When I was invited to come over to Minnesota the guys at the Daily Gopher, who have been with the network over five years now, helped me get established. That's why I knew they would provide some solid answers in this week's Q&A. My answers can be found over at TDG, but here is what Tom had to say about Saturday's contest:
T-Mill: Minnesota did what it needed to do in having a 4-0 non-conference, but it still needs two more wins for a bowl game. Is this a bowl elimination game for the Gophers based on the remaining schedule?
Tom: This team was 3-9 last year having lost to New Mexico State, lost to FCS-North Dakota State and was completely blown out in a few Big Ten games. This year we beat the teams we were supposes to and have been competitive in the Big Ten (most of the time). Some may already believe that this team has improved and it has been a relatively successful season without a bowl game being the only benchmark. On the other hand starting out 4-0 has raised expectations to where some believe only a bowl game defines success this year. And if that is the baseline, then, YES this game might be a bowl elimination game for us. I believe we can beat Illinois but I'm not sure where the second win would come from.
T-Mill: MarQueis Gray moved to receiver and you're now starting a freshman at quarterback. How surprising were these moves?
Tom: I was blown away by last week's move. NEVER saw that one coming. I thought that the plan all along was to redshirt Philip Nelson and then give him the opportunity to beat out Shortell next fall. I think the injury played some part in the decision but somehow I feel like this is a move to start preparing for next year. The only seniors on our offense are Gray and TE, John Rabe. So getting Nelson six (or seven) games to get acclimated might really pay off in 2013.
I have a ton of respect for Gray and wish he had been healthy all year to showcase his skills in the Big Ten. He is a great teammate and now I hope he gets his ankle healed and becomes a great receiving threat in the final five games.
T-Mill: The Minnesota defense has been sneaky good so far. Who are the standouts?
Tom: It is interesting because coming into the season it was assumed that our linebackers were very good, our corners should be OK but our safeties and defensive line were major question marks. Turns out the safeties have been very good, the defensive line has been getting very good pressure on quarterbacks while our linebackers have struggled. Derrick Wells has really stood out as a sophomore safety. Micheal Carter is a corner who has been very good after falling short of expectations his first three seasons. And Ra'Shede Hageman at defensive tackle is also starting to live up to the hype.
T-Mill: How would you judge Jerry Kill's performance so far? Is he on schedule or ahead of schedule in terms of building the program?
Tom: I would argue that he is right on schedule. At his previous couple stops there has been steady improvement from year one to year two. Teams have been better defensively and they make fewer mistakes offensively. At both Northern and Southern Illinois (his previous two jobs) there was dramatic improvement in year three so...
T-Mill: What scares you about facing Purdue after last week's game against Ohio State?
Tom: Sometimes a loss ignites a team and sometimes a loss creates a bit of a hangover. I think the highs of hanging with, leading and thinking you have a big upset is followed by a big low when you don't actually pull it off. We faced Northwestern after they lost to Penn State but I think that loss refocused them, this one feels different to me.
Purdue has a three-game losing streak and failed to finish off Ohio State last week. Now they go on the road against a team they probably assume they can handle. I could be completely wrong and I'm not exactly confident going into this game but nothing about their loss to Ohio State is causing me any greater concern.
T-Mill: Finally, what are your expectations for the Gophers the rest of this year?
Tom: My expectations are just that they get better and remain competitive.
This team is very young on both sides of the ball. They are going to make mistakes and they are going to lose plenty more games. But I don't want to see any games where things go sideways like they did last year against Michigan (58-0), Purdue (45-17) and Nebraska (41-14). The offense needs to continue to get better (and healthy), these next five games are prep for 2013 when they return basically everyone and have a chance to be a decent Big Ten offense. Defensively I just want to see fewer mistakes made.
Iowa and Northwestern racked up a lot of rushing yards on the defense but it was virtually all on just a handful of big plays. Five or six of those eight quarters the defense was rather stout. This year was never supposed to be about six wins. Fewer mistakes, competitiveness and improvement.