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Know thy Opponent 2008: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Our next opponent on the schedule is, in theory, our weakest Division 1A opponent based on last season’s results. Between Minnesota and Notre Dame, one could argue they were two of the worst teams in the nation. Tom over at Gopher Nation had some good humor about this, lauding the Irish by having them win his inaugural college football NIT last season. It is hard to argue who was better or worse between the two last year. Minnesota lost to a 1-AA team and only had one overtime win, while Notre Dame at least had three wins, one of which came against a team that went bowling.

The bottom line is that both should be better. The Gophers had trouble stopping anyone last year, but they did get better as the season went on. Because of a good haul in recruiting, Minnesota fans can expect more than a single win in 2008. Still, I wouldn’t exactly make reservations for Pasadena yet.

Last season for the Gophers:

Quite simply, it was the worst season in the long history of Golden Gopher football. Minnesota has been playing football since 1892. In that time it has had some very successful teams. The Gophers had a 1-10 season in 1983, but had never had an 11 loss season until last year’s 1-11 campaign. Tim Brewster’s first season in the Twin Cities was forgettable, and that is putting it kindly.

Minnesota’s lone win last season came in a triple overtime affair against Miami of Ohio. Jamal Harris ended the game on an interception at the end of the third overtime period as the Gophers held on to win 41-35 over the Redhawks. Harris’ play may have been the one instance all season long where the defense got a critical stop. The Gophers only managed to hold an opponent under 30 points twice last season. Once was against 1-AA North Dakota State in a 27-21 loss, the other was against a very anemic Iowa offense in a 21-16 loss.

On the positive side, the Gophers were at least competitive thanks to their offense. To be fair, every team the Gophers faced finished at .500 or better except Miami, who finished at 6-7 after a loss in the MAC championship game. Six of the 11 losses were by a touchdown or less, meaning the Gophers weren’t that far from at least a respectable season. Because of the number of points surrendered, there is hope for the future of Minnesota can just play a little defense. The offense moved the ball very well at times last year, but it says something when they scored 48 points in their best outing only to lose because the defense surrendered 49.

This will be Minnesota’s final season in the Metrodome before moving to TCF Bank Stadium in 2009. The Gophers also face a very favorable schedule if they want to get back to a bowl game. The non-conference slate is fairly easy with Sun Belt champion Florida Atlantic as the most difficult game. That is the final non-conference game and will be at the Metrodome after the Gophers lost to the Owls in Miami last season. Northern Illinois and Montana State come to Minneapolis, while the Gophers play at Bowling Green in a tricky game. Minnesota can dream of a couple of conference wins as Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan, and Iowa come to the Metrodome, but trips to Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin will make a conference road victory tough to come by.

Minnesota offense:

The Purdue game last season was a game that was very indicative of the Minnesota offense. In that game, the Gophers struggled to score points in the first half as Purdue built a big lead. In the second half Minnesota made a bit of a game of it by matching the Boilers almost score for score. At times Minnesota looked unstoppable offensively as they went to a more spread-oriented offense after Glen Mason’s teams had a dominant running game. At other times, not so much.

Many of the top skill players from last year’s offense return. Some of the new weapons, like Ben Davis quarterback MarQueis Gray and four-star receivers Brandon Green and Vincent Hill could see the field for an impact as well.The offense was led last season by Adam Weber, who was thrown into the fire as a redshirt freshman by starting all 12 games. Weber responded with a decent season when compared to his youth. He threw for 2,895 yards and 24 touchdowns, but he also had 19 interceptions. Weber also led the team in rushing with 617 yards and five more scores. Weber is a quality piece to build around, and he has plenty of experience returning around him.

Minnesota was one of the youngest teams in the country last season, and that could begin to pay dividends this year. Amir Pinnix had 563 yards rushing and five touchdowns last season, but he has graduated. Duane Bennett looks to move into the starting running back role after a freshman season that saw him rush for 442 yards and three scores. Bennett actually had more carries than Pinnix last year, but only played in 10 games. Jay Thomas will also likely see some time after gaining 415 yards in just 40 carries last year.

Top receiver Eric Decker returns after a breakout sophomore season saw him become one of the Big Ten’s best pass catchers. Decker had 67 catches for 909 yards and 9 scores last year. He also threw for one touchdown on a trick play. Ernie Wheelwright graduated with 775 yards and nine scores, but Ralph Spry and Tray Herndon will try to step up after promising freshman seasons. Jack Simmons also had a pretty good year at tight end, and will try to be the safety valve option for Weber once again. Minnesota should be able to move the ball since Wheelwright and Pinnix were the only true losses from the skill positions.

Minnesota must replace center Troy Brinkhaus and tackle Steve Shindell from a line that allowed a mere 13 sacks last season. Tackle Matt DeGeest returns as well as both guards in Ned Tavale and D.J. Burris. Replacing Brinkhaus and Shindell shouldn’t be too large of a problem as Jeff Tow-Arnett and Dominic Alford look to be the leading candidates. Minnesota has plenty of size in its two-deeps along the line from last year.

Minnesota defense:

440 points for an average of 36.7 per game. Those are the numbers that the Minnesota defense gave up last season. The defense should be better in 2008, but only because it couldn’t possibly be much worse. Teams torched Minnesota for almost 300 yards per game through the air last year. They also completed 64% of their passes and threw a paltry seven interceptions against the Gopher secondary. If Minnesota is going to improve, it has to begin in the defensive secondary.

Tim Brewster made sure help was on the way by signing four-star defensive backs Keanon Cooper and Tray Simmons. Both could see the field immediately as competition is wide open after leading tackler and safety Dom Barber graduated with 100 tackles. Cornerback Jamal Harris is also gone, which is unfortunate for Purdue. Harris had a nightmare of a game against the Boilermakers, dropping a sure first half interception that was right in his hands before fumbling away an easy touchdown without being touched on a return of a blocked field goal. Curtis Thomas and Ryan Collado played as freshmen last year, but that means little. Minnesota could struggle against the pass again with the potential for four brand new starters. Kyle Theret is another player who could see plenty of action at safety.

Things don’t look much better at the linebacker position where John Shevlin and Mike Sherels both graduated. The pair was ranked third and fourth in tackles for the Gophers last year, but the door is open for top recruits like Sam Meresh and Spencer Reeves to quickly make an impact. Steve Davis is the only starter that returns. He had 54 tackles last season. Look for Deon Hightower, who was second on the team in tackles last year with 70, to also try and make an impact.

Another reason that Minnesota struggled so much last year was the fact that it had a virtually non-existent pass rush. Minnesota registered only 11 sacks as a team last year. Sherels led the team with 2.5 of those sacks. Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg was an all-Big Ten selection as a freshman with 10 sacks, but fought a wrist injury last year and registered just a single sack in 10 games. Classmate Lee Campbell joins him on the other end where he had a pair of sacks last season. Eric Small returns at one of the defensive tackle positions, but the other one is open after the departure of Todd Meisel. Minnesota wasn’t much better against the run last year, giving up 2,752 yards on the ground, almost 230 yards per game. The defensive line, like the other two areas, must show vast improvement against both the run and in getting to the quarterback.

Minnesota special teams:

Minnesota was just 8 of 13 on field goals last season as long time kicker Jason Giannini struggled to a 1 of 4 start before Joel Monroe took over to hit 7 of 9. Monroe has plenty of range by hitting a 54 yarder against Iowa, but Gianinni also returns as an insurance policy in case he struggles. Justin Kucek returns as a punter that saw plenty of action with 62 kicks last year for a 42.7 yard average. Minnesota did not give up a punt return for a touchdown, but gave up an average of 14.6 yards per return.

The kick return coverage was a little better, but Purdue liked facing them. Desmond Tardy ran the first kickoff return of his career at any level back for a touchdown to start last season’s game, but it was the only touchdown the kickoff team surrendered. Because the defense gave up so many points the Gophers got plenty of practice in returning kicks. Harold Howell was the top returner last year, but was dismissed for academic reasons after returning 30 kicks for a 23 yard average. Jay Thomas will probably play a larger role here after returning 10 kicks for 313 yards and a score. Decker will likely return punts for the Gophers.


Minnesota has the feel of a team that is about a year away if it going to have a breakout season. The pieces are all set for 2009 with lots of young talent that will mature as the Gophers open their new on-campus stadium. Still, the offense has enough pop to make 2008 very interesting if the defense can figure out how to stop anybody.

I like what Tim Brewster has done in making a trip to the Rose Bowl the ultimate goal of the program. That is what Big Ten teams play for, but every Big Ten team has been to Pasadena at least once since Minnesota last went in 1962. People laughed at Terry Hoeppner when he set it as a goal for Indiana, but why else would you play the game if not to win? If anyone was going to take Indiana to Pasadena it was going to be Hoeppner, and I can respect that. I respect it for Brewster as well for setting his sights big.

Brewster is recruiting well in the Twin Cities. Will it pay off, however? Getting big name recruits is great, but it doesn’t automatically translate into wins. Notre Dame recruits well every year because of who they are, but it hasn’t translated into consistent winning seasons since the mid-90’s. Brewster needs to show improvement this year as a game coach and begin the long process of climbing to the top. For every Joe Tiller, who has immediate success at a BCS program, there are at least five Tim Brewsters who have to claw their way to the top over a number of seasons. Fortunately, there is nowhere to go but up for Minnesota after last year.

Game Outlook:

As stated, I think Minnesota is about a year away from being a pretty good team. They have some good pieces in place, but they first must learn how to win. That can get done at home this year, but an 0-5 campaign on the road is entirely possible. That is what gives Purdue an advantage in this game. Unless Minnesota gets a win at Bowling Green they will likely come in having not won away from the Metrodome since November 11, 2006 at Michigan State. When you couple that with the fact that it is homecoming for Purdue, where Tiller is 9-2 during his tenure in West Lafayette means that the Boilers have a great chance.

If Purdue is going to have a successful campaign in Joe’s final season this game is a must win. I have nothing but respect for Minnesota, but Joe has owned the Gophers (8-1 overall record) and they are still coming off a 1-11 year. This is the type of game Purdue just cannot afford to lose. I like to refer to certain games as "do anything possible not to lose" because a loss in those types of games is the most damaging since they are unexpected. No one expects Purdue to lose this, so we have to deliver. If Northern Colorado is the only sure thing on the schedule, then Minnesota is as close to a sure thing as Boilermaker fans are going to get in the remaining 11. Even then, it is not a guarantee.

Historically we have been able to score against Minnesota even when we were handicapped by the offensively challenged Jim Colletto. It doesn’t matter who Minnesota’s coach is, we have been able to score in bunches for whatever strange reason. The last time we were held below 24 points against them was in a 6-3 loss during the 1991 season. I think in this game we only need to prove we can stop them, as we should be able to move the ball.


Purdue will not go bowling if we lose to Minnesota this year. It is homecoming, and you don’t lose your homecoming game. I feel that as long as the Boiler defense comes to play a little we can have a repeat of last year’s game in Minneapolis. Purdue 45, Minnesota 28

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