads. I thought he played well at times last season, and with those incremental improvements he would be a middle of the pack Big Ten quarterback. While that still may be the case, we have seen absolutely nothing to suggest that’s what will happen. And today we learned that he now has a broken foot and his availability over the next few weeks is in question.
Now it’s up to Chris Streveler. I saw him in practice too, and he didn’t look as good as Mitch. While he appears to be super athletic I didn’t get the sense that he had a firm grasp of the offense at this point. No shame in that, he’s only been in the program for one season. About all that we can hope for, is that he’s a gamer whose best doesn’t come out in the practice environment (cue Allen Iverson). He’s certainly fast, so when he pulls the ball down and runs his speed can be a difference maker.

But we don’t run the triple option, we need our quarterbacks to throw the ball, preferably on target. Even yesterday, he would take his drop, look for a second or two, pull the ball down and run. Basically meaning that if his first receiver wasn’t open he wasn’t going to hang around and check down. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, though it obviously isn’t ideal – again, we need our quarterbacks to actually throw the ball. But the next option on the bench is probably Jacques Perra, a walk-on true freshman. If Streveler is consistently running with the ball, it’s only a matter of time until he gets hurt. I don’t know about you, but I’m not the slightest bit comfortable with trusting the offense to a true freshman quarterback. He might be the greatest quarterback in the Big Ten, who knows? But he’s had all of about seven weeks of the program, and almost certainly is limited in terms of his understanding of the offense.

So, there we are. We got our first loss out of the way in the typical Gophers nuclear holocaust style. I’d say our chances of winning the national championship, or even qualifying for the playoffs, are probably pretty limited right now. But we already knew that. We’re now back in the business of buying hope. Hoping that we see an offensive of renaissance similar to what we saw against Nebraska last year. Hoping that the true and redshirt freshman who now, frighteningly, comprise a fairly significant percentage of our two deeps, can stay fit and healthy and relatively free of mental breakdowns. Hoping that somehow, some way, we can take advantage of this historically bad Big Ten conference, and make some noise until late November.

This was one game. A bad, bad game, but only one game. It shouldn’t define the rest of the season. Here’s to hoping it won’t.

(Frothy's starting word count: 20,313; Finishing word count: 21,771)

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