Happy Thanksgiving. Saturday is Senior Day, and MSU hosts Minnesota in the battle for the Honeycrisp Trophy. JDMill from The Daily Gopher was kind enough to answer some questions about the Gophers going into the game.
1. Minnesota's offense was looking quite good before the Wisconsin game. What's been going well and what hasn't? Who are some players to keep an eye on?
Now that the Wisconsin game happened and our offense was shut down, I can say this: it's been kind of an odd year for the Gophers offensively. Through the non-conference schedule it was all read-option all the time, or so it seemed. Then we faced Iowa and Michigan with a completely different gameplan, which failed miserably (in hindsight, I think it was the right gameplan against Iowa, but we just couldn't execute it, in addition to the fact that Phillip Nelson was hurt.) But our offensive line and our running game started to get its legs under it against Northwestern and suddenly this team figured out how to use the pass to set up the run. You'll see Minnesota do a lot of shifting and motioning prior to the snap and you'll see a fair number of power run formations. If things are going well, we'll be able to put up 150+ yards through the air, which will make things more balanced in the run game. We don't have a go-to reciever, and the guy who was trying to fill that role (Derrick Engel) is now out for the year. The downfall of the offense against Wisconsin was dropped balls. If some of those catchable passes are hauled in and we move the ball, we might have been able to catch up. Don't get me wrong, Wisconsin beat us, but we definitely left a number of plays on the field offensively. Long answer longer: keep an eye out for RB David Cobb (our first 1,000 yard rusher since 2006) and TE Maxx Williams.
2. On the other side, the Gopher defense has been quite stout. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this unit?
That's a great question and kind of a tough one to answer. We pretty much rank in the middle of the conference in every defensive statistical category that matters, but we tend to be a team that bends a lot but doesn't often break. We rank middle-of-the-pack in the conference as far as stopping the run, but we're one of only 2 teams to hold Wisconsin under 200 yards on the ground, and one of 2 teams to hold them to a single rushing TD. This is a defense that has some very good Senior leaders (DT Ra'Shede Hageman, CB Brock Vereen, LB Aaron Hill), but also a lot of raw talent. At this point I believe the strength of the defense is D-Coordinator Tracy Claeys. Claeys has been able to put the right gameplans in place to slow down opposing teams and give the team a chance to stay in the game. We held Indiana under their yards/game average in passing, we held Wisconsin under their yards/game average in rushing. The outcomes of those games aside, Claeys has done a good job of figuring out how to slow down the strengths of opposing offenses.
3. What are three keys to victory for the Gophers on Saturday?
This is an offense, I believe, that is creative and talented enough to exploit mediocre defenses, but we just don't have the experience or the horses to be able to beat great defenses right now. The Gophers have to figure out a way to move the ball. That sounds incredibly simple and is a tall task against MSU, I realize, but 185 yards of total offense in a game (as was the case vs. Wisconsin) just isn't going to get the job done. A receiver has to emerge this week. If the Gophers can figure out a way to put up 125-150 yards in the air on Saturday, I think they can win the game, but that will be incredibly difficult.
4. The third year is always the big one for Jerry Kill, and that was the case again. Did you see at least eight wins coming, especially when Kill took a step back? How's the future of the program looking?
While I predicted 8 wins on the season for the Gophers, deep down I really didn't see it happening. I understand the Gophers had an easy non-conference schedule, but we have faced one of the tougher conference schedules in the B1G. For us to get to 8 wins WITHOUT the luxury of facing Illinois or Purdue is fairly impressive for a team that was considered bottom of the conference coming into the season. As far as Kill going down, after the Michigan game (the game he missed completely), I'll be honest, things were bleak. As Gopher fans we're used to getting snake-bitten, but this seemed cruel and unusual. When the team beat Northwestern we were all thinking "that's a solid win, but..." To come out the following week and beat Nebraska, and I mean really beat them and not win by something flukey, was pretty surreal. Suddenly we're bowl eligible with 4 games to play.We went from talking about it being a possibility that we might not win a B1G game, to suddenly talking about 8 or 9 wins. It's been a really fun season for us.The future of the program is looking really good. Kill and his staff had an incredible amount of work to do when they came to Minnesota. The strides that they have made on the field in Year 3 are only part of the story. Academically this team has done a 180 since the Brewster days. Kill is building the program the right way and it really appears that things are moving in a solid direction.
5. Score prediction and why?
As much as I'd love to predict a Gopher win here, I just can't. The Gophers have made it to 8 wins this season by some kind of divine intervention, but Wisconsin and MSU are still a good tier ahead of us. I'm afraid that the offense looks similar to last week. As I stated above, I just don't think we're at a point yet where we can overcome a great defense, which MSU definitely has. I think our defense will pose a problem for the Spartans, but the offense, like last week, won't be able to capitalize on the chances the defense gives them. I see a similar outcome to last week, and I'm going to predict MSU 23, Gophers 13.
Thanks again to JDMill for answering some questions.