Well, here we go for the final time in Memorial Stadium for the 2012 campaign. The Minnesota Golden Gophers come to Lincoln tomorrow for a 2:30 B1G West division showdown on BTN. And, quite honestly, you probably don't know much about Minny outside of Jerry Kill being the Head Coach and that they are finally bowl eligible.
To help with your knowledge of the Fighting Kill's, we got a hold of Jeff Kilpatrick of the SBNation Minnesota community "The Daily Gopher". I asked him some questions about the three quarterback's that Minnesota has used this year, how the defense has come along, and where people view Jerry Kill after almost 2 seasons. Out of all the Q and A's we've done this year, Jeff by far gave overall some of the best and detailed answers we've had this season.
1. "Bowl eligible Minnesota Golden Gophers". I’m sure this has a nice ring to it, but seems like this season has been as much of a roller coaster ride than anything. Give us the cliff notes version of it if you may, for those that haven’t been able to pay attention.
Oh boy...a lot of what happened we'll answer in question two about the quarterbacks, and question five about Coach Kill. The cliff notes version is they've beaten most of the teams they should have and managed to find six wins on the schedule. The defense has been much improved (at least for us), the offense has been decimated by injuries, and special teams has been pretty meh. But in the second year of the Coach Kill Era we'll certainly take that as it's hopefully building nicely for year three where almost the entire offense returns (everybody on the two deep except MarQueis Gray and one of the TE's), as well as some key pieces on defense. Things seem to be going in the right direction, and at no point has the head coach asked anyone "how hot their daggum chili is" so I'd call that a success right there.
2. So, this Quarterback thing, let me see if I got it right... it started with MarQueis Gray, who got hurt and Max Shortell came on, then Gray got hurt again, but instead of going back to Shortell, Phillip Nelson was brought in, and now is the first stringer while Gray is a WR now. Is that right? What’s made all this happen?
Yeah, I think you’ve pretty much got it. So according to coach Kill in the week leading up to the Wisconsin game they decided both Gray and Shortell were too injured to play against the Badgers, and that Gray may not be close enough to 100% the rest of the year to play QB effectively, so six games into the season they decided pull the redshirt off Nelson and start him the rest of the year. Gray has definitely not been himself since reinjuring his ankle against that other NU. He’s one of the greatest people they’ve had here in a long, long time as "Q" as he’s called has been jerked around from receiver to QB and back to receiver again, but he’s taken all of it like a man and accepted whatever the coaches have asked him to do for the good of the team and he’s done it with a smile on his face. He’s basically out there running patterns now on one leg as he has little burst and no explosion, especially compared to what he looked like two years ago at wideout.
As for Shortell, he played really well in relief of Gray against New Hampshire and Western Michigan early in the year, was so-so in the win over Syracuse, and then was flat awful in losses to Iowa and Northwestern. The coaches say he was too hurt to play against Wisconsin, but there’s whispers the staff lost confidence in him after the Northwestern game, and I’d say rightfully so. At the time, some fans were upset they waited halfway through the season to start Nelson and burn his red shirt, but if they deemed Gray was too banged up to play and your backup sucks, what choice did they have? Nelson held his own against Wisconsin on the road, lit up Purdue, and has been ok the past two weeks. Still, the kid has poise, a good arm, and runs well enough to keep defenses honest and while it would have been nice to keep the shirt on him and have him start for four full years, getting him six games of experience now should make him, and the offense, that much better next season.
3. It seems that the Gophers have gotten a lot better at the skill positions, with Donnell Kirkwood and A.J. Barker helping out this offense to make it work. Even though the numbers don’t make anyone sweat, can this group do something in Lincoln against a defense that can be gashed on the ground?
If Barker and half the receivers and most of the offensive line were healthy, it could be interesting. As it stands, I’m not expecting much as the amount of injuries on offense have been almost comical. Barker and another of our top receivers, Derek Engel, are both doubtful to play, and even if they do, they’ll be like Gray and not be close to 100%. On the line, it’s down to a third string center, and they’ve been playing second and third stringers all over the line since about week 2. It’ll give them more depth and experience next season, but has been frustrating this year. Kirkwood has been a revelation, the one consistent guy who’s shown up every week and played pretty well. He’s not the biggest nor the fastest back out there but has shown a knack for picking up yards, and perhaps just as importantly he rarely loses yards either. It took the coaches six games and five different running backs to finally find a decent backup running back, but it looks like they’ve found one in true frosh Roderick Williams. A big kid from Texas at about 240 pounds, he’s obviously not back there to run by you, but he’s been pretty solid since they’ve started giving him playing time. So basically, I’m not expecting much for the game Saturday, but next year when Nebraska comes to Minneapolis, everybody at the skill positions (and the line, for that matter) but Gray will be back, and if everybody is healthy, it should be much more interesting.
4. Defensively, Minnesota is averaging 22 points allowed a game, giving up the same amount of passing yards as running yards (aprx 168/game), and have five guys with 50+ tackles for the season. Seems like this is a group that hangs it hat on keeping the Gophers in the game, correct?
Definitely. The defensive improvement is the biggest reason this team is going bowling this year. This is a good time to point out that before Kill and defensive coordinator got here in 2011, a guy by the name of Kevin Cosgrove was running the defense. You might remember him. You might not want to. Trust me, he was as bad as you remember, if not worse, and it took Claeys some time to get the defense sorted out. That can happen when you introduce things like "coaching" and "structure" to a group that hadn’t had any. The defensive line and secondary have shown enormous improvement and the pass D and pass rush have been very good (this would be the point where you say "yeah but Minnesota hasn’t played anybody who throws the ball!" I don’t care- they didn’t play anybody who could throw last year except for USC in the very first game and were still terrible, so I’d call that an improvement). The seniors on the line and secondary like DE DJ Wilhite (tied for the B1G lead in sacks) and corners Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, have really stepped up, and some underclassmen are playing well around them. The run D still needs work (I wouldn’t be surprised if Nebraska runs for 300+ yards on Saturday), but most of that is due to subpar play from the linebackers for most of the season (a lot of missed tackles and missed gap assignments). The group came in with plenty of talent and experience and were expected to anchor the defense, but it hasn’t happened enough. The linebackers have played better in recent weeks, and Minnesota will sell out to stop the run against the Huskers, but even then I don’t like their chances of doing so. Nebraska can run the ball in their sleep while the Gopher defense is still figuring things out as they go.
5. Jerry Kill... I know there’s a website that was started last year that have been pretty rough on him. However, it seems like he’s gotten a lot out of this team. How has the fan base seen Jerry’s tenure so far? Are there worries about his health issues hindering him at all still?
Not to give the guy running that site any hits, but if you notice, he hasn’t had much to write about this season, especially lately. The fanbase in general is satisfied with a bowl game in year two with Jerry Kill, and more will be expected next season, like beating teams you’re supposed to AND beating a team or two you’re not supposed to beat. But that will come, I think. Kill was, and is, such a refreshing change from Tim Brewster (I’m sure you’re all familiar with what a complete idiot he was), and it’s been great having a coach who a) knows how to coach b) has actually been a head coach and/or coordinator before and c) had prior success doing it. Novel concept, I know (Minnesota Gopher football, everybody!). Kill was pretty much bullet-proof up until a month ago when he had a rough few weeks. Right during the same stretch when the team was losing in ugly fashion to Iowa and Northwestern there was an announcement that Kill cancelled a home-and-home series with North Carolina for the next few years. Fans were annoyed because that was about the only name school (and certainly the only BCS-conference opponent) on the non-con schedule for the forseeable future (Brewster had a deal with Texas in place, but the Horns backed out when they picked up BYU and Notre Dame. Hey how’s the Longhorn Network working out for them, by the way? Remember how that was supposed to be such a huge advantage for them? So much for that.), and it’s not like UNC is exactly good right now.
So that was bad. It got much worse when word leaked out that Minnesota had to pay an $800,000 buy-out to cancel the series with the Heels! $800,000! Seriously. That happened. A solid portion of the fan base lost their minds, especially when Kill’s reasoning was basically that he wanted more winnable games on the non-conference schedule. I like Kill and think he’s the right coach to get it turned around here, but I wasn’t about to defend that move. Then the last-second announcement that they were removing Nelson’s redshirt to start him against Wisconsin without any warning AND without a promise he was starting the rest of the year? Nelson was, and is, looked at as the savior and future of this program, capable of leading the Gophers to the promised land like a golden-armed Moses in a helmet and shoulder pads. By the way, the "Promised Land" isn’t the Rose Bowl or even the Big Ten Title game, just "a New Year’s Day Bowl". At least for me. Anyway, at that point it was full-fledged "kick-Jerry-while-he-was-down" for some in the fan base and not a good time around here. At all. But then Nelson acquitted himself well against the Badgers, Kill promised after the game Nelson was the guy at QB the rest of the year, he then torched Purdue, and now with the bowl eligibility thing I think the majority of the fan base is good with Kill again. At least they’d better be. While still hate the decision to cancel the UNC series AND pay to do it, he’s still a damn good coach and just needs time to get it figured out and going. Already, there are some Gopher fans who have already grown far less patient.
6. Alright, we’ve talked about some skill players above, so give us some more names to pay attention to on both sides of the ball and on special teams that should influence the game on Saturday afternoon.
Obviously Nelson at QB and Kirkwood at tailback will be the two feature guys on offense. Isaac Fruechte is the healthiest good receiver assuming Barker isn’t able to go yet again. On defense, the aforementioned Wilhite, Carter, and Stoudermire have been three of the Gophers’ best defenders, but let’s not forget about DT Ra’Shede Hageman. The 6’6 300 pound junior has been a force in the middle, and has faced constant double-teams all season, but still has managed 5 sacks and 6.5 TFL’s this season. He’s not Ndamukong Suh by any means, but he’s still been a disruptive force along the line. Sophomore safety Derrick Wells has been one of the Gophers’ best playmakers all season, and is finally getting healthy again after being banged up most of the year.
7. Finally, lets hear your prediction of how this one is gonna shake down and a final score.
The MO for the Gophers against teams who run the ball well have been to stop the run in one half, and not stop it in the other. Northwestern and Iowa ran the ball down Minnesota’s throats in the first half, then were shut down in the second. The exact opposite happened at Wisconsin. I don’t know which half it will be against Nebraska, but the Gopher defense will play well against the run in one half, and the Huskers will run for about 9,000 yards in the other. I’m going to guess the yards come in the first and they cruise to victory in the second. With the Gopher offense so incredibly banged up, I don’t see the offense being able to do much either, unfortunately. Minnesota has scored 13 points- and only 13- in every loss this season (true story. Look it up), so we’ll stick with that trend and say the Huskers win 34-13. See you in Minneapolis next year.