Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Saturday's Talkers on Monday or Tuesday: Post-MTSU

So, that first half on Saturday was fun, wasn’t it? That's among some of the best football the Gophers have played in the last ten years: the offense was clicking, mostly on the ground, but Leidner went 5/8 to start the game and that’s pretty good; Cobb was doing what Cobb does, finessing his way through the creases in the line. Defensively, we were fantastic as well – the previous week MTSU had scored 61 against Savanah State, sure, they’re a historically bad program, but 61 points demonstrates some measure of competence, right? We came out, stopped the run and kept them from stringing anything of significance together through the air. Add in a pick six from Jalen Myrick and an interception from our tackling machine and you can start to smell the exorcism of that fateful 2003 team.

And then we got to the second half. For reasons that, as far as I can tell, are unknown to players, coaches, fans and maybe Jo’bu himself, the second half just didn’t go the Gophers way. After halftime, the defensive intensity was lost, our rock solid secondary started taking bad angles in pursuit, Eric Murray looked mortal and our offense violated Newtonian physics by becoming even more one dimensional. Sure, we ended up with 300 yards rushing so it’s not like we were totally at the hind teat. And yeah, our defensive backs fell victim to the BACK SHOULDER THROW JUMP BALLS and some, uh, generous non-calls for offensive pass interference on their receivers. But when we were up 28-nil, I wanted more. I longed to see the Blue Raiders mascot turned to red mist before my eyes. I wanted 60 or 70 points, a beating typically reserved for schools that have a hyphen in their name.

I compared the EIU game to the 2013 UNLV, where we started slow offensively and ended up winning comfortably through killer special teams and opportunistic defense. What we ended up with against MTSU was something closer to the 2012 Purdue game, albeit for slightly different reasons. In that game, Philip Nelson and the Gophers exploded for 34 first-half points, heading into halftime with a 34-7 lead. The second half was a much tighter affair as the offense went uber conservative and the Gophers hung on for a 44-28 victory.

I remember being at that game and watching half the crowd leave at halftime. They had just witnessed aerial blood sport, as the hapless Purdues were torched by AJ Barker and the Boilers seemed utterly toothless as they went into the intermission. No reason to stay until the end of this one - why not get a beat on traffic or do some celebratory shots at Sterb’s? Well, I stuck around and, while I was never nervous exactly, I do recall looking up at the game clock, silently willing it to move faster. Purdue looked much better in the second half and we looked, well, vanilla. The aggression was gone. We had shot the proverbial wad and were just killing time.

If you attended the game against MTSU game, you know exactly what I mean. Euphoria that first half, wet fart the second half. We can’t really conclude anything from it – nor should we try: the game was in hand, nothing positive would come from opening up the playbook and/or potentially getting some [more] of our key players hurt. We turtled up, took the win and moved on. It failed to satisfy my bloodlust and I’m sure the coaches were less than pleased with some of the missed tackles and bad angles. But I don’t think it’s a harbinger of poor play to come.

Now, on to the talkers from Saturday! Remember, we’re exploring the main talkers that came out of the last game now that we’ve had a day or two for perspective. We’ll also opine as to whether the issue has been overplayed, underplayed or is flexin’ in the Goldilocks zone.

Leidner’s play hurt the team and will hold us back this yearOverplayed

Hey, we’ve been at this two weeks and we’ve already got our first repeat. Hu-effing-zah. Without any doubt whatsoever, the biggest talker following Saturday’s game was the passing game in general, but Leidner’s performance more specifically. I’m sure it was a minority, but holy hell were they vocal. Leidner finished 5/11 for 67 yards. That’s pretty poor by any measure; but, as I stated last week, I’m not really sure we can read into Leidner’s performance at this point. When you only throw eleven times, almost by definition, you’re not being asked to do very much. In my opinion, most of the games Leidner played in last year are a better measure of what to expect from him than what we’ve seen this year. The bowl game on the good side, Northwestern to the bad and everything else sort of meh. He might be amazing, he might be horrific, more likely he continues a slow progression along the meh axis. Bu I, like all of you, will have no idea what sort of QB he will be until the offense opens up a little bit. Which brings us to our next talker….

The play calling, I mean, woof – Goldilocks

MV and I had a good conversation via the Twitterz following the game where we discussed the play calling. He used a metaphor which I will now steal – but that’s okay, since he stole a metaphor from me on the BHGP podcast a few years ago. There’s nothing Steven like even. At any rate, MV said he wasn’t sure whether the coaches were holding their cards close to the vest, or they were just making it look like that since they actually didn’t have any cards to play. And there is the fundamental question of the pre-season thus far: Are the coaches holding the playbook in reserve, not showing too much to inferior opponents? Or are we going full bore into all running, all the time, consequences be damned?

I suspect it’s the former, but there’s precedent for the latter: See 13, 20. We stormed through the non-conference schedule, running roughshod over everyone. We didn’t have much of a passing game, but that was okay, because we didn’t need one. Why pass against inferior opponents? we told ourselves. The we got to the Iowa game, couldn’t run the ball and were totally up the creek. Limegrover effectively admitted as much by stating that he was too bull headed to adjust the offense when we were unable to move the ball. We muddled through the next two games, losing one and winning the other before the offense really opened up against Nebraska.

Given that context, the questions are many: have Limegrover and the rest of the staff learn from last season? Are we a run-at-all-costs offense irrespective of the looks provided by the opposing defense? Are we holding the passing plays in reserve for when they are needed?

All of these questions are legitimate, though I tend to believe there are many plays still in the fold. For example, we haven’t seen any plays out of the inverted wishbone yet this season, and that was used pretty extensively last year. We should know soon enough, though, as I suspect we won’t get much offensive quarter from TCU this weekend.

We’re doomed if Leidner missed time - ¯\_()_/¯

This is a fun one, particularly when juxtaposed with the ‘Leidner sux’ talker.

There’s two ways to go with this. If the coaches are holding plays back for tougher competition, then we may very well be in trouble with Leidner out. I saw Leidner in practice and, genuinely, he looked good. Made smart decisions, threw nice balls at varying distances, hit receivers in stride, ran through progressions. That wasn’t necessarily the case with QBs two through six. If there is a secret cabal of mystery plays, we’ll need the most competent quarterback to execute them. From everything I’ve seen, that’s Leidner and if he’s out, we may very well be doomed.

If, on the other hand, the Gopher Illuminati playbook is a figment of my maroon tin-hatted imagination, then it really makes no difference who the quarterback is. We’re going to be a run-first offense and, frankly, Streveler may be the better runner. Hell, it could be an advantage to have him in there.

Pretty sure Twitter and message boards were designed so that histrionic fans could talk themselves into circles. Congratulations, Internet gods.

Kill and staff blew it by not recruiting some JUCOs for depth this yearUnderplayed

Underplayed not because I believe it, but that I think it’s an interesting talker that hasn’t been discussed much

One could pretty justifiably argue that we were precariously young at quarterback, linebacker and defensive tackle. Should the staff have done more to solidify those positions with JUCO players? With the benefit of hindsight, the answer may be yes; but it’s more nuanced than that.
JUCOs come in expecting to play right away. In which of those three positions could a player earn immediate playing time? The obvious answer is defensive tackle. We had Scott Ekpe and Botticelli as the starters, then Peppers, Legania, Timms, and Richardson as the principal backups. With the rotation of players Clayes employs, and the disappearance of Peppers so far this season, it’s certainly possible a JUCO transfer could have earned some immediate play. Great, right? Well, athletic 290lb dudes aren’t sprouting out of the woodwork around there parts. The scheme we use requires defensive tackles to penetrate and pursue – we don’t have much use for 320lbs fire plugs. Guys who do fit what we’re trying to do have offers to more prominent programs, making it pretty tough to land them. So I wouldn’t be surprised to hear we pursued a few JUCO DTs, but were unable to pique the interest of anyone who fit our criteria.

How about quarterback and linebacker? Nope. The staff was doing everything but blowing the horn of plenty building Leidner up as the starting quarterback and leader of the program. While the staff may have wanted to bring in a security blanket in the event Leidner got hurt, it isn’t exactly an easy sell to get a quality dude with pro aspirations to come to a program with a defined starter at his position.

And linebacker? What did we have, six linebackers in the 2013 recruiting class? It would have been nice to get a JUCO LB in to balance out the classes a little bit, but we don’t do a lot of rotation at the position and it’s hard to believe he would have unseated Wilson, Campbell or Lynn for a starting gig. Again, it wouldn’t shock me if they investigated some options and there was no mutual interest.

[EDIT: of course, a decent writer would have double checked all of the commits for this year's class and seen that Cody Poock was, in fact, a JUCO LB. So they did get someone; he's just injured too. My humble apologies to Familia de Poock and my esteemed readers. Hat tip to Twitter warrior Jake Kleiner for correcting what is probably the third of 2 million egregious mistakes I'll make here.]

Who knows? With a little luck, we’ve made our sacrifice to Lord Anterior Cruciate and he will require the souls no further virgin ligaments this year.

(Frothy's starting word count: 16,411; Finishing word count: 18,235)

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