One more chance. The Spartans look for bowl eligibility in the final regular season game when they travel to Minnesota. The Gophers have reached bowl eligibility in Jerry Kill's second season, and Jeff from The Daily Gopher was kind enough to answer some questions about Minnesota. You can check out my answers to his questions here, and our preseason Q&A is here.
1. The Gophers have reached bowl eligibility, but the preseason plan hasn't exactly been followed. What has been surprising about Minnesota this season?
A lot. Start with the fact the team's best receiver, AJ Barker, was a former walk-on who had caught zero passes before this season, and yet has been the team's best receiver by far this season. Key word there, though, is "has been" as he quit the team Sunday in about the most public way possible- via Twitter. Seriously. He ranted and raved about how we was mistreated, but what it seems to boil down to, at least from his interviews and Coach Kill's presser yesterday, is Barker was upset he wasn't getting a scholarship this season, and he was upset the coaches (specifically Kill) were upset that he didn't follow the team-prescribed treatment to rehab his injured ankle (which he hurt a few weeks ago, and hasn't played since). Go figure. Disobey the coaches, berate the head trainer when he asks you why you're not rehabbing like you're supposed to, and then get upset Coach Kill isn't happy with you? Anyway, that appears to be water under the bridge at this point, but definitely counts as the most surprising/bizarre thing that's happened this seaon. Other than that, not much else except for the fact we're starting a true freshman QB instead of MarQueis Gray, the offensive line has been in shambles via injury for most of the season, and the defensive line and secondary have been much improved while the linebackers have not.
2. MarQueis Gray has moved from quarterback, and there has been some shuffling at the quarterback positon. Who are some players to watch on both sides of the ball?
Gray is a difference maker if his ankle is anywhere close to 100% but with a high ankle sprain, it's been tough for him to be himself because he just can't get any push or explosion off that leg. It's the main reason he was moved to wideout because he just can't run as effectively as we're used to seeing with the injury. Nelson is the present and future at QB, and will need to make some plays and some good decisions. The top back has been Donnell Kirkwood with 830 yards and 5 scores, and true freshman Rodrick Williams is a dump truck of a back at 235+, and has only been playing since week 7 against Wisconsin. At wideout...yeah good question. Without Barker, there's some talented kids but they're all freshmen and sophomores, and nobody has been able to step up into that #1 receiver role. Defensively the two best players are on the line at end in senior DL Wilhite (tied for 2nd in the conference in sacks with 7.5) and junior DT Ra'Shede Hageman (7th in sacks with 5), who has faced constant double-teams all season. Senior corners Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter have been pretty solid (Carter is the cousin of former Gopher All-American and Super Bowl winner with Pittsburgh Tyrone Carter), as has sophomore safety Derrick Wells.
3. Since the Big Ten pushed the schedule past Thanksgiving, we've seen a lot of empty seats in Big Ten stadiums, though MSU still hasn't hosted a game since this change. Do you expect a fairly empty TCF Bank Stadium?
Yes, although in Minnesota that has more to do with how the team has been playing than the fact it's on Thanksgiving weekend. The team has won two straight "Senior Day" games (knocking off bowl-eligible Illinois and Iowa the past two years), but we'll see how many folks show up to see it.
4. What is the state of the Minnesota program right now? The third year has typically been the big one for Jerry Kill teams, but reaching a bowl game certainly has to be a welcome surprise in 2012.
The bowl game is all we really wanted as fans this year. A lower tier bowl was a given here under Glen Mason, then Tim Brewster happened and the program took some big steps backwards. So it's a good improvement to already be back to six wins in Kill's second season. It's been a bit tumultuous this season with the aforementioned Barker incident, plus earlier this season they announced the U paid $800,000 to cancel a home-and-home series with North Carolina which, as you can probably imagine, did not go over well at all with the fans. Still, Kill has a track record of building programs and they look to be on schedule in season two. Like you guys, the Gophers are a pretty young team, especially on offense, so a lower tier bowl will be a minimum expectation in 2013.
5. What are three keys to victory for the Gophers on Saturday?
1) Stopping, or at least slowing, Le'Veon Bell. The Gophers have really struggled to stop good running teams or good running backs (Marc Weisman of Iowa and Venric Mark of Northwestern come immeditately to mind), and Bell is about as good as it gets. Their linebackers are fast, but undersized for the Big Ten and they're not always in the right position, so it's going to take more than the front seven to slow Bell down. And of course, when you're bringing safeties into the box to help, that's going to open up the passing game in a big way.
2) A Jerry Kill offense is supposed to run the football, and to run to set up the pass. They have not been able to throw much at all since Barker went out almost a month ago, and therefore teams can just load up to stop the run. Kirkwood and Williams are solid backs but they're not game-changers, and they're not the type who can make something out of nothing (though Kirkwood has shown a real skill, if such a thing exists, for not losing yardage, as he has just 28 yards of loss all season, most of which came last week). Minnesota needs to run to be successful, but they need to pass to keep the defense off the run game. You can see the problem here.
3) Channeling their emotions. This is a senior class that been through a lot, especially Gray, so there will be plenty of emotion leading up to the game. Add in all the Barker shenanigans and having to answer questions all week about him and their Coach and how he coaches and how they feel about it, and the players can't wait to get out on the field and just play. The key will be channeling that into playing fast and aggressive and not overly-aggressive or out of control. This is a team who is not good enough to overcome mistakes yet, so not turning the ball over and minimizing penalties will be huge.
6. Give me a score prediction and why?
The Gophers are 3-0 on Senior Day at TCF Bank Stadium, and they were not favored to win two of those games. Funny things seem to happen here in the last home game of the season, and I think this one is much closer than it looks like it should be on paper. Had you guys won last week I would love Minnesota's chances at pulling the upset because your bowl eligibility would already be secured, but as it stands, I just can't see this Michigan State team losing and missing a bowl game. 20-13 MSU wins.
Thanks again to Jeff for answering our questions. Make sure you check out The Daily Gopher for all things Minnesota.