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Know thy Opponent 2007: Minnesota Golden Gophers

I received my official 2007 football yearbook in the mail this week and it provides an interesting contrast to much of what I have read about opponent number four on our schedule. College Football News seems to think that Minnesota will be a very strong team this year under new head coach Tim Brewster, expecting them to win about eight games. The Purdue yearbook thinks the opposite, predicting that the Gophers will struggle to adjust to a new style of play and to having a new quarterback. Both publications agree that the September 22nd game in the Metrodome will be a critical game for both teams.

This is the first opponent on our 2007 schedule that we played in 2006, and, as always seems to be the case; it is the opener of the Big Ten portion of the schedule for both teams. Being the fourth game of the season both teams should be starting to find a groove and there's a very strong chance both will be 3-0 coming into this one. Once again Minnesota plays a very light schedule before getting into the conference. The Gophers open with Bowling Green and Miami (OH) at home before going to the other Miami to play Florida Atlantic.


Why does this game always seem to be a critical game for either team? It is probably this way because the teams have bee so similar over the past few years, yet we have had the advantage by going 7-1 in the last eight meetings. We've both been in the middle of the pack in the conference, and each time we've beaten them it has put us just a little higher bowl-wise. On September 22nd in Minneapolis it could be more of the same, because we always seem to play classic games in the Metrodome, and with Minnesota's new stadium opening in 2009 this will be our last (probably ever) indoor Big Ten game.


Last Season for the Golden Gophers:


We need to write Minnesota a big thank you card for burying our 2000 Outback Bowl collapse even further in college football history. While Marshall erased a 38-8 deficit against East Carolina in 2001 for a 64-61 win to begin the healing, Minnesota topped the Pirates by blowing an even larger 31 point lead. Ironically, That Marshall-ECU game also took us off the hook for scoring the most points ever in a loss in Division I history after we dropped a 1993 game to, you guessed it, Minnesota in the Metrodome 59-56. Only Jim Colletto could score 56 points on the road and lose.


Still, it takes a special kind of suck to blow a 31 point lead in a bowl game, and that is what the Gophers did. Minnesota was up 38-7 more than halfway through the third quarter! All they really had to do was simply fall down on the ball every play and they could have run off most of the clock. Even more astounding is that this was from an offense that is known for running the football. With a 31 point lead and less than a quarter and half to go any quarterback throwing a pass should have been benched immediately and any coach calling a passing play should have been sent home. Nevertheless, they couldn't finish the job; the pass defense (which was actually worse than ours last year) folded like Milli Vanilli's career, and gave up a 44-41 loss in overtime.


This, of course, cost Glen Mason his job, and rightfully so. It also meant that Minnesota finished 6-7. Still, things could have been worse. A nice three game win streak over Indiana, Michigan State, and Iowa at least saved Mason's job temporarily, and meant that we would have a win over a bowl team. A bowl game is a bowl game and the Gophers showed some promise in recovering to make the Insight Bowl. When you couple that loss, the loss to us, and a tough loss to Penn State on a bad pass interference call in overtime they nearly had a nine win season. Elsewhere the Gophers had predictable losses to California, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin.


CFN says that Minnesota dominated us in the loss in West Lafayette last year, while I tend to question that. Both teams gained 421 yards, so that was a push. Minnesota had about a seven minute lead in time of possession, but that was offset by the fact that they had both turnovers in the game and committed nearly twice as many yards in penalties. We also blocked a field goal attempt. Really the game down to one play: Pender's tipped pass to Hall for an interception in the end zone. For two very even teams, what else could you expect? Where was the domination? This was an even game between even teams.


This time the game is in Minneapolis, and, we all remember our last trip to Minneapolis. Looking at our schedule shows that a loss in this game could possibly start another six game losing streak.


Minnesota Offense:


It's hard to believe, but Minnesota and not Indiana currently has the longest Rose Bowl drought in the Big Ten. One thing both publications agree on though is that this won't be the year the drought ends, and the biggest reason for that will be the offense. Brewster wants to bring in more of a spread offense, but it will be running more from the spread as opposed to passing. With an inexperienced quarterback under center Minnesota will have little choice but to run the ball early and often.


Whoever starts at quarterback will be making his first Big Ten start in this game. As of right now the leading candidate for the job appears to be junior Tony Mortensen, but that isn't saying much. In two years Mortensen has seen very little of the field, completing only 11 of 34 passes for 145 yards, a touchdown, and three interceptions. While Bryan Cupito never set the world on fire statistically, He was a solid starter for three seasons and will be missed in Minneapolis. Mortensen is big and mobile, but redshirt freshman Adam Weber may be more suited for the offense. Whoever gets the start will be a running threat, and therefore needs to be watched.


The heart and soul of the offense will be running back Amir Pinnix. Two years ago the combination of both Laurence Maroney and Gary Russsell absolutely killed us in Minneapolis, rushing for 292 combined yards, gaining another 76 yards through the air, and scoring three touchdowns. Last year Pinnix ran for 173 yards and had 47 yards receiving, but did not get in the end zone. Overall he ran for nearly 1,300 yards last year, and more of the same is expected this year. Jay Thomas is expected to be a speedy option in the backfield with him, but there isn't a whole lot of depth. If Pinnix goes down with an injury the whole Minnesota offense is in trouble.


The receiving corps lost standout Logan Payne, but returns Ernie Wheelright as the best option. As we remember, the 6'5" Wheelright is the one that got out-jumped by the 6'1" David Pender on the critical play of last year's game. Wheelright is streaky, and #2 option Eric Decker impressed in spring ball, but doesn't have much experience. As usual, Minnesota will have a dominant tight end in Jack Simmons. Coach Brewster is responsible for making fantasy owners drool over Antonio Gates in San Diego, and wants to do the same with Simmons. The unit as a whole has good size, but little experience. Because of their size and speed we should expect our secondary to be tested deep.


The starting unit of the offensive line will be solid as always, but nothing spectacular. There is very little depth as former walk-ons are filling back-up roles. Minnesota allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten last season, but last year we were able to get to Cupito for three sacks and five total tackles for loss against a much more seasoned line.


Basically this is another untested unit, but a strong one. It's no secret Minnesota will run the ball, and our front seven will need to be ready for that test after getting run on profusely the last two years.


Minnesota Defense:


Ten starters return to a unit that is expected to carry the team this season. No returner will have more of an influence than Willie VanDeSteeg. The 6'4", 255-pound monster end was a terror last year with ten sacks, but the defense as a whole was better only when compared to our own in the Big Ten.


VanDeSteeg will be a beast to handle, especially with the entire left side of our offensive line getting its first Big Ten road start. On the other end Willie Dyson, who has some talent but very little experience will look to take advantage of any double teams that VanDeSteeg draws. The rest of the line is speedy, but undersized. If we can contain their pass rush our line should be ale to open some holes for the running game, as everyone ran on these guys last year. Remember Jaycen Taylor had a very solid game against them last season, scoring a pair of touchdowns.


The linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense, as it has the most returning experience. Four players have at least some starting experience and Mike Sherels was the leading tackler a year ago from the middle linebacker position with 104 stops. Because they were so worried about the run last season they struggled mightily in stopping the short passing games of most teams. If this is Minnesota's weakness, it is our strength. As long as it is not forcing turnovers like it did last year, the linebackers can be exploited.


The secondary last year was terrible, and was even worse than our young unit. All four starters return, but they will need to be more aggressive than last year. They can make plays and tackle well, but generally everyone got smoked last year when it mattered, specifically in the bowl game against Texas Tech when they couldn't master the concept of simply tackling someone and letting the clock run. They will be more aggressive though and at least try to make something happen. Still, Curtis Painter has to be looking at three game films of seeing Drew Brees playing Minnesota and smiling knowing he has an excellent chance of carving up the Gophers like Brees did.


Minnesota Special Teams:


Jason Giannini is back and would be a nice role model for our own Chris Summers to follow. Two years ago as a freshman Giannini struggled, but had a good day against us in the Metrodome, just like Summers last year against Minnesota when he made two medium-to-long field goals. Last season Giannini was much more consistent, but doesn't have much distance, and that is what we want out of Summers, who already has the distance. Justin Kucek is also a junior who handled punting duties last year, averaging about 40 yards per punt.


The big danger to watch is cornerback Dominic Jones as a returner. He's is the top cornerback and also a dynamic kick and punt returner. He is more than able to break off a big one and change momentum in a hurry.


Intangibles:


Two years ago we had a ton of experience with lofty expectations heading in Minneapolis and completely collapsed defensively. Any number of times we could have clinched the game with just one defensive play on either the final drive or in overtime, but it's like we quit after Dan Bick's interception return for a TD put us up 28-20 with a little over five minutes left. It was a lot like last year's Hawaii game, honestly.


Again we have a ton of experience back, but not nearly the expectations of two years ago. This is probably because we would normally have high expectations, but have proven time and again we can't live up to them, so people are wary of us and won't make the same mistake again. Minnesota will have the home crowd and if they're behind the team it can be an intimidating place to play.


This year's Gopher team is a little different than two years ago though because of the inexperience at quarterback and the new coaching staff. No one really knows what to expect from them, as evidenced by the wild oscillation of their expectations. Even though they will likely be 3-0 coming in, that 3-0 won't have proven as much as our potential 3-0.


Game Outlook:


Again, our defense is the real question mark here. We're facing an offense that has the potential to move the ball, but may struggle because of the quarterback position. It's a test because I know Minnesota will runt he football, you know Minnesota will run the football, and hell, dogs know Minnesota will run the football. We know exactly what is coming and it will be up to us to stop it. Also, it is very hard to rely on an inexperienced quarterback in the Big Ten, or anywhere else for that matter in college football.


If our defense is gelling well by this point, and we should know how well it is gelling after the Toledo and Central Michigan tests, I see us having a relatively easy time. Minnesota couldn't stop anyone last year and I can see our experienced offense running roughshod all day against a team that struggled with even understanding the concept of the forward pass last year.


The two big keys will be keeping Painter on his feet and not giving the ball away on turnovers. If there are any kind of injury concerns with Minnesota's top offensive guys they will have a rough day.


I like that we will already have a road game and a night kickoff before this game. It is just one more way that the Toledo game, if we win it, will be a nice stepping stone for us.


Prediction:


Almost every game in the past 15 years in the Metrodome between these two has been a wild affair. We can't forget that our last two visits also ended in overtime. I know the miracle in 2001 is still fresh in my mind. I can see Minnesota keeping this close, but I honestly agree with GBI's assessment more than CFN's. We're the better team, and we should win. Purdue 38, Minnesota 24