Minnesota became bowl eligible last weekend with the Gophers 17-3 victory over Illinois. It's something I didn't expect, but it's something that became possible by starting the season 4-0. The Gophers lost Floyd of Rosedale in a loss to Iowa, but did get a victory over hapless Purdue.
Quarterback Mar'Queis Gray suffered knee and ankle injuries in the third week of the season which caused him to miss two games entirely. The lingering effects of those injuries have led coach Jerry Kill to move Gray back to wide receiver since the consensus is that his injuries won't hold up under the strain at quarterback. Gray is considered an NFL prospect at receiver or tight end based on his production in 2010 as a receiver. This season, Gray has caught 12 passes for 121 yards. After Max Shortell struggled in replacing Gray, freshman Phillip Nelson burned his redshirt and is now the Gophers' starting quarterback. Nelson has completed 56% of his passes for 615 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions. He's also rushed for 165 yards in four games.
At running back, James Gillum hasn't had a carry in two months; he gained 51 yards in the season opener against UNLV, and then nine more the next two games before being benched. Donnell Kirkwood has been the star, rushing for 819 yards this season and 152 yards last week against Illinois. 819 yards is the highest for a Gopher running back since Amir Pinnix in 2006. Kirkwood isn't going to break off a long run; his longest run is 38 yards this season...but he's not going to go backwards either; he's only lost 27 yards this season.
Junior wide receiver A.J. Barker leads the Gopher receivers with 30 catches for 577 yards and seven touchdowns this season. But an ankle injury has kept him out the last two weeks, and his status this week is uncertain. If Barker doesn't play, look for Gray to have to pick up the slack.
On defense, cornerback Troy Stoudermire is back and leading the Gophers again in tackles with 63. Senior cornerback Michael Carter is locking down on opposing receivers; he has 14 pass breakups this season. Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite leads the Gophers with 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss this season.
It'll be interesting to see whether Carter and the Gophers can shut down the Huskers in the air; the Gophers rank third in the Big Ten in pass defense. I expect Nebraska can run on Minnesota, who ranks ninth in conference play in rush defense. And something has to give this week, as Minnesota and Nebraska are tied with Illinois for the worst turnover margin in conference play (-6 on the season for each). I go into this game with a similar expectation as I have the last several weeks; if Nebraska can fix themselves, they'll be fine this week. It's time to have a game where Nebraska isn't trailing in fourth quarter. Below, you'll find our original preview from this summer of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Preseason Preview of the Minnesota Golden Gophers
Over the last few years, Minnesota has been another example of learning the hard way that sometimes a coaching change makes things worse, rather than better. Minnesota ran off Glen Mason after 10 years and seven bowl berths, thinking they could do better. Tim Brewster certainly couldn't, as evidenced by his hiring of Kevin Cosgrove. Enter Jerry Kill, who starting trying to rebuild the program last season. There were highs: losing by just two points to Southern Cal at the LA Mausoleum, as well as victories over Iowa and Illinois. But far more lows: a shellacking by Michigan, blowout losses to Nebraska and Purdue, and a loss to Craig Bohl's North Dakota State team. (Granted, the Bison did win the 1-AA national championship last season.) Plus, Kill suffered a seizure at the end of the New Mexico State game, with over 20 more in the weeks following.
Kill has a consistent record of developing winning programs, starting in division 2 and working up to Northern Illinois from 2008 through 2010. This year, the goal for Minnesota is gradual improvement: maybe get out of the basement in the Big Ten's West division and get to a bowl game. With non-conference games against UNLV (2-10 in 2011), Syracuse (5-7 last year), Western Michigan (7-6 last year), and 1-AA opponent New Hampshire, the door is open.
If Minnesota is going to go anywhere this season, senior quarterback Mar'Queis Gray will have to lead them there. He was the leading rusher for the Gophers last season, rushing for 966 yards and six touchdowns. The 6'4" 245 pound Gray is a better runner than passer; he completed only 51% his passes last season for 1,495 yards, eight touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Gray was a highly recruited dual-threat quarterback who spent his first two seasons at wide receiver. Sophomore Max Shortell will back him up, but only completed 48% of his passes as a true freshman. His best performance was when he made things interesting at the end of the Southern Cal game in sparking the comeback.
One thing that would help Gray would be to have a running back emerge this season. That might be 5'11" 204 pound junior college transfer James Gillum, who rushed for 1,042 yards at Mississippi State Gulf Coast Community College last fall. He'll be backed up by 5'10" 216 pound sophomore Donnell Kirkwood, who rushed for 223 yards and three touchdowns last year. Neither back is a game-breaker, but they'll be dependable just the same. Incoming freshman KJ Maye could become a third-down back and explosive perimeter player; at least that's the hope.
Last year, Da'Jon McKnight was responsible for more than a third of the Gophers' receptions, so his departure is going to be tough to replace. Senior Brandon Green is the leading candidate to step up his production; last year, he caught just 15 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown after missing the 2010 season due to a knee injury. 5'11" junior Malcolm Mouton caught 14 passes for 174 yards as a part-time starter last season. Sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts is a player to watch out for; if he can master the offense this season, he could be the big playmaker the Gophers need in the passing game.
Hopes were higher for the offensive line this season until sophomore right tackle Jimmy Gjere had to give up football due to concussion concerns. Now, the Gophers look to the Olson brothers to be the leaders up front on the left. Ed, the junior left tackle, is a two year starter, while sophomore left guard Tommy started three games last season. Also returning is sophomore right guard Zac Epping, who started eight games last year. This group is still a pretty young bunch who'll only get better over the next couple of years.
Six starters return on defense including two on the defensive line. Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite and sophomore end Ben Perry return after rather lackluster 2011 seasons with 16 and 15 tackles respectively. The Gophers have to look inside to see if junior college transfer Roland Johnson can make an immediate impact at nose tackle. At the other tackle spot, hopes are high on junior Ra'Shede Hageman, who's got the motor to dominate once he masters the switch from offense.
Two linebackers return as well, but the hole created by Gary Tinsley's graduation grew even larger when he passed away in April from an enlarged heart. This season, the Gophers will wear a patch dedicated to "GT 51" on their jerseys in remembrance. Seniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper will have to pick up the load as well as the leadership duties from their fallen teammate this season. Rallis and Cooper are 1-2 in returning tacklers from last season with 83 and 77 each. Rallis will anchor the middle while Cooper moves from weakside to strongside linebacker.
In the secondary, cornerback Troy Soudermire returns with a medical hardship after missing most of last season with an injured arm. Up until the injury, he was a tackling machine, racking up 24 tackles and two interceptions in just four games. Junior Brock Vereen plans to slide over from the other corner position to free safety, which should cause his tackle totals to explode from 67 last season. That will open a corner spot for junior college transfer Martez Shabazz, who broke up 21 passes last season for Trinity Valley Community College.
Minnesota is probably a long-term rebuilding project, and expecting bowl eligibility in 2012 is probably a stretch at this point. Doesn't mean it's impossible, mind you...but the Gophers have a lot to do to get to that level. The first place to start is to stop losing to 1-AA teams (three losses in the last five years). Solve that problem, then pull off a couple of upsets (cough...Iowa....cough), and you never know.