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.