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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Minnesota preview

This could be the week our streak against ranked teams ends. We get the gift of an unexpected game against a ranked team that we were expected to beat when the season started. Unfortunately, we are running out of must win games if we are going to make a bowl this season. I am well aware that it is delusion at this point, but I am not giving up on a bowl bid until it is no longer mathematically possible. I know this team is capable of reeling off four of the next five to sneak into some game, but it certainly doesn’t look like it will happen.

At least basketball practice has started.

Minnesota offense:

Lost in last season’s dismal 1-11 campaign was the fact that Minnesota’s offense really wasn’t that bad. Unfortunately, they often had score about 45 points in order to have even a chance at winning. This year it is more efficient. Northwestern has been careless with the ball and continued that trend somewhat last week. Minnesota gets the ball and keeps it until they score or punt. They don’t score an avalanche of points at just under 30 per game, but normally they win the time of possession battle simply by not turning it over. Minnesota has lost only 6 fumbles on the year and Adam Weber has thrown just two interceptions.

Weber has been the picture of that efficiency with good, but not overwhelming play from the quarterback position. He is completing nearly 68% of his passes and has 10 touchdowns against 1,624 yards. He averages only 230 yards through the air per game. As a runner he has been up and down. In terms of yards gained he is second on the team with 178 yards and two scores, but 131 of those yards have been erased do to tackles for loss and 13 sacks. He is not quite the running threat that Terrelle Pryor, any of the Oregon quarterbacks, or Daryl Clark is, but he is probably about on par with C.J. Bacher from last week.

That running game is not great, but it is steady at 129 yards per game. The loss of Duane Bennett was originally thought to be a major setback at the tailback position, but DeLeon Eskridge has emerged to be a very good back in his first season for the Gophers. Eskridge has 478 yards and seven touchdowns through seven games, but has been especially good lately with 124 yards and two scores against Illinois. He is also a weapon in the spread attack, ranking second on the team in receptions with 17 for 128 yards. Assisting him in the backfield is Shady Salamon (136 yards, 3 TD’s)

The receivers present us with, at least on paper, a simple task. If we can stop Eric Decker, the Minnesota offense will grind to a halt. Decker already has 59 catches for 782 yards and five touchdowns, leading the Big Ten in all categories. He has more receptions, yards, and touchdowns than the next four highest receivers combined for the Gophers. This means we actually must read a scouting report, make a defensive adjustment to cover him (possibly even double team him since he is a good receiver, you know) and force the Gophers to throw elsewhere. That means we pretty much have to do everything we flat out refused to do against Michigan State’s Devin Thomas last year.

The receiving numbers become even more skewed when you consider that Bennett with 12 catches for 125 yards and a score is currently fifth on the team despite having only played in two games. Jack Simmons (15-174-1), Ben Kuznia (17-155-0), and the aforementioned Eskridge are the other biggest threats, but they don’t even come close to Decker’s production. Even my low IQ can see that Decker is going to get the ball. We know Weber will be looking his way first 90% of the time. I know this, you know this, hell, DOGS know this. We must be prepared for this, and if we act like we are surprised he is getting the ball yet again as he goes for 20 receptions, 220 yards, and 3 scores I will be incredibly upset. On the other hand, obviously Minnesota is doing something right if they are 6-1 and he continues to stand out for more than 8 catches and 100+ yards per game.

The Minnesota offensive line is not as stout as Northwestern’s, giving up about 2 sacks per game. They also allow about 5 tackles per loss each time out. We should be able to generate some pressure, but it depends on if the Purdue defense vs. Ohio State shows up, or the Purdue defense against Notre Dame. The numbers that Minnesota puts up offensively shows me that if we can get a similar effort from our D that we got against the Buckeyes our chances of winning will greatly increase. They aren’t particularly flashy, but they are just an incredibly efficient attack.

Minnesota defense:

Simply put, the Gophers are just night and day better from last year. The Minnesota offense isn’t doing a whole lot better than a year ago, and may actually be a little worse in terms of production. Of course, those numbers could be down simply because it is not playing catch up every week, or moving because the defense couldn’t keep stop fast scoring drives. Everyone scored on Minnesota last year, including the freshman foreign exchange student in the band. This year the numbers are drastically better as the Gophers allow a modest 122 yards on the ground, 260 through the air, and 18.7 points per game. They have been outgained by their opponents, but the defense simply allows fewer points.

A large part of the explanation of giving up fewer points comes from the fact that the Gopher defense has become a den of thieves. They have intercepted opposing quarterbacks 10 times and recovered 10 fumbles. Combined with the offenses propensity to hold on to the football, that gives the Gophers a Big Ten leading +12 in turnover ratio. It is bad news because we tend to gain a lot of yards while not getting many points. We also turn the ball over, playing right into the hands of the Minnesota defense that gives up yards but not points and takes the ball away.

There is no true leader of the defense in terms of a tackling machine like we have seen in James Laurainaitis or anything like that. This is a very balanced, team-oriented group that sees a number of players get involved. Seven players have at least 30 tackles on the season, with none higher than Tramain Brock’s 42. Lee Campbell has stuffed the stat sheet a number of ways with 40 tackles and two each of sacks, interceptions, and fumble recoveries. We also need to watch out for Simoni Lawrence, who is a big play threat on defense. He has 2.5 sacks to with 31 tackles and seven pass breakups. He also has returned both a fumble and an interception for touchdowns.

Another reason Minnesota has gotten better is the development of a solid pass rush. They have 17 sacks on the season, and no one on the team is better at getting to the quarterback than defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg. He has 6.5 sacks on the season and has been a menace along the line by batting down passes. Quite frankly, he is one of the league’s better D-ends, and our beat up offensive line must be ready for him since Painter can’t run away. Eight players on the Minnesota roster have at least had a hand in a sack at one time or another, so VanDeSteeg is far from the only threat.

Much of the improvement has come in the Minnesota secondary. A year ago teams took turns burning an overmatched secondary like the LA riots of the early 90’s. This year players like Traye Simmons (2 INT’s, 25 breakups and passes defensed) are hounding opposing wide receivers into incompletions. Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 56% of passes against the Gophers and have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.

The Gophers are somewhat vulnerable to the running game. They give up 122 yards per game, and that is without having faced a really good rushing team other than Ohio State. The running game is the only area of the game where we are moving the ball with any regular success. Even then, we have one of the league’s better running backs, but we’re near the bottom of the conference in rushing as a team. Kory Sheets has carried more than his share this year, but he needs some help. It is blatantly obvious that the passing game is not working. To say it is not working because the running game hasn’t helped is ludicrous when Sheets is on pace for the best season ever from a Tiller back.

Minnesota Special Teams:

Like the rest of Minnesota’s teams, the Special Teams have been capable but not overwhelmingly spectacular. Joel Monroe has been an adequate kicker hitting 7 of 9 field goal attempts with a long of 42 yards. He is also 24 of 26 on extra points, so he’s not quite as automatic there as one would like. Still, he is far from a liability in the kicking game.

Minnesota has had to punt almost as much as it has forced opponents to punt, and that is a little more than five times per game. Justin Kucek is a pretty good punter at just a hair below a 42 yard average per kick. Opponents are only returning those punts at less than 8 yards per return, but it has been ages since we have had a threat to return a punt anyway. Minnesota has been pretty good at defending kickoffs, but they have given up a big return for a score. Remember, Desmond Tardy did burn them a year ago to start the game, so this may be a plus.

The Gophers’ own return game is slightly above average. Marcus Sherels is a dangerous punt returner at almost 12 yards per return. He has yet to break one for a score, but our coverage could let one slip at the wrong time like it did against the Oregon game. Troy Stoudamire is averaging a little more than 28 yards per kickoff return, but also has yet to break a big one. Since field position was such a large issue last week we cannot let these give the Gophers a short field like we did against Northwestern.

Final Thoughts:

If I were to use one word to describe the Gophers so far it would be the word adequate. There isn’t one thing that they do better than anyone else unless you count turnover management, but there isn’t a whole lot that they do really poorly. That is going to win you a lot of football games at this level. The opposite has been Purdue’s story this year. Of our five losses I think there is just one game in which another team simply asserted its will and flat out beat us. That was the Penn State game. Even then, we still played well and held the number three team in the country well below its scoring average. We still had plenty of mistakes in that game that kept us from having a chance.

Part of this comes from Minnesota’s level of competition. The two road wins are pretty good. They handled a good Illinois team in Champaign and throttled Bowling Green at home. A visit to a MAC stadium is always tricky, and Bowling Green did beat a pretty good Pittsburgh team to start the season. Outside of that, home wins against Indiana, Northern Illinois, Montana State, and Florida Atlantic aren’t exactly wins against college football’s elite. The point is that Minnesota has won those games where last year they may not have. They needed a late touchdown to beat Northern Illinois in the opener, and that ending seemed to give this team a ton of confidence.

Bowl eligibility is already locked up for them. Now they can play for positioning. With Ohio state already gone and no Penn State in sight the Gophers can actually think of a pretty good bowl game if they finish strong against some weaker teams. Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin remain after this game, and they certainly can win all four. If they do that and get some help, the gophers could end up in Pasadena this year as crazy as it sounds. All they need is two Ohio State losses and a Penn State loss. One of those three losses will happen this weekend.

What especially gives Minnesota an advantage is the aforementioned consistency and efficiency. They are doing that right now, while we are not. Nothing would really surprise me at this point. The defense could come in and throw a near shutout like it did in Columbus. Curtis Painter could remember, “Hey, I’ve thrown for 10,000 and maybe I should throw to receivers instead of over them or at their feet.” Kory Sheets could openly rebel against coach Tiller, shoving Painter out of the way and taking the snaps in a Wildcat formation on his way to a 250 yard game. What it really amounts to is that we have to change a large number of things in order to win, while Minnesota needs only to play its consistent style of play in order to win. That is the mark of a good football team, while ours is the mark of a bad one to put it in the simplest of terms.

Finally, the weather could be a factor. Minnesota has ventured out of the dome only twice this year, and played in perfect conditions both times. We played our best (against Oregon) in the worst conditions of the year. If it is windy and rainy we could see a mano-a-mano battle of Sheets vs. Eskridge. I would give the edge there to Sheets for now, but Eskridge has still been impressive.

Unfortunately, I feel like this team has ventured past the point of playing for anything. Many people commented how listless they looked last Saturday in Evanston. We got worked by an above average, but not great team when we should have at least competed. Minnesota is very similar to the Wildcats in that regard. The only common opponent we share so far is Ohio State. They couldn’t stop the Buckeye offense that day, but at least they moved the ball and scored points. Minnesota has even impressed some in defeat. We cannot say the same thing.

Saturday is one final chance to salvage something from this season. Even then, one win won’t totally turn things around. It will only start them. Right now, outside of a few individuals, everyone from the coaching staff on down doesn’t look interested in even starting a turnaround. On a team with this many seniors that is just sad, especially for homecoming. The official prediction will come in the Big Ten preview, but it likely won’t be favorable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well done as usual. I would add a couple of general comments - the Gophers have added speed at key positions, size and depth at the DL, and have been well coached by everyone's observation. They have been improving each week. They look like they know what they are doing. OlyGopher