Wednesday, September 30, 2015
|Gophers hard at work trying to find the combination for success.|
Its been a bumpy ride through the non-conference schedule to say the least. I've gnashed my teeth as much as anyone over the Gophers throughout these first few games. However, after last week I feel fairly confident that the Gophers head into Evanston and beat the Wildcats. Am I insane? Probably, but that aside, I have 5 reasons why I believe the Gophers win on Saturday:
1. The coaching staff holds back in non-conference play.
This old chestnut is one that always comes with the Gophers under the Kill regime. Even though it is maddening sometimes, they rarely go out of the box in non-conference play. They keep it vanilla, so when the switcheroos and shifts and other tricks come out they blow your mind! Look for an explosive play or two that help turn the tide on Saturday.
2. Simplified running attack now looks great.
Holy Shannon Brooks. Rodney Smith and the Talented Mr. Brooks (I combined two movies there I guess) both showed up big on Saturday. Both were explosive with long runs of 30 and 40 yards, but Brooks really impressed me with his ability to truck, juke and blow by defenders. And guess what else? The offensive line looked pretty good too. Now Ohio is not TCU, nor even Northwestern, so they have a big challenge ahead, but they should come into the game with some confidence that they can move the ball on the ground.
3. NW Frosh QB Clayton Thorson vs Gophers defense.
In order to win, this has to be a match-up that favors the Gophers. Thorson turned the ball over three times in the first half of a 24-19 win against Ball St last week on two fumbles and an interception. He finished 18-31 for 256 yards. He was just 9-23 with two interceptions in their 19-10 win the prior week at Duke. He has a 53.4 QBR on the season. He's looked excellent at times, but he's young and the Gophers need to exploit that youth and the potential for mistakes. Justin Jackson is a stud at running back that will be tough to contain, so the Gophers need to keep the Wildcats as one dimensional as possible.
4. Speaking of Quarterbacks, have you seen our boy Mitch lately?
Leidner had his best game of the year and executed another great, late-game drive to get a win. I've been as hard on him as anyone and I had mentioned to my tailgate P.I.C. @Frothygopher that the Ohio game might be the one that makes or breaks him. He came up big, and that's great news for the season and this game against Northwestern because as good as a Demry Croft may one day be, starting on the road in the Big Ten season opener would not be a good look. I was impressed with how much more poise Leidner had in the pocket. His footwork seemed a lot better to me and it resulted in better passes thrown. Plus, being able to throw a short comeback to a guy like Isaiah Gentry and have him turn around and blaze up some YAC helps too.
Leidner's QBR by game? 18.5, 36.5, 54.7, 76.0. Blammo. @Frothy postulates this trend means he goes 94-98 passing this week. In fact, he just made a MODEL:
@Frothy's model predicts a 96.6 QBR this week. For comparison, Utah's Travis Wilson had a 97.4 QBR against Oregon last week. He went 18-30, 227 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs and ran 6 times for 100 yards and a TD.
5. The Gophers haven't played a complete game yet.
The Ohio game featured the strongest offensive effort and they also weren't bad defensively; but massive mistakes on special teams made this game much closer than it could have been. This forced pressure on both the offense and defense and they both held up their end of the bargain. Especially on offense, where even when they were punting, they were moving the ball a good chunk down the field before kicking it away. I have confidence that the special teams will be corrected at Northwestern.
Monday, September 28, 2015
For me, it was against Iowa in 2011. It's a little odd, since, from a defensive perspective, we had just been murderballed in the previous four games (37 points allowed by [REDACTED], 58 to Michigan, 45 to Purdue(!) and 41 to Nebraska) and would proceed to get pisspounded by for most of the rest of the schedule (31 points allowed to Michigan State and 42 to the Fighting Russell Wilsons). Further, it wasn't an incredible defensive performance, since we gave up 472 yards of offense, including 252 to Marcus Coker, who rumbled for an impressive 7.9 yards per carry.
But, and maybe this is benefit of hindsight talking, there was a little something there. We had three sacks in the game, to which you might say, uh, and? But remember, we only had eight sacks for the entire 2010 season (not a typo), so that was a pretty big deal. Recall, also, that we had some grossly inferior and undersized talent playing in the defense that year, particularly in the secondary. That we were able to do anything at all in stopping an opposing team was a testament to the coaches. Yes, Iowa was pretty ordinary that season, but there was still something that seemed different enough to take note.
Of course, it wasn't a straight line to the very-good-to-great defense we have today. It was, at best, stepwise, and there were a number of missteps and regressions along the way. But there was a moment of positivity we hadn't seen in a while. We needed something to be excited about and there it was. Something to tell us that maybe the near future wouldn't be as bad as the recent past.
Well, Saturday's game was the first time I've felt that tickle of hope for the offensive side of the ball since Iowa last year and probably the 2014 Nebraska game before that.
The Gophers offense has been bi-polar through Kill's tenure, with moments of sheer brilliance followed by long, tedious periods of bleh. It's particularly vexing, because you know the coaching staff has the capability to be dynamic and trust the players to execute - you know because they have allowed it to happen and you've seen it. But, like a thief in the night, Limegrover steals your optimism and returns to the offensive morass that could sap the fun from a keg stand.
So, why is it different this time? Why am I allowing myself to love again?
To me, it is because of who the staff counted on to execute. While there were upperclassmen contributing to Saturday's offensive performance, we saw four freshmen, two of which are true freshmen, provide a spark this offense has lacked all season.
Our skill position players for the last several seasons, outside of Cobb and Maxx, could be best described as "workmanlike." Not terrifically flashy, they would try to grind you to dust through hard work, a blue-collar attitude and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team [/end cliche generator].
Saturday, we saw a collection of talent that transcends that. Smith looked like Cobb reborn. Brooks, wearing Cobb's old number, conjured images of both Barber and Maroney, as he alternated between seeking contact against an off-balance defender and exploding into the open field for a 40-yard touchdown. Still and Gentry with their acrobatics, body control and athleticism have been absent from the wide receiver corps for nigh on a decade. Gentry, in particular, accelerates like a tremendous machine (h/t Chic Anderson) which, at 6'4", open up the deep threat potential in ways we haven't seen in some time.
Immense potential. And, for this season, that may be all that we see. Like the defense of four years ago, there will be setbacks and regressions. Youth, in the college game, rarely begets consistency. But in entrusting four freshmen to play a central role in the offense this weekend, particularly in a high-pressure, end-game situation, this staff demonstrated a willingness to take risks that were not part of the previous offensive breakthroughs.
We saw the future of the offense on Saturday. We needed something to be excited about, and there it was. Once again, we had hope.
Friday, September 25, 2015
The idea is to get a better understanding of our worthy adversaries from the view of someone who might care about and follow the team, but might be equally likely to not know the name of the coach or their record last year. This is the hard-hitting stuff you've come to expect from us.
This week, we face the Ohio Bobcats from Athens, Georgia. We have two respondents this week, which is two more than I thought I could round up for this: @Buddha_Ohio and @NikkiLovesCO. Let's get right to it!
1) Do you refer to yourselves as Athenians? If no, why not?
Wisconsin?! This is what we call an inauspicious start, Buddha. Good gravy. Being an Athenian is better than any Badger affiliation, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt and pretend he said "Yes." What about Nicole?@FrothyGopher 1) I go to school in Athens, but I'm not from here. Wisconsin born!— Buddha Hagman (@Buddha_Ohio) September 24, 2015
This makes sense, it being the mascot and such, but it really feels like a missed opportunity. If the original Athens had a college team with a Woodpecker for a mascot, would they call themselves "Woodpeckers?" The ancient Spartans versus the Woodpeckers? No, no they would not.@FrothyGopher no, I don't think anyone refers to themselves as Athenians; we are Bobcats for life!— Nicole Richards (@NikkiLovesCO) September 25, 2015
2) Guessing you're a fan of REM since they're also from Athens. What's your favorite song and why?
How could you be so wrong and so right in the same tweet? Of course Ghostbusters is the best theme song/movie ever, but Ohio University is in Athens, Georgia, birthplace of Michael Stipe and Herschel Walker.@FrothyGopher 2) that is Athens, Georgia. My favorite song is Ghostbusters theme song. Because it is the theme for the best movie ever.— Buddha Hagman (@Buddha_Ohio) September 24, 2015
YEAH, BUT HE WAS BORN IN MINNESOTA, SO HANDS OFF!@FrothyGopher @kristapoch REM is from Athens?? who knew?! Macguyver went to OU though. Did you know that?— Nicole Richards (@NikkiLovesCO) September 25, 2015
3) For Gopher fans visiting Athens for the game this weekend, where's the best place to grab breakfast and a beer?
@FrothyGopher @kristapoch The best place for breakfast would be Bagel Street Deli, Court St Diner, and Union St Cafe.— Nicole Richards (@NikkiLovesCO) September 25, 2015
There you go, Gopher fans, plenty of options for food and drink tomorrow. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford the flight to Georgia this weekend, so hit it hard in my absence.@FrothyGopher 3) beer at a bar called Jackie O's. Breakfast at a place called Casa.— Buddha Hagman (@Buddha_Ohio) September 24, 2015
4) How offended will your players be if we start a "MOAR LIKE BOBCANTS" chant?
@FrothyGopher @kristapoch we Bobcats are a peaceful bunch. we may not always win at sports, but we damn well win at life!— Nicole Richards (@NikkiLovesCO) September 25, 2015
@FrothyGopher 4) no, they have thick skins. But be sure to mock the fans because they usually leave at halftime.— Buddha Hagman (@Buddha_Ohio) September 24, 2015
Huh. Fans that are generally successful at life but don't stick around until the end of the game. Seems kind of familiar. Also, sounds like it's safe to mock the players tomorrow!
5) What's the biggest thing Gopher fans should be concerned about?
@FrothyGopher @kristapoch The Bobcats can definitely surprise you. Don't underestimate Solich and the pride that we bring to everything!— Nicole Richards (@NikkiLovesCO) September 25, 2015
Last time Solich faced the Gophers, he beat them by about 8,000. So let's get really drunk tonight to pre-forget!
I know of no other kind of drinking but heavy and angry. I'd be more concerned about this if our own fanbase wasn't at Defcon 2 and ready to tear itself apart in rage. We may need the angry, drunk Ohio fans to play the role of UN peacekeepers.@FrothyGopher 5) Bobcats can be angry drunks, and heavy drinkers. So tread lightly with shots and insults.— Buddha Hagman (@Buddha_Ohio) September 24, 2015
That's it for this week! Thanks again to Buddha and Nicole for getting us into the heads of Ohio fans. Give them a follow on the Twitters.
Monday, September 21, 2015
Not sure what it's like for you, but it's an actual physical sensation for me. You feel it in your guts and it kind of makes your heart hurt. I like to think the feeling is generated by resonance from the screams as my hope is burned at the stake by the malevolent forces of reality. My life coach says hope lives in your heart, so that explanation seems consistent with anatomy, at least. And, like an itch you can't scratch, it evades any attempts at amelioration. Booze, Xanax, even cauterization via white-hot coat hanger through the nose still leaves you feeling hollow inside. Nine months of optimistic expectations don't die fast and quiet.
Anyway, I think the Saturday's game against Kent State was this year's entry.
Yeah, we won, I get that. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you win by one or fifty - it all looks the same in the W column. But, in the area of expectations and the ebon abyss of existential pain, style points mean something.
Yet it's still weird to feel so glum after a win. I was immediately reminded of how I felt after the 10 - 9 win over NDSU in 2006, which really, really felt like a /does scare quotes motion with hands/ "win." But we were outgained in that one 372 yards to 261. No idea how we made it through, friends, but this clearly isn't as bad a situation as that (we outgained Kent State 288 yards to 142). Then I thought of last year's win over SJSU, where the optics weren't bad - we won 24 - 7 - but we only completed one (1) pass on seven (7) attempts. I pretty much spent the five years after the NDSU loss poisoning myself with keyboard cleaner so don't have much recollection of my sentiments after that; but after SJSU I distinctly recall a feeling of unease that must be akin to learning you have a tapeworm. Like, you're not going to die or anything, but something really bad is happening. Even then, though, we were playing with our backup quarterback and mashed them for 380 yards of rushing offenses, so it was pretty easy to rationalize and keep hope alive going into the TCU game the following week.
So, this past Saturday's game feels like both and neither of those two. Both, in that it totally failed the eye test (NDSU) and left us with a definite sense that there was something fundamentally flawed with the offense (SJSU) and neither as we were pretty clearly the better team, which was not the case against NDSU and we don't have an easy path to denial of our flaws like we did with SJSU. To make a long story short, I'm not sure either of these games are particularly comparable from either an outcome or optical perspective. Long asides with no tangible meaning are what I bring to the table as a writer.
The point is, Saturday gave us a glimpse into the dark chasm of re-set expectations. Which is that we are who we've been the last few years: a great defensive team with massive limitations on offense. The hopes of a transformation in the passing game due to an influx of young talent are bleeding out, while a mature offensive line with a gang of collective starts is performing, either due to injury, coaching or general ineptitude, like a shell of itself. We won quite a few games the last few years, but this year was to be different. Now, we face the specter that it won't be that different at all. The defense might be better, but the offense might be worse.
Usually, that pain of reality lingers for a day or two, then you can enjoy the season a little more. It becomes clear that this won't be the year, but that's okay, because no other year in your life has been the year either. You kind of emotionally bottom out a little bit, then find acceptance in being who we are.
I think that's where I'm headed now. Even with a win, this feels like a bit of a bottom. I can go on and hope we hold serve at home and maybe surprise someone along the way. We're not as bad as we played on Saturday. Everything will be fine. Just like last year and the year before.
Lingering, though, is a niggling sensation that this isn't the bottom. I'm damaged, I know, but I just have this sense that if the OL doesn't right itself, and quick, we could be in for a season of a surrender cobras. Reaching bottom denotes that things will get uniformly better - or at least no worse. I've seen Intervention, though; I know that sometimes when you think you're at bottom, you're really just on a ledge where your new dealer gives you the good, uncut stuff before switching you to baking soda and talc after winning your business. Like having a new dealer, our issues seem less incidental and more systemic. Something just feels a little structurally unsound.
Well, regardless, I love you all. Let's meet in the parking lots after each game and hold each other and we'll get through this just like we always have.
The Gopher offense was awful, their worst performance of 2015 in three games, all of which have seen the offense get progressively worse while the level of competition also has gotten...wait, worse? The TCU game didn't bother me. That's a big boy defense and a legit top 10 team. I expected a letdown vs Colorado State on the road and got it, and while I had hoped that win would look better and better as the season went along, the Rams did us no favors in losing to Colorado.
But the win over Kent State showed an all-around offensive ineptitude that no program in the 5th year of a coaching staff should have to endure. The Gophers wasted an absolutely dominant performance from their defense (which held Kent State to 142 total yards at 2.4 yards per play, and also forced 2 turnovers. And the lone Golden Flashes TD came from their own defense. Yeah wow) with if not their worse offensive performance of the Kill Era, one that was certainly their most disappointing. Yes, Minnesota has injury issues along the offensive line and at Tight End, but the Gophers were manhandled up front all afternoon by what should have been an inferior opponent.
And the OC did them no favors. In what has become typical Jerry Kill/Limegrover fashion, the Gophers went in against an overmatched opponent and tried to do as little as humanly possible to win (this is not the topic I want to discuss today, and at this point, why bother? Kill believes in winning games while mitigating risks above all else. He is not interested in blowing out an opponent or working on weaknesses like the passing game in game settings. A 10-7 win for him is the same as 50-7. He has proven this over and over against weak non-con opponents and as much as this drives me insane I don't expect this to change as long as Limegrover and this offensive philosophy remains). It's one thing to do this when it works (think the SJSU game last year where backup QB Chris Streveler ran pretty much the same read-option play over and over and over to great success), it's another when you keep stubbornly doing it with no success. You know, like on Saturday. Kent State knew exactly what was coming and prepared accordingly: Minnesota's offense saw a stacked box with more run defenders than blockers all afternoon long, and made zero adjustments to account for it. Sure, Limey tried to open things up a bit early when QB Mitch Leidner went deep early, but he got picked twice on terrible underthrows, and that was it for offensive creativity. The offensive gameplan was so vanilla you would have thought it was a spring scrimmage open to the public.
And look, to Minnesota's credit- it worked. After those picks they really didn't seem to care how much they did or did not move the ball, they knew if they just get a couple of scores the D and special teams would do the rest. And boy did they. The Gophs survived with a beaten and battered offensive line and got a victory. For Kill and Limegrover, that is all that matters. But it shouldn't, because with a best-in-a-generation defense (and even that might be underselling it) and very good special teams the Gophers could be the third best team in the B1G this season. But because of the offense they're going to be lucky to just get bowl eligible and win six games.
In year five of the Kill/Limegrover Era, that is simply unacceptable. While I've "Still Got Hope" in Jerry Kill, Tracy Claeys and the defense as well as the Special Teams group, I'm going against the name of this blog as I've lost any and all hope in Matt Limegrover and the offense- regardless of who the quarterback is.
Before we go further, here's national offensive rankings for four different statistical measures from 2010 (the last year before Limey got here) through these first three games into 2015. There are two traditional stats and two advanced, and they all seem to paint a pretty similar picture:
2015: 16.7 Points per Game (122nd nationally)
2014: 28.4 (66)
2013: 25.7 (85)
2012: 22.08 (94)
2011: 18.42 (111)
2010: 23.17 (89)
2015: 364 Total Yards per Game (98)
2014: 357.3 (103)
2013: 343.3 (105)
2012: 321.38 (108)
2011: 310.33 (110)
2010: 361.33 (77th)
Offense S&P+ (an explanation for just what the hell this is here)
2015: N/A until this week
Offense FEI Ratings (Explanation here)
2015: N/A until week 8
So yes, by definition, prior to 2015 Minnesota's offense did indeed improve from year 1 under Limey to year 4. I have seen that argument a few places prior to Saturday and while the gradual improvement is true and real (especially from 2013 to 2014 where in all categories but total yards we saw a really nice jump from 2013 to 2014- and I'm well aware you can poke plenty of holes in how you use the total yards stat), I threw the 2010 stats in there for a reason: as bad as things were under Brewster, it took 4 freaking years for Limegrover to bring the offense back to about the same or better numbers than the offense we saw under Brew and interim OC Jeff Horton. Part of that goes back to the Kill philosophy, which is to mitigate risk by controlling the clock with the run game and lean on your defense and special teams, but seriously, five years later and this is where we're at?
Sure, he's had a few games in that span where the offense was great, they moved the ball, and he used creative and adaptive play-calling to get it done. The win over Nebraska in 2013 (aka "The Shits and Motions Game") is the best example because it was SO jarring from what we had seen previously. Prior to that Minnesota had won four non-conference games to open the season while passing as little as possible. That worked great until they played B1G opponents with real defenses that could defend the run, and Minnesota got clobbered by both Iowa (23-7) and Michigan (42-13). The defense won them the Northwestern game as the offense continued to struggle.
And then the Nebraska game happened. Like many of you, I was there, and I was stunned and it remains my favorite game of the TCF Bank Stadium Era. An offense that in all the prior games had come out in the same stodgy formations with no variation and no creativity suddenly was running shifts and motions out all kinds of sets. Nebraska was clearly as stunned as we were, though they were much less pleased with the results. Minnesota still ran the ball a lot as always, but thanks to Limegrover's creativtiy in how they did it and how well he called the game, they dominated Nebraska in a way Minnesota hadn't done since the glory years with 271 yards on the ground in a 34-23 upset.
At that point, I became a believer... for all of two games. Next week vs Indiana they put up a whopping 573 yards of total offense (including 325 through the air! WHA???) and 34 points. THIS IS HAPPENING!!! And then it wasn't: the next game was a win over Penn State but a "meh" perfomance from the O, and then they got totally shut down by the two best teams on their schedule in Wisconsin and Michigan State. They had a month to prepare for the bowl game vs Syracuse and yet the on-field product looked like Limegrover had done the game plan during pregame warmups.
Last year was better but still never reached that two game peak of Nebraska and Indiana from 2013. Limegrover had another strong gameplan for Nebraska which resulted in the first Gopher victory in Lincoln since the automobile was invented (fine that's an exaggeration, but only slightly), and responded well to the losses to Michigan and Iowa with dominant wins. But after that, the non-con was the same recipe of do as little as possible to win (or vs TCU, lose), they did enough offensively to survive Northwestern and Purdue, fought hard but weren't great against Ohio State and Wisconsin and laid a giant egg in Champaign. Oh, and another month to prepare for a bowl game, and another performance in a loss to Missouri that looked like Limegrover forgot there was a bowl game until the last minute.
Which brings us back to 2015. Yes, they lost their two best offensive playmakers in David Cobb and Maxx Williams, Yes, they've sustained a bunch of injuries along the O-Line, and lost their projected top two TE's for the season; those excuses are valid against TCU in the opener, and at least plausible vs Colorado State. But Kent State? At home? This is the fifth year running the program- ALL of the kids are ones that Kill and Limegrover recruited to fit this system. Yet this offense thus far has looked as bad as it did in year one. I can understand this in the first or second, or even third year. But the 5th? Limegrover is an offensive line coach and they've recruited well there, and prior to this season, coached it well and gotten a performance to match, and yet maybe the most troubling aspect has been how much of a mess and how lost the O-line has looked. Sure you're missing a couple of starters, but shouldn't the wealth of experienced depth we should have built up been enough to step in and be better than this?
Limegrover proponents believe the last two Nebraska games, as well as the wins over Iowa and Michigan last year, are signs of what can go right and what we're building towards. What they really are is the exception not the rule, an outlier of great performances mixed in amoungst so many duds. What happened to the creativity from the 2013 win over the Huskers? Where did all the formations and calls that led to all those yards and points vs Indiana go? How can he draw up a gameplan that works so poorly vs Illinois one week, then so great vs Iowa the next? Where is the consistency?
Then there's the quarterbacks. Limegrover, Kill and the staff are currently 0-5 in developing quarterbacks in their five years (if you count current backup Chris Streveler. And I do as he started the SJSU game last year but despite Leidner's continued struggles has apparently not been able to push him for playing time), and as excited as I am about true freshman Demry Croft, I'm worried despite his talent they may go 0-6. If a couple of quarterbacks don't pan out, maybe you chalk it up to the player. But five different guys and none of them have developed? How can that not be on the coaching staff and the offensive coordinator? It's also why as much as I think Croft can't do any worse than Leidner has and has a much higher ceiling, Limegrover's track record at Minnesota suggests the chances of Croft being successful are few and far between as long as the Gophers continue doing what they're doing.
And that's the thing- why ARE the Gophers doing things this way? Why has it come to this? In the year before coming to Minnesota, Matt Limegrover was not only in charge of a really good offense at Northern Illinois, but he and Kill had also developed a really good quarterback to run it in Chandler Harnish. Here's those same four statistics we used for the Gopher offenses for NIU's offensefrom 2010:
Scoring Offense: 38 PPG (38th nationally)
Total Offense: 450 yds per game (19)
Holy lord look at those numbers! How on earth is this the same guy?!? How can Limegrover be in charge of that offense and also what we witnessed againt Kent State? Limegrover proponents would argue this is exactly why we need to stick with him: "He did THAT before: Just give him time, he'll do it again." One minor detail however: the Gophers are not running that offense anymore. For reasons that have not been explained, Limegrover and Kill have transitioned away from the spread, read-option run based offense that they had so much success with at NIU to boring, predictable, run-heavy steaming pile of garbage you saw Saturday.
Still, while I have little faith he can go back to that kind of offensive success the overall argument stands- Limegrover did coach a successful offense at NIU and the previous stops with Kill, and he did develop competent, consistent quarterbacks. The question then is how long should he get to show he can replicate that success at Minnesota? For me, five full seasons is more than enough, but I have a feeling Jerry Kill's patience with his long-time coordinator and friend may be longer.
All is not lost for the 2015 season. The Gophers are still 2-1, they still have a winnable home game vs Ohio coming up and they still have the entire B1G slate in front of them. The defense and special teams are good enough to win the West if they get ANYTHING from the offense, and the offense doesn't have to be 2010 NIU-level for that to happen. I hope the debacle vs Kent State brought a lot of soul-searching for Limegrover and Kill, and that they'll work to get all the things that are going wrong corrected. Maybe they'll start going back to doing more of what worked at NIU and less of what hasn't here at Minnesota. That they haven't been able to do that now in their fifth season with their fifth different quarterback tells me it's not going to happen, but as a Gopher fan I hope Limegrover spends the rest of the season proving me wrong.
Monday, September 14, 2015
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
A few Gopher football thoughts as we transition away from the TCU game and look forward to a roadie in Ft Collins vs the Colorado State fightin' Rams...
WE'RE 1-0 IN MORAL VICTORIES
I didn't think I believed in moral victories, and yet, sitting here today after Minnesota lost by six points to the second ranked team in the country, it appears maybe I do. Just a little. The defense looked great. The offense...had moments. The Gophers had some costly mistakes (the strip sack of QB Mitch Leidner that handed TCU the ball on an impossibly short field, and the Nugget fumble at the 2 being the biggest) that kept them just far enough away from being able to challenge for the lead. And yes, TCU had their share of mistakes that if they cleaned up would have put them comfortably ahead. But still- a 6 point loss to the #2 team in the country? I'll take it.
DON'T PUT TOO MUCH STOCK IN THE FIRST GAME OF THE YEAROr don't overract one way or the other to what happened this past weekend, as it's not necessarily indicitive of what is to come. I believe the stat guys call it a "small sample size". Matt Hinton made this point in a Grantland post today and his example is a great one:
Lest you forget, at this time last year, the college football hive mind (led by yours truly) couldn’t move fast enough to anoint Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill as the second coming of Johnny Manziel based exclusively on Hill’s first career start, an opening-night romp over South Carolina; within two months of his scintillating debut, “Kenny Trill” had been permanently relegated to the bench, biding his time until his inevitable transfer at season’s end.
I do remember also thinking this a year ago when A&M pasted what we thought was a good South Carolina squad (perhaps ironically, they just did the same thing to Arizona State Saturday night)- in the end, as Hinton said, Kenny Hill got benched and eventually transferred while both teams finished just 3-5 in conference play. I also remember being really depressed last year after TCU just buried the Gophers 30-7 while making the offense look inept and feeble. I remember clinging to the hope that maybe, just maybe, the at-the-time unranked Horned Frogs would have a good season to make us feel better about the loss- all they did was go 12-1 and finish 3rd in the Final AP poll as one of the best teams in the country. So yeah, we looked back on that loss and felt better.
After Thursday night's loss, it's difficult not to base my feelings on the results of LAST season- sure, TCU had to replace a bunch on defense but they'll figure it out and almost all of their high powered offense returns so I can easily talk myself into what a good effort Minnesota had and, despite the loss, that this should bode well for the rest of the season. But we won't have a good idea what this loss means or looks like until later in the season once both teams have played more games as well as more quality foes- or in TCU's case, MUCH later. Between next week's depantsing of poor 1-AA Stephen F Austin and a November 12 trip to Norman to face Oklahoma, the only real game of consequence TCU will play is Oct 10th at K-State. Yes, I'm aware they play Texas in there somewhere but if you watched any of that Notre Dame game you saw that the Longhorns will pose little challenge to the Horned Frogs. Ditto Texas Tech, Iowa State, West Virginia or Okie State. Upsets CAN happen sure, but if the Horned Frogs are anything close to last year's club they could be 10-0 by the time they travel to Norman with very few wins of consequence on their resume. As much as we Gopher fans hope TCU will be really good again to make us feel better about the loss, TCU fans should be hoping like hell that Minnesota has another good season because with their schedule wins over quality opponents may be few and far between.
THE GOPHER DEFENSE COULD BE SPECIAL
So yes I'm going to talk out of both sides of my mouth here- let's not read TOO much into the results of game 1, but yet holy crap- THE DEFENSE! There was talk all offseason from national folks that Minnesota could have one of the B1G's best secondaries. DC Tracy Claeys- usually not one to speak in hyperbole- said in the spring this was the best defensive line since he's been here. We knew we had actual B1G talent at all three linebacker spots, it was just a question of who would the two jobs beside De'Vondre Campbell. And did I mention the secondary is amazing? Right, I did, just checking.
Well after game one I'm having trouble keeping my expectations in check. Yes, they gave up 449 yards of offense, but TCU also had the ball a LOT, and that first TD came on the aforementioned short field. That 449 yards and 23 points are also well under their averages from 2014 and kept giving Minnesota's offense a chance to stay in it. They're going to get another good test Saturday night against arguably the best receiver in the country in Rashard Higgins and what should be a pretty good CSU offense. Yes, the Rams lost a really good QB to graduation and their head coach to Florida, but Mike Bobo knew how to do some things at Georgia before taking the head job in Ft Collins. And sure a 65-13 opening week win over Savannah State may not tell us much about the Rams but they DID blow them out in convincing fashion, and as Washington State and Kansas showed games vs 1-AA opponents aren't always gimmes anymore. Which leads me to...
I'M MUCH MORE NERVOUS ABOUT COLORADO STATE THAN I WAS TCU
Mostly because I just wanted Minnesota to keep the opener close and not get embarrassed- which they most certainly did. But this CSU contest just screams "TRAP GAME!" to me: Minnesota is coming off an emotional loss and now they go on the road, at night, in the elevation (I like to think elevation matters so we'll just say it does) against a quality opponent. Yes, it would seem CSU's strength on offense of passing plays right into Minnesota's hands with the Secondary of Amazeballs (ok still working on that nickname. Suggestions welcome. Obviously). And when CSU is on defense, you'll hear a lot about how awful their run defense was last season ranking 98th in Rush Yds allowed (an avg of 200.3 rush yards per game at 4.9 yards per carry), 82nd in Rushing S&P+ and 92nd in Defensive S&P+.
The matchups SHOULD favor Minnesota and yet...I remain nervous for this one. Very nervous. I hope I'm wrong and Minnesota runs right over them while shutting down Higgins and the Rams offense. I just don't think it will be that easy.
THIS TEAM IS A PASSING GAME AWAY FROM BEING DANGEROUS
Mitch "Moose" Leidner wasn't great in the loss, but he wasn't bad either, and as big of a Mitch Skeptic as I am, it's hard to pin the passing game woes from week 1 on him. Due to the injury to Josh Campion and his replacement at LT Ben Lauer still clearly not 100%, the line was a mess for much of the game. At first when I saw the strip sack in the first half that set up TCU's first TD, I thought "good ol' Mitch!", the same guy we knew and loved from previous seasons who hung onto the ball too long in the pocket. But watching the replay he didn't have a prayer- Lauer got turnstiled and the TCU end was on Mitch before he could barely complete his drop. Things improved once they moved Jonah Pirsig to LT for the first time, and Kill already announced this week that Pirsig will stay there for now and Campion will move back to RT where he started his first two seasons. Assuming Campion is healthy that should solidify the offensive line as the interior guys with guards Jon Christenson and Connor Mayes and center Brian Bobek looked solid already.
If the line is intact and functioning then we also know the Gophers will be able to run the ball. Roderick Nugget Williams was the starter then lost playing time after his terrible fumble cost Minnesota points. This seems to unfortunately be the Nugget MO as in seasons past he's had opportunities for playing time but just never seems to capitalize. Still, Rodney Smith looked great and we may get to see true frosh Shannon Brooks and let's be honest- as long as Kill and Limegrover are here running this offense, Minnesota will never have a shortage of options at RB and the running game will be the least of our worries (I hope I'm wrong but I think Berkley Edwards has missed his chance. He's not big enough to consistently run between the tackles vs first team defenses, and he cannot catch well enough to be used on swing passes or screens to get him the ball in space).
But the passing game has been the one glaring issue since Kill and Limey got here, and if the TCU loss is any indication then that issue is not going away. Again, it's not all on Mitch. There is much better talent at receiver this year than last (and maybe in the five seasons since Kill arrived) but it's just REALLY young talent and as we saw vs TCU, young talent makes mistakes. They drop passes, they run the wrong routes, and they're not always going to be where they're supposed to. Still, KJ Maye should be a decent primary target, Drew Wolitarsky and Eric Carter can hopefully get open and make plays and we just need at least one of the tight ends to show he can be a threat in the passing game. After that, it's just throwing all the talented and tall redshirt and true freshman out there and see who sticks. True Frosh Rashad Still was the only frosh to catch a pass in the opener, and you can see why the coaching staff was raving about him in August practice. While it was disappointing for the talented trio of Melvin Holland Jr, Isiah Gentry and Desmond Gant to have a goose egg, hopefully at least one of them will show some promise. Oh and Jeff Jones- remember him? The star of spring ball who hasn't been heard from since? If he can get healthy and acclimated by Big Ten play, he's potentially a major weapon and real threat when he gets on the field.
But in the end, it comes down to Leidner. I remain a Mitch skeptic and while I'll admit the loss was definitely not all on him, he didn't inspire much confidence that the big jump in progress is coming for him. Yes the line was a mess, yes TCU is really fast, and yes the receivers dropped too many passes. But he also missed some open throws and receivers, or forced his receiver to make a tough catch that should have been an easy completion or bigger gain if he puts the ball anywhere close to where it is supposed to be. In my opinion we're going to see much the same Mitch we did last season where he looks competent some games and totally lost the next. And if last season is any indication, that may be enough for another eight win season and .500 or better record in the B1G. Against this schedule? I'd take that. As of now, we're not going to do better at QB this season than Mitch, because while my expectations are through the roof for Demry Croft's potential and career at Minnesota, right now a true freshman is not an upgrade over Leidner for this offense and this team.
Don't get me wrong- I would LOVE to be proven wrong as a Mitch Skeptic and to see progress from him, to see him start completing a few more of those throws that he should make and hitting open receivers in stride more consistently, and taking less time in the pocket to do both. Those do not seem like outlandish expectations for a redshirt junior with well more than a full season of starting experience. I hope if the line can get healthy and solid he'll have the time he needs to make the right decisions and right throws. Because to bring this back full circle: while trying not to overreact to week one, it's hard not to look at the results of the TCU loss with a potentially great defense and strong running game- as well as how the rest of the B1G West fared in their openers- and not believe Minnesota is a passing game away from being a really dangerous football team. I believe the tools are there for the passing game to develop, and hopefully we'll see some positive signs vs Colorado State Saturday night.