Thursday, November 14, 2019

PJ Fleck has Already Won

PJ has been working to the point of exhaustion capitalizing on the opportunity of the unexpected and remarkable 9-0 start to the season. Watching him appear on ESPN’s College Football Playoff rankings show this past Tuesday, he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days as the media roadshow to promote the hell out of the program reached a fever pitch. It shouldn’t be surprising that he’d be pressing, considering what he told Adam Rittenberg in the wake of beating #4 Penn State:

"It's been so long, but that's what's so fun about hope*,” Fleck said in his stadium office about two hours after Saturday's game. "I'm a Chicago Cubs fan. Everybody always said, 'The lovable losers,' and then all of a sudden, they did it. They got the right people, they got the right GM, they got the right manager, and then they found a way to put the right team together to do it.
"It's going to happen here, and we just want to do everything we can to get our shot at it. What you saw today is the hope for the future, to say it's not just what used to be, it's what's going to be."

Thing is, if you’re measuring a program by interest, fan or general, PJ has already succeeded at changing the narrative. The 9-0 start has catapulted the Gophers into such rarified air that, short of a narrowing list of postseason accomplishments, what else does PJ need to prove to people who matter?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The TCF Bank Stadium Slip

It's the 4th quarter. Two minutes and three seconds on the clock. Fourth-ranked Penn State has the ball on their own 40, down 31 to 26 to the 17th ranked Minnesota Gophers. The Gophers have been in control for most of the day, but Penn State is making a run to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and leave Gophers fans wanting in their bid for a Rose Bowl.

On first down, quarterback Sean Clifford drops back and finds Jahan Dotson wide open at the Gophers' 45. The defensive back guarding him, Benjamin St. Juste, loses his footing and falls over. A collective moan emanates from TCF Bank Stadium.

Smokey and the Frost-bit


There is a Big Ten football program that was once a national power. It was built on the backs of strong, corn-fed Midwestern farm boys wearing iconic uniforms that practically became their own mascot. When football changed they changed with it, finding speedy athletes in other parts of the country to bring into the fold, adopting new styles, and embracing innovation. Over thirty years they won over two-thirds of their games, boatloads of conference championships, nearly half a dozen National Championships, some of the biggest bowls in the game, and never finished lower than 5th in their conference.

After years of success, their long-tenured coach departed, taking an assistant role in the athletic department. Most assumed the successor would pick up where he left off. The decline started almost imperceptibly and took nearly a decade to pick up steam. Frustration from administration and alumni, tough questions from what used to be an obedient local media, increasing surliness by coaches, and suddenly what used to be considered “fluke” performances became something closer to the norm. After a decade or so, the fans looked around, realized that it was more trend than phase and started to wonder aloud what the hell happened.

If you think that sounds a lot like Minnesota football from the 30s to the 80s, well, you’re close but not quite.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

St. George and the Dragon



Have you ever found yourself burdened by the weight of past events and your mistakes? Not consequences necessarily, but the feelings associated with the memory weighing on your mind. Perpetually feeling the pressure to avoid the pitfalls of the past and judging yourself by a self-imposed standard that may not reflect reality, the caveman parts of your limbic system constantly engaged in a fight-or-flight tug of war that eventually leads to more mistakes, more failures, more regrets. Or maybe it’s just me; an anxiety disorder, predisposition to rumination, and an interest in history that goes beyond mere hobby will tend to do that. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, congratulations! That’s awesome, I invite you to still play along.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Changing the Narrative


This is kind of weird, right? Second week of November, undefeated, playing the 4th-best team in the country in a nationally televised game. Win, and we’re in the top 10 with a very, very credible track to the Rose Bowl. Lose and we’re still the prohibitive favorite to win the West. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to use halcyon days in the present tense – today is halcyon! – but, regardless of what happens the rest of the season and in the years to come, right now feels pretty effing terrific.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Was Matt Limegrover Calling Plays Last Night? A Look at what Minnesota's Offense Did- and Mostly Didn't Do- vs South Dakota State

Minnesota won it's season opener 28-21 over a very good South Dakota State team last night. I couldn't help but notice the jarring difference in offensive philosophies between the two squads- and despite the loss, how much better SDSU's was compared to Minnesota's. The Jack Rabbits had Gopher defenders moving- and usually in the wrong direction- all night long while Minnesota was basically doing the same thing on every play- a play-action pass or, on about 2/3 of their snaps, the return of the dreaded #RUTM. Watching Minnesota on offense I couldn't shake the feeling we were watching a Matt Limegrover offense from three or four years ago.

The Classic "Limey" formation was a QB in shotgun, a RB beside him, and then one-three TE's. Receivers? Probably one or two of those on the outside, but really none of that mattered because the defense knew exactly what was coming- a "run up the middle" by the running back, or a Mitch Leidner keeper to the outside. And while sure Leidner was a tough runner, he was the furthest thing from fast. Any opposing defense knew the Gophers were going to lineup and run right at them- over and over and over again. And if the QB kept it he wasn't getting more than a few yards. Pass? The few DB's they kept back in the secondary could handle it, and they usually did.

Sound familiar? Because that's about what SDSU saw from Minnesota. OC Kirk Ciarrocca added a bit of pre-snap motion, but the Jacks Rabbit D saw it for what it was- window dressing. They stayed home putting 7 or 8 defenders in the box knowing more often than not that the one RB in the backfield was getting the ball and running between the tackles. And on more than 60% of the plays that's exactly what happened, which is why it seemed like SDSU had multiple defenders waiting at the line of scrimmage to make the tackle. There were no designed runs for the backs outside the tackles, no counter plays that changed the direction after the snap, no quick screens to receivers (can we please take that looooooooooonnnnnnnnnnngggggggg developing wide receiver tunnel screen and throw it in the garbage? It hasn't worked in two years and it fooled no one again last night), no quick slants or hitches, and no RPO's (at least that I could tell).

Most concerning to me though was that despite the obvious struggles of Minnesota's O-line, Ciarrocca did little to help them out. No designed rollouts or bootlegs to give Tanner Morgan more time to throw and actually get SDSU's D moving away from the line of scrimmage and outside the tackle box. Ciarrocca came in with a vanilla game plan and when it was clear to everyone it didn't work instead of trying to mix it up or add in some new wrinkles, in classic Limey fashion he just stubbornly stuck with the same old thing. Was he too stubborn to change- or incapable? We shall see in the coming weeks.

Flip over to when SDSU had the ball and you saw how to run a true spread offense- and I'm sure that sounds ridiculous considering the Jack Rabbits lost, but with an inexperienced freshman QB, on the road against a Big Ten opponent, SDSU was still moving the ball all game long and almost pulled off the upset. Two crucial "freshman" mistakes from their QB killed them- and ended up being the difference in the game- but Minnesota's D was scrambling to keep up and keep track of where the ball was going from the first play.

Unlike the Gophers who were pretty transparent about what they were doing, SDSU used multiple backs in the backfield and had them going in different directions, and with a speedy QB at the helm, any of the three could be getting the ball. When they put just one back beside the QB, they could bring a slot receiver in motion for the jet sweep (and might actually give it to him!), OR sometimes do this crazy thing where they would give the RB the ball to the OUTSIDE! (I know, I told you it was crazy.) Actual runs off tackle or sweeps, which would set up not only a QB keeper the other direction but then also the play-action pass the other way. TE's leaking out, or those same backs that had gone in motion as potential runners were now sprinting downfield as potential pass catchers.

Yes, the Gopher D weren't great last night and looked out of position a lot, but the scheme SDSU ran was consistently forcing them to make decisions and NOT stay home. When you don't know what's coming or where the ball is going, it makes it a lot more difficult for even the most experienced defense to stick to their assignments and stay in position. This will serve as a great learning experience for Minnesota's D, and Joe Rossi and the coaches will have a lot of tape to help prepare for more offenses like this coming up on the schedule.

As for the offense? As bad as they were it's also only one game, and only the first game. The line needs fixing, and they need to figure out better ways to get Tyler Johnson open even when he's being double-covered. Throwing more and more to Bateman will help with that since #13 is going to torch single coverage all season long no matter who is defending him. And throwing more to other receivers will help too- Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas combined for 3 catches for 18 yards. They're both much better than that. After all the hype we heard all off-season about the TE's and how good they are and how involved they'll be the total catches by TE's were zero.

More than that though Ciarrocca and the offensive staff should join Rossi and the defense when they watch game tape, and take as many things from that SDSU offense as they can. Two of Minnesota's best players are RB's Rodney Smith and Mo Ibrahim- can you get them in the backfield together on occasion? The threat and movement of both of them- plus Morgan as a threat to keep it on the run or pass- would give an opposing defense some pre-snap and after-snap motion to actually worry about.

But since we seem hell-bent on nothing but one-back formations who about quick screens and slants, RPO's (from my very primitive and uneducated viewing last night looked non-existent), mixing in veer-options runs that take the RB outside the tackle instead of always #RUTM, and whether your O-line is struggling or not- but ESPECIALLY when your O-line struggles- bootlegs, and rollouts off your option run fakes.

This remains an offense with a ton of skill position talent and what SHOULD be a massive and talented offensive line. Now we'll find out if Ciarrocca and staff are up for fixing the issues and getting more out of them than we saw last night.





Tuesday, August 13, 2019

I Can't Live Without Claeys Love

There's a swath of the Gopher fan base that can't let go of Tracy Claeys. This is what I imagine being part of that group must feel like.

"(Can't Live Without Claeys') Love & Affection*"
*sung to the tune of "(Can't Live Without Your) Love & Affection" by Nelson

Here he comes
Mmmm, just like an angel
Seems like forever that he's been on our mind
Nothing has changed
Cause PJ's a waste of our time

There he goes
Oooh, it's Claeys we're missin'
Hope he sees we'll never give up the fight
We'll do all we can
To fulfill our Tracy desire

We've been on the outside looking in
Don't want to get in the boat, oooohhh
There's nothing on earth
That should keep us & Claeysie apart

TRACY! We can't live without your
Love & Affection
We can't face another damn
"ROW THE BOAT"
We just can't abide
That snake PJ Fleck as our coach
Cause we can't live without your love.
Ooooh, your love.

So we bitch
Cause it's all we've got
And wonder if the snake oil will run out someday
We keep holding on
Can't stand cheering for F.A.M.I.L.Y.

Tracy, We've been on the outside looking in
Don't want to be get in the boat, ooooh
Not even Goldy can make us pretend
Oh yeah

TRACY! We can't live without your
Love & Affection
We can't face another damn
"ROW THE BOAT"
We just can't abide
That snake PJ Fleck as our coach
Cause we can't live without your love.
Ooooh, your love.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Past Performance is not Predictive of Future Results


I get it. I really do.

You hear people like me talking about how good we’re going to be this season, how #TITTY and we’re going to Indy. I know you look at me and think “You poor, stupid tub of gravy. Yeah, the schedule looks good; yeah, we looked amazing at the end of last season. Doesn’t matter. I’ve gone into the season with high hopes before. I’ve died a thousand deaths. Never again. Never again.”

Thursday, January 17, 2019

First Look: Projecting Minnesota's 2019 Offensive Depth Chart

The Athletic is currently running projected 2019 depth charts for all the helmet schools. Sure, the Athletic will never do one for little ol' Minnesota but I'm sure we'll get one any minute now from our friendly Twin Cities media... you're right we should probably just do this ourselves.

Not sure if you've heard but there's quite a bit of excitement surrounding your Golden Gopher football Elite squad for 2019 and it starts here on offense. The U loses a grand total of 2 starters from 2018 and welcomes in some potential new faces that could compete for playing time right away. We're not used to thinking this or dreaming it and certainly never saying it out loud but now is as good of a time as any to start- the Gophs will be loaded on offense for 2019.

Quarterback

Starter: ???
Backup: Zach Annexstad, Soph; Tanner Morgan, R-Soph; Jacob Clark, Fr

Overview: Normally you'd be worried if you didn't have any real confidence who the QB1 was going to be, but not this year. Not with everything else that is coming back and added in. Whichever one of these three starts will be given the keys to an offense with a mammoth and talented O-line and an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions. Annexstad is your likely very early leader for the job based on the fact he won the job out of camp last year when he was healthy. Assuming he's finally 100% again to start 2019 he's a better passer than Morgan and has the potential to make some plays with his feet. Of course he got so beat up in his first few starts it was hard to get much of a gauge on his talent and potential, but he just seems to have that "it" factor.

That said, all Morgan did was go 4-2 as a starter and help lead the team to victories over Wisconsin, Purdue and Georgia Tech while completing almost 60% of his passes. He was solid and looks to have room to improve. I think he has the lowest upside of the three, but as he's already proven the offense will run just fine if he wins back the starting job.

Clark has the highest upside, but also the least experience. He's already enrolled and will be there for Spring ball, so he has a real chance to beat out Annexstad and Morgan. Still it's more likely than not he redshirts in 2019.

Running Back

Starter: Rodney Smith, R-Sr (6th yr)
Backup: Mo Ibrahim, R-Soph; Shannon Brooks, R-Sr; Bryce Williams, Soph; Nolan Edmonds, R-Fr, Jonathan Femi-Cole, R-Sr; Cam Wiley, Fr

Overview: With Ibrahim's emergence as a potential star, Minnesota no longer has to pin their hopes for a strong running game on better health for Smith and Brooks. We'll hope it happens, but Ibrahim showed he can carry the load as a true #1 back if need be. Still, by all means, let's hope for good health because if Smith is right again after his season ending injury in 2018, he's still probably your #1 back in the spring with Ibrahim a 1-A. It may be too soon to start evoking the "Barber-Maroney" pairing but then again maybe it isn't. If Smith is back to his all-conference potential self, he and Mo make an awesome RB tandem.

I have no idea what to expect from Brooks. 2018 was such a strange and injury-plagued year for him. Hopefully he's healthy because you can't have too many good running backs, but considering how late in the year he suffered his injury he's probably hoping to be ready for Fall camp instead of spring which will put him behind everyone else. Here's hoping for a return to form for him both on and off the field, but as stated earlier, the Gophers' hopes for a strong running game no longer depend on it.

With the injuries to Smith and Brooks, Femi-Cole had every opportunity to get big playing time in 2018 yet finished with just 6 carries for 25 yards. I would not expect him to be a factor in 2019. After that there's plenty of good, young players who will be fighting for carries. Considering how little Williams was used the second half of the season, I wonder if the coaches will try to red shirt him this season since they couldn't last year with all the injuries? Edmonds was well-regarded as a high school prospect and is someone to watch. Despite all the depth here already, keep an eye on the true freshman Wiley. He's enrolled already in January so he'll be able to jump right in here in the spring, and the recruitnik folks think the Gophers got a steal.

Wide Receiver

Starters: Tyler Johnson, Sr; Rashod Bateman, So; Chris Autman-Bell, R-So
Backups: Demetrius Douglas, R-So; Seth Green, R-Jr; Phillip Howard, R-Jr; Jornell Manns, R-Fr; Nnamdi Adim-Madumere, Fr

Overview: Let the other B1G fans scoff at this all they want, but I firmly believe it and you should too- Johnson and Bateman have a chance to be the best wide receiver duo in the B1G next year. You know about Johnson, but all Bateman did as a true frosh was set school freshman records for catches (51) and yards (704), and was second in TD's with 6. Those numbers were also second on the team by a healthy margin behind Johnson. We have the potential for two 1000 yard receivers next year, and as great as Johnson is, Bateman has a real chance to be just as good.

Autman-Bell was the clear 3rd target last season and will be an important part of the offense again in 2019. While he didn't really play WR that's where the multi-talented Green was listed last year. Could we actually see him at WR a little more running actual routes this fall? I'm all for it and his usage is something to keep an eye on this spring. Douglas only had 9 catches but was on the field a lot- there's room for his talents but he'll need to keep working to carve out more opportunities for himself.

Howard was decent as an injury fill-in in 2017 but had just 2 catches for 5 yards last year. Is a bounce-back year in store? Manns redshirted last year but has some real potential. And with all of these guys in front of him already I expect Adim-Madumere to probably redshirt but he's just a freaking monster at 6'4 230. A border-line 4 star recruit out of Texas with real offers from the likes of  Baylor, A&M, Houston, Mizzou and some school called Bama, don't be surprised if he forces his way into playing time this Fall.

Tight End

Starter: Jake Paulson, R-Soph
Backup: Ko Kieft, R-Jr; Bryce Witham, R-Sr; Colton Beebee, R-Sr; Brevyn Spann-Ford, R-Fr;

Overview: Paulson quietly had a really good year in 2018. While he didn't catch many passes (none of the TE's did), he was an excellent blocker and the more the season went on, the more you saw him on the field, starting in 6 games. Kieft, Beebee and Witham are all solid blocking TEs who won't start but will see plenty of reps here and on special teams. Spann-Ford is the guy to get excited about- the coaches love him, and if he proves he's ready, he could be special. The staff kept his redshirt as he appeared in 4 games last year, including a start vs Illinois, and he may overtake Paulson before long. He's giant for the position at 6'7 and 260, and with that size and a basketball player's athleticism, he's the kind of athlete we haven't had at this position since Maxx Williams.

Tackles

Starters: Daniel Faalele, So; Jason Dickson, R-Jr
Backup: Sam Schlueter, R-Jr; Jack York, R-Fr; Kyle Sassack, R-So; Quinn Oseland, R-Sr; JJ Guedet, Fr

Overview: This should be the best starting offensive line Minnesota has had since the Eslinger/Setterstrom years of Glen Mason's prime in the early 2000's. That's impressive but also tells you how long it's been since the Gophs have had some quality in the trenches. People much smarter than me claim Dickson is the real deal and should be considered Donnell Greene's replacement at tackle. I'm interested to see if they keep Faalele at RT or move him to LT. Either way, once Faalele was inserted into the starting lineup in the 2nd half of the Iowa game, he was everything we hoped he'd be and more. Considering how quickly he developed just in year one, he could be one of the best tackles in the B1G by the end of 2019, and has a chance to be a 1st round pick in the NFL draft in 2021 as an underclassman. Dickson's redshirt was apparently due to academics, as those that saw him in practice this year raved about him. If you've forgotten- and no one would blame you- he was a 2018 JUCO transfer with real P5 offers, so he and Faalele would make quite the pair.

Depth across the entire line is going to be a giant question mark as there's very little in the way of experience after the projected starters. With tackle Quinn Oseland transferring to SJSU for his final season and guard Bronson Dovich electing to graduate with a year of eligibility remaining there is only one returning upper classman as a potential backup, and hoo boy did he struggle last year. Let's hope Schlueter can fix his issues from 2018 because there's no one else with any experience at tackle (or guard for that matter. Or center).

The staff likes York, a former 3 star recruit from TX, so he's got a good shot at one of the backup jobs. Sassack is another former 3 star (from Michigan) who also should compete for a spot on the 2 deep. Both have potential but your guess is as good as mine as to how ready they are to play. Guedet should red shirt but is a name to keep an eye on down the road.

Guards

Starters: Blaise Andries, R-So; Curtis Dunlap, R-Fr
Backup: Austin Beier, R-Fr, Bronson Dovich, R-Sr, John Michael Schmitz, R-So; Nathan Boe, R-Fr, Tyler Cooper, Fr

Overview: If Dickson is as good as advertised that keeps Andries at guard, where he developed into an absolute mauler by the end of the season. If his development continues on this path he's got a chance to not only be all-conference but perhaps has a future playing on Sundays too. Dunlap is a legit high 4-star recruit who the coaches managed to keep the red shirt on last year while also still getting him the full 4 games experience. He looked good in his first start in the bowl game, and should be a lock to start at guard. He's 370 pounds of road-paving awesomeness and is somehow only the second biggest linemen on the team (I know!).

Like at tackle, depth is going to be something to watch as there's no real experienced, obvious answers for the backup jobs right now. Beier was listed on the depth chart all last year but never actually played- that's great since it kept his red shirt intact, but it also means he's yet to get any game experience. Despite that he's still a front-runner for one of the backup jobs to start camp.

And that's it for guys listed on the two-deep at guard last year as 2018's other starter Connor Olson likely moves to center. Speaking of center, whoever loses the backup battle there between John Michael Schmitz and Nathan Boe very likely gets shifted to guard. Both were solid 3 star recruits with good size, so either of them should be fine in the transition.

The Gophs signed 2 guard recruits in the 2019 class from the upper Midwest. Per the team's official website Logan Richter will be moving to DL. Cooper is an unheralded prospect from that state to the east of us, and he made the correct decision to come here instead of Madison. It's very unlikely he plays this year but the coaches and recruiting insiders believe he has a chance to be much better than his recruiting ranking. 

Center

Starters: Connor Olson, R-Jr
Backup: John Michael Schmitz, R-So; Nathan Boe, R-Fr,

Overview: So IF Dickson is as good as projected then Andries stays at guard instead of shifting back to tackle, which pushes Olson to center. He started all 13 at guard last year, and started all 12 games in 2017 while splitting time between guard and center. He'll be a very nice replacement for the criminally underrated departing senior Jared Weyler, and Olson should be up for all-conference honors in 2019.

Schmitz was listed as the backup center all year but played mostly special teams as Weyler barely ever left the field. Both he and Boe were solid 3 star recruits and should be ok backups at least for this season with a chance to develop into something much better down the road.