As I completed the preseason preview of Minnesota, I couldn't help but conclude that most previews were underestimating the Gophers this season. While some predicted them to finish as low as 10th in the Big Ten, I had them third in the west division. With a solid group of returning starters on both sides of the ball, Minnesota simply doesn't have any glaring weaknesses. The only reason to look away from the Gophers is the lack of star power; when you do that, you miss out on the blue collar work effort from the Gophers. Overlook Minnesota at your own risk.
Offensively, Minnesota is led by senior running back David Cobb, who's rushed for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. He's averaged 5.3 yards per carry and has carried the ball 25 times or more in six of ten games so far this season. If you don't like jet sweeps, close your eyes when you see wide receiver K.J. Maye; he rushed 10 times for 66 yards against Iowa.
Sophomore Mitch Leidner takes most of the snaps at quarterback for the Gophers, though redshirt freshman Chris Streveler does come in from time to time to get more speed on the field. Leidner has rushed 81 times for 297 yards and six touchdowns; Streveler has rushed 36 times for 235 yards and a touchdown. (Streveler's 6.5 yards per carry average is impressive.) Streveler hasn't thrown a pass in a game since the TCU game, though Leidner is completing 51.5% of his passes for 1,310 yards with ten touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Sophomore tight end Maxx Williams is Minnesota's leading receiver, catching 25 passes for 373 yards and seven touchdowns. Williams is one of eight semi-finalists for the Mackey Award, which recognizes the top tight end in college football. Wide receivers Isaac Fruechte and Donovahn Jones are second and third with 14 and 11 catches respectively. Jones missed last Saturday's game with an illness. Drew Wolitarsky has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain and isn't expected back until the bowl game.
Defensively, Minnesota ranks in the upper half of the Big Ten in all statistical categories, ranking from fifth to seventh in the conference. Linebacker Damien Wilson leads the Gophers with 96 tackles this season, with fellow linebacker De'Vondre Campbell third with 57. Campbell was chastised this week by defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys for looking ahead to a rematch with Ohio State in Indianapolis. (Not only looking past Nebraska, but Wisconsin as well...) Senior safety Cedric Thompson is second on the Gophers with 61 tackles on the season. Junior cornerback Brien Boddy-Calhoun is Minnesota's best pass defender with four interceptions and seven pass breakups.
Minnesota is not the most talented team in the conference; in fact, they might be near the bottom in terms of talent level. But they might be the best coached team, and they won't make mistakes. If Nebraska hasn't figured out how to maintain their assignments defending the run, or is still in a funk from last week, Minnesota can - and will - beat the Huskers.
Next, you'll find our preseason preview of the 2014 Minnesota Golden Gophers.
From my perspective, Nebraska's worst loss of 2013 seems to be the one nobody really talks about. It's easy to bring up UCLA's 38 unanswered points, the five fumbles by freshmen against Michigan State, and just about everything that backfired against Iowa. Those are games that one could argue Nebraska could have won.
It's tougher to argue that Nebraska should have beaten Minnesota in Minneapolis. The Gophers dominated Nebraska from the second quarter on; outrushing and outpassing Nebraska and basically wearing the Big Red down. It's a little simplistic to argue that Nebraska merely didn't tackle well because it doesn't acknowledge how well Minnesota played. And that's the core of a Jerry Kill program; they may not be the flashiest or the most talented, but they are well-coached and efficient.
SB Nation's Bill Connelly noted that a pattern of freshmen ursurping the incumbent Minnesota starting quarterbackthe last three seasons. Last season, it was freshmanMitch Leidner (6'4" 233 pounds) taking over for Phillip Nelson. At the end of last season, Nelson transferred to Rutgers and then allegedly assaulted a former Minnesota State linebacker in Nelson's hometown of Mankato on May 11th. Three months later, Isaac Kolstad, the victim, is out of the hospital and in therapy where he's slowly regaining the ability to walk, read, and talk.
Last season, Leidner played in ten games, starting four, including against the Huskers. A dual-threat quarterback, he rushed for 407 yards and seven touchdowns and threw for 619 yards and three touchdowns. The Nelson-Leidner combo gave Minnesota one of the weakest passing games in the country, ranking 115th in the nation. (The Nelson-Leidner combo did rush for 771 yards and 13 touchdowns as Leidner and Nelson ranked second and third respectively on the Gophers in rushing last season.) If past history is any indication, redshirt freshman Chris Streveler (6'2" 220 pounds) probably will see some action as yet-another dual threat quarterback. Recovered from a tendon injury in his throwing hand last season, he's faster than Leidner, though he's struggling more with his passing.
David Cobb had only carried the ball eleven times his first two seasons in the Twin Cities...then got 15 the first two games of 2013. His success led to more and more carries before finally claiming the starting job at midseason. By season's end, he was Minnesota's first thousand yard rusher since 2006, rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns. The 5'11" 225 pound senior enters 2014 as the clear starter ahead of fellow senior (and former starter) Donnell Kirkwood (5'10" 223 pounds), who rushed for just 120 yards last season. Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards (5'9" 190 pounds, brother of former Michigan receiver Braylon) should see plenty of action spread out wide as the Gophers want to take advantage of his speed by getting him the ball in space. Incoming freshmanJeff Jones, a five star recruit, has had difficulty getting the necessary test scores and classes to begin his college career. He finally was admitted to Minnesota earlier this month, but still hasn't been cleared by the NCAA. More than likely, it appears he'll either redshirt this season or detour through Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs.
There are reasons to think that the Minnesota passing attack bottomed out last season, as not only do six of last seasons' top seven receivers return, three of them will be sophomores in 2014. Tight end Maxx Williams (6'4" 254 pounds) caught 25 passes for 417 yards and five touchdowns last season. Wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky (6'3" 223 pounds) caught 15 passes (seven in the last two games) for 259 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman. A potential breakout star is sophomore Donovahn Jones (6'3" 190 pounds) who caught 10 passes last season for 157 yards. He also rushed for 73 yards last season, 42 of which came on four jet sweeps against Nebraska last season. As a former quarterback recruit, don't be surprised if they install a Wildcat scheme to exploit his speed.
With so much of Minnesota's offense success depending on power football, you know that the Gophers had a solid offensive line in 2013. Injuries made that success much more difficult as the Gophers had four different starting lineups on the line last season. Senior right guard Caleb Bak suffered a concussion against Nebraska that's still affecting him; he's forgoing his final year of eligibility. Senior left guard Zac Epping (6'2" 321 pounds) has been a three-year starter while sophomore left tackle Ben Lauer (6'7" 310 pounds) was a freshman all-American last season. Junior right tackle Josh Champion (6'5" 326 pounds) is a two year starter at that position and was an honorable mention all-Big Ten honoree last season, but could slide inside to guard to get sophomore Johah Pirsig (6'9" 325 pounds) on the field.
Minnesota was in the upper half of the Big Ten last year in most defensive statistics. No doubt a lot of that was due to all-Big Ten defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who is now with the Atlanta Falcons as a second round draft pick. The other three starters on the defensive line are back, led by junior end Theiren Cockran (6'6" 238 pounds), a second team all-Big Ten pick last year. He led the Gophers with 7.5 sacks last year, and should put up even bigger numbers this year. Senior nose tackle Cameron Botticelli(6'5" 290 pounds) is a two year starter in the interior and might be the biggest cog in trying to fill the void created by Hageman's departure.
At linebacker, senior Damien Wilson (6'2" 254 pounds) returns in the middle after recording 78 tackles last season as a transfer from junior college. Junior De'Vondre Campbell (6'5' 239 pounds) started three games last season, racking up 41 tackles. He'll slide into the weakside linebacker position after spending the offseason adding weightto better be able to wrap up Big Ten backs. He has the potential to be a freak athlete; he's already taller than your average linebacker, and he has track speed. (Finishing seventh in the Florida 200 meter state championship race in high school should be proof that he can move.) After a full offseason picking up Minnesota's defensive scheme, I suspect this duo are in for a big 2014.
First team all-Big Ten defensive back Brock Vereen is off to the Chicago Bears (4th round draft pick), but the other three starters are back, led by senior safety Cedric Thompson (5'10" 211 pounds) who led the Gophers with 79 tackles last season. Cornerback might actually be turn out to be an upgrade as junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun (5'11" 186 pounds) started the first two games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He did give Gopher fans a sneak preview with an 89 yard interception return against UNLV in the 2013 season opener. His injury opened the door for junior Eric Murray (6'0" 194 pounds) to emerge, who led the Gophers with 10 pass breakups to earn him honorable mention all-Big Ten last season. Quite frankly, the Gopher secondary appears to be underrated by many experts going into the 2014 season.
That assessment probably applies to the entire team, as Minnesota is picked by most to finish in the lower half of the Big Ten's west division; ESPN's Big Ten writers ranked them tenth in the fourteen team conference. I suspect that's rather low, especially when you take Jerry Kill's track record into account. That's not to say that I expect Minnesota to contend for the division title, but rather that teams better play some of their best football when facing the Gophers, because Minnesota will be good enough to beat you if you don't. That's a lesson Nebraska learned the hard way last October.