Well, that sure went a lot better than it could have. The weather, I mean. Notwithstanding a few showers during tailgating and a refreshing mist during the fourth quarter, I’d say the elements were just about perfect. We got a few games of bags in, grilled some fine Kowalski’s meat and only had to dive under the cover of my road dog’s canopy once to keep from getting drenched. Given the forecast early in the week, that was a win.
As to the game, the adage of it being easier to coach teams up after a win than a loss probably came to be after games like this one. Our Gophers got a win and there are plenty of teachable moments that will need correction prior to the start of conference play. This is standard fare for Week 1. It is the exception rather than the rule for teams to come out firing on all cylinders on opening week.
I can’t shake the notion that this game was essentially a replay of last year’s UNLV game. A flaccid first third of the game by our offense, which looked moderately better as the game went on, though never spectacular. A bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort, with a few mistakes, but general brilliance from the secondary. And a remarkably opportunistic special teams unit that put points on the board to solidify momentum in the Gophers’ direction. When viewed within that context, seeing as last year turned out okay and Eastern Illinois was probably not materially inferior to the 2013 UNLV squad, I can’t help but be fairly satisfied.
Of course, that reality hasn’t stopped some Gopher supporters from contemplating self-defenestration. It’s easy, particularly during a rough patch of a game or in the hours following a game’s conclusion, to breathlessly react to a player’s poor performance, inept decision making by the coaches, or the failure by a unit of the team to execute their jobs. We, along with every other fan base of every sport ever played, succumb to these pratfalls. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it – it’s not really harmful to the program, though it can get played out pretty quickly on message boards and Twitter - but some perspective can be useful.
So, we at Still Got Hope are going to try and bring some of that perspective. On the Monday or Tuesday following games, we’ll provide an overview of the big talkers from the previous Saturday and opine as to whether they are being underplayed, overplayed or are in the Goldilocks zone, receiving the right amount of attention. Yes, we’re homers and will probably see things through maroon-colored glasses a lot of the time; but we’ll try to be objective and, if you disagree, let us know in the comments or Twitter and we’ll take it under advisement. If I can change…and you can change…we all can change.
So, without further ado, here are the Saturday Talkers on Monday or Tuesday.
Leidner’s play hurt the team and will hold us back this year – Overplayed
Where to start. Leidner didn’t look great last Thursday, we can agree on that. He missed some throws that were there and made a couple of pretty questionable decisions, particularly in the first half. But he wasn’t horrific, either. His final stat line was 9/17 (52.9%) for 144 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. Excluding the first quarter, though, his stats look considerably better: 8/13 (61.5%) for 142 yards and one touchdown. Not Heisman-winning statistics by any stretch of the imagination, but a 62% completion percentage with an occasional play of 20+ yards is sufficient for this point in his development. Further, he didn’t really screw anything up too badly. The fumble was bad, but we escaped without any damage and he didn’t throw any interceptions. Not colossally screwing up is pretty important for QBs in a run-first offense (see Mcevoy, Tanner). Again, while he wasn’t great, laws of physics still hold the sky firmly in the, uh, sky.
Given that context, I think we can definitively say one thing: we don’t have any idea how good or bad Leidner will be this year. He looked uneasy in the first quarter, but got better as the game progressed. Hopefully that was nerves and won’t be an issue going forward. He was competent for about 75% of the game. Provided it’s sustainable, that level of performance won’t cost us any games this year – we’re not asking him to do that much at this point. And there’s always room for upside. We’ll have to wait until the TCU game, at least, to really get a look at what we’ve got with Leidner. Until that point, it’s silly to pine for Demry Croft to forgo his senior year of high school to join the Gophers to be our savior at quarterback.
With Scott Ekpe’s injury, we are screwed at defensive tackle – Goldilocks
This is the issue that has kept me up since last Thursday and my paranoia was justified today when Kill confirmed Ekpe was out for the year. Ekpe’s stats were modest coming into the year, but he had earned Hageman’s old spot during spring ball and was the model of consistency in the open fall practices. While no one was anticipating he’d be in the running for conference honors this season, he was one of the elder statesmen at the tackle position, despite only being a true junior. Naturally, his absence likely means freshman phenom Stephen Richardson will be promoted to the starting spot. While this isn’t ideal, Richardson has the build, athleticism and mentality to succeed at the head table. It’s the way the second and third teams start to shape up where things get concerning.
With Yoshoub Timms out for an undetermined amount of time, the 2nd-team defensive tackles appear to be redshirt junior Robert Ndondo-Lay and true freshman Andrew Stelter. We heard good things about them from camp, right? Sure! But they weigh 250 and 245lbs, respectively. That will be fine for the non-conference season, as the teams we’ll be playing use spread variants (AIR RAID REPRESENT) as a their base offense; but I can’t believe we’ll be able to survive so undersized at defensive tackle come conference play. There’s been some speculation across the ‘Tronz the Gophers may adjust the defense to account for our (relative) strength at end and go with a 3-3-5 or 3-2-6 or, hell, maybe switch to the 3-4 and let Legania (now switched back to DT after a glorious two-week tryst with OG) be the fire plug we all knew he could be. Of course, I’m not sure we have the linebackers to field a 3-4 when we were concerned about the horses in the stable to run three linebackers out there. What do you want from me?
Given all of that uncertainty, I think the amount of angst expressed over the defensive tackle position in the last five days is totally justified. Let’s hope Timms gets back quickly and everyone else stays healthy for the year.
The offensive line was a train wreck – Overplayed
Nah. The line didn’t have a great day, but they didn’t do that badly. Pirsig looked like a guy playing in his first game and the rest of the gents had some bad moments, but on the whole, I think they did a decent job. As has been noted by the astute Gophers 247 commentariat much of the vitriol directed toward the offensive line should truly be aimed at their supporting crew: full backs and tight ends. We can give the tight ends the benefit of the doubt - Maxx missed a few seal blocks, while Plsek and Goodger failed to get sufficient drive off the line; but they’re proven guys who we know will be consistent in the long run. Fullback is more concerning. Quite a few folks have quite rightly stated they had no idea Mike Henry was so important to the team until seeing the game last Thursday. And it’s true: Tyler Hartman and Miles Thomas didn’t look great. Whether that was just a poor game or something that portends an evil emerging trend, we don’t know.
Regardless, the offensive line doesn’t bear responsibility for the missed blocks of the TE/H-back/FB cabal. The OL wasn’t great, but they weren’t as bad as some of the peeps on the tubez are portraying them.
We’ve got a sweet stable of running backs – Underplayed
I haven’t seen a whole lot of praise for our running backs and I’m a little perplexed by that. Sure, Berk has had his praises sung (how could he not, with that explosive 44-yard touchdown run that left the EIU defenders flailing at air); but I really like the diversity of skill and build we have with our current backs and that hasn’t really been a talker from last Thursday’s game. That could be due to the pedestrian play of our line and missed assignments by their supporting skill position players, of course. Nevertheless, I thought Cobb looked great when he wasn’t getting hit behind the line of scrimmage – he has such good vision and his balance allows him to slide through creases by changing direction – a skill that the other backs haven’t demonstrated at such a high level. Nug and Kirlkland, both looking lighter on their feet after losing some weight in the offseason, can still punish defenders in short-yardage situations. And Edwards, of course, has the ability to find a hole, plant his foot and jet to the open field – something that was missing from the position group in years past.
We have been and will continue to be a run-first team. Having a stable of backs that bring multiple dimensions will allow us to be more versatile in game planning based on what defenses are showing. Cobb is well suited for a base cover-2 defense. Bring the safeties up to stack the box or run blitz and we can counter with Berk on a stretch or a pass to the flats. It’s been a long time since we’ve had this much talent at the position. We should be talking about it more.
(Frothy's starting word count: 13,496; Finishing word count: 15,182)