Know Thy Opponent 2011: Minnesota Golden Gophers

This whole Nestea promotion is asking me to talk about risk involved in our program. I find it appropriate because we are being asked to take some risks this coming football season in order to break a string of three straight losing seasons. Deciding to stick with one quarterback or playing both Robert Marve and Rob Henry is a risk because each player has a strength, but playing both makes our offense predictable. Last season I felt coach Hope was too bold in playing both and neither was able to develop a rhythm. Only against Northwestern, Michigan State, and Indiana did was have one quarterback take all the snaps, and that was far from an advantage in going 4-8.

One semi-calculated risk taken that did payoff happened in our last win, as Sean Robinson had his redshirt taken off and he played some valuable minutes in a win over the Golden Gophers. That would pay off later when he was forced to start before he was ready, but against Minnesota at least, we got to enjoy playing around with our quarterbacks. That was also the last time we tasted victory on the football field, and even that 28-17 win didn't feel like a win because we got the awful news about Robbie Hummel during the game.

The Gophers return to Ross-Ade for a second straight season as a cross-divisional opponent, and most fans are looking at it as a necessary win if we're going to have a successful season. I have no delusions of a Big Ten title, but starting 1-0 against a team that fired its coach halfway through last season (and one that we beat last year) is a must.

2010  Record: 3-9, 2-6 Big Ten

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: The Daily Gopher, Gopher Football

Series with Purdue: Minnesota leads 33-31-3

Last Purdue win: 28-17 at Purdue on 10/16/10

Last Minnesota win: 35-20 at Minnesota on 10/10/09

Last Season for the Golden Gophers

After a 24-17 season opening win at Middle Tennessee State in which the Blue Raiders only had the ball for only 15 minutes the season was pretty much an utter disaster for Minnesota. They lost nine in a row, including their second in four years to a 1-AA school. They ended up firing coach Tim Brewster after he lost to us (ironically the second of three "dead coaches walking" we played). Senior quarterback Adam Weber could only do so much with receivers that weren't named Eric Decker. Defensively the pass rush was non-existent and it couldn't stop the run.

Minnesota did finish the season on a positive note by winning its final two games. They won 38-34 at Illinois in a game that surprised many, especially with as well Illinois was playing in the second half. They also beat Iowa to win back a trophy for the first time in four decades (approximately). For a team that knew it was going nowhere and had only 2011 to play for, they accomplished a lot in those last few games. That dose of confidence will be needed as they have a rough non-conference schedule with a trip to USC right at the start. Their first two conference games are on the road at Michigan and Purdue, while they also must go to Michigan State and Northwestern. Nebraska is their first conference home game.

So on paper it looks like it should be a Purdue win, but they are now coached by Jerry Kill. Kill already has a scalp in Ross-Ade, as he was coach of Northern Illinois in 2009 when the Huskies came in and really dominated us in a 28-21 win. He now has better athletes at Minnesota, so there could be a quick turnaround.

Minnesota Offense

Adam Weber is gone, meaning it is time for MarQueis Gray to take over. The junior out of Ben Davis High in Indianapolis was never able to take the QB job from Weber outright, but he was too good to keep off the field entirely. He rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown, threw for 24 yards on eight attempts, and caught 42 passes for 587 yards and five touchdowns used primarily as a receiver. The good news is that now he will have the ball in his hands as a dynamic dual threat under center. The bad news is that unless he masters throwing to himself, Minnesota loses its #2 receiver.

He does get his #1 receiver back in one of the best in the Big Ten. Da'Jon McKnight was very productive with 48 catches for 750 yards and 10 TD's during a solid junior campaign. Tight End Eric Lair (39-526-2) had a solid year and should be another target for Gray. Ge'Shun Harris could also get the #2 receiver's job.

Gray will also be a threat in the running game, but he does not have to be the sole rushing threat thanks to the return of Duane Bennett (560 yards, 3 TD's) and DeLeon Eskridge (698-7). Frankly, this terrifies me a little since coach Kill had Chad Spann, Chandler Harnish, and an experienced running game when they ran all over Purdue two years ago. Donnell Kirkwood is a talented player that ran for over 100 yards as a true freshman and he could get some more carries. (Ed. note: Eskridge transferred earlier this spring.)

The offensive line gave up 63 tackles for loss last year, but only 17 of those were sacks. Either A. Minnesota ran more, or B. Weber was running for his life a lot behind a bad line. Three seniors are gone and a freshman finished last year as a starter, so this line could undergo a total rebuild. Chris Bunders at guard and Ed Olson at tackle were listed as starters on last year's final depth chart, and the Daily Gopher does seem confident that the line will be good:

The first five have looked good, and barring injury (like say, I don't know, a concussion to Jimmy Gjere?), this group is locked and loaded for the start of the season. I like the younger guys in the second group, but they're lacking experience, so the health of the line will be vital to the success. Gjere has been out almost a week with said concussion, and backup Brooks Michel has been out a bit with a concussion of his own. Hopefully neither are anything serious they'll be back out there hitting people soon. With experience and some pretty good talent, this is the best I've felt about a Gopher offensive line since the Mason Era. 

Minnesota Defense:

James Manual and Brock Vereen were thrown to the wolves as true freshmen in the secondary, but that will pay off as they now have experience. Kim Royston also returns after missing all of last season with a broken leg. He was a solid defender in 2009, so it is a good thing he is back. Troy Stoudermire is also back at cornerback after 37 tackles, and interception, and two fumble recoveries in 2010.

At linebacker Gary Tinsley led the team with 90 tackles, and he may not even be the best player., The Daily Gopher sees this as the best group on the defense:

We've been saying it all offseason and now all-spring: there's AT LEAST four guys who could start at linebacker in 2011, but there's only room for three of them. I still think the MLB job is Brendan Beal's to lose, but if he is pushed out, it means the guy replacing him is playing extremely well. Pretty amazing that Gary Tinsley, the team's leading tackler and best defender in 2009, has missed time with injuries this spring, and yet this position has still been the best bar none. Keanon Cooper has been a house afire all spring, making plays all over the field. Yet as good as he's been, we've been seeing and hearing Mike Rallis' name a lot too. Three of those four should start, and yet the guys playing behind them have been very good too. A nice problem to have, and certainly one I hope we have at more positions in the near future.

What Minnesota really needs is a pass rush. Ryan Kerrigan had more sacks then Minnesota's entire defensive roster last year. Defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards had three of their nine sacks as teams had all day to throw. He will be flanked by Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs, while D.L. Wilhite returns as a former starter. Technically all four guys are back, but that doesn't mean much from a unit that could not consistently get into the backfield. Edwards did lead the team with 11 tackles for loss.

Minnesota Special Teams

Minensota has to find a new kicker after Eric Ellestad left. He hit on 11 of 17 field goals with a long of 45, but graduated. Chris Hawthorne, Jordan Wettstein, and David Schwerman are listed as kickers on their roster. The punting will be Dan Orseske's to lose, and with only 36 yards per punt the competition probably deserves to be open. Minnesota gave up an astounding 15 yards per punt return with a touchdown, so we might actually get something out of this unit.

Stoudermire will likely return kicks again and he was solid with better than 27 yards per return. Bryant Allen was also solid at returning punts with a 12.2 average. As always, we need to watch our completely retarded punt protection scheme lest we give up another block. I predict we have three blocked this year as long as we keep it.

Game Outlook

This is a tough game to call. Tim Brewster brought in a lot of talent during him time in the Twin Cities, but did very little with it. That talent now has experience, but coach Kill is installing his own system. How will that affect things? Both of these teams are on the fringe of being a bowl contender in 2011. That means both likely need this game as one of their magic six wins needed to qualify. There could be some risk taking in this one.

What stood out last year is that Purdue didn't particularly do anything special, yet still coasted to a relatively easy win. Either I can't remember the details because it was a dull game between two bad teams, or I was too busy hyperventilating after I heard the news about Robbie. Likely it was both. All I remember is Antavian Edison throwing around a few moves like someone was controlling him with the highlight stick on PS3. Dan Dierking did the heavy lifting with 126 yards and Rob Henry had three rushing TDs and a pass to Edison. We led 21-3 after three and put it on cruise control.

I want to say we have an edge playing at home, but I can't help but think coach Kill has many of the same types of players he had when Northern Illinois beat us. This is going to be a big game for both teams. I expect to be 3-1 coming in, and a 4-1 start would be very nice if we're going to make a bowl game.

Prediction:

We could see quarterbacks running all over the field between Gray and Henry. Ultimately though, I think our defense is better. Kawann Short can get into the backfield and disrupt things, while I really want to see what Will Lucas is going to do with another year under his belt. Ricardo Allen on McKnight will be fun to watch too. I think we pull this out with Carson Wiggs being the difference maker on a few long field goals since he is a weapon they lack. Purdue 26, Minnesota 20

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