Minnesota's 2015 football season has been an up-and-down affair. A respectable 23-17 loss to TCU and last weekend's 41-6 blowout of Purdue sandwiched a three week stretch where the Gophers struggled to beat Kent State and Ohio and a shutout loss to Northwestern.
The biggest question going into the Gophers 2015 season was who would replace David Cobb at running back. It was supposed to be senior Rodrick Williams, but after fumbling the ball out the back of the end zone against TCU, freshman Rodney Smith took over. Smith has rushed for 447 yards and a touchdown this season. But Smith wasn't feeling well last week with an undisclosed injury, so in came freshman Shannon Brooks who rushed for 176 yards on just ten carries, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. For the season, Brooks has rushed for 291 yards and three touchdowns, averaging a very nice 7.9 yards per carry average. While neither Smith or Brooks will put up Cobb-like numbers, the combination of the two backs might be close.
The next biggest question was replacing tight end Maxx Williams. That's not quite as resolved, thanks to potentially season-ending injuries to Lincoln Plsek and Duke Anyanwu. Sophomores Brandon Lingen and Nate Wozniak are the replacements on the field, but with just 7 and 6 catches respectively, this duo isn't putting up numbers that even remotely resemble Maxx's. KJ Maye and Drew Wolitarsky are the leading receivers for Minnesota, catching 22 and 19 passes respectively. Freshman Jeff Jones hasn't seen much playing time due to injury, leading to more playing time for sophomore Eric Carter, who has 17 catches on the season.
Mitch Leidner hasn't exactly excelled this season; he's still the starter, but after the Northwester shutout, there was talk about rotating redshirt freshman Demry Croft into the game at times. For the season, Leidner has rushed for 122 yards and completed 58% of his passes for 1,009 yards and six touchdowns with four interceptions. Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill knows that while it's no secret that Nebraska's Achilles heel is it's pass defense, the Gophers won't throw the ball 50 times on Saturday. Considering that the Gophers only threw the ball 18 times last week, don't expect Minnesota to exactly replicate Wisconsin's game plan this week.
Minnesota's defense has been decimated with injuries this season, as cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun and safety Antonio Johnson have missed the last few games with injuries. Despite that, Johnson still ranks second on the Gophers with 41 tackles on the season. Junior college transfer Cody Poock leads the Gophers with 45 tackles on the season. Despite all of the injuries, Minnesota ranks 15th nationally in pass defense, allowing 163 yards per game. Offenses can run a little on the Gophers' 48th ranked rush defense, which gives up 143 yards per game. Overall, Minnesota's defense is ranked 21st nationally in total defense and 28th in scoring defense.
This game might come down to the matchup between Minnesota's passing offense (ranked 105th in division 1-A) and Nebraska's pass defense (ranked dead last at 127th). Which unit sucks the least will likely be the one that hoists the Big Ten's newest and best rivalry trophy: the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy.
Below, you'll find the preseason preview of the 2015 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Preseason Preview of the Minnesota Golden Gophers
While Wisconsin's blowouts of Nebraska may have been the most embarrassing losses of the Huskers Big Ten era, the last two losses to Minnesota might be the most frustrating. Last year, Nebraska blew a 21-7 halftime lead to the Gophers, who seized control of the game without star running back David Cobb. In 2013, the Gophers dominated Nebraska on both sides of the ball in Minneapolis. Minnesota is not the most talented team that you'll see - but they are the best coached team around, and will outplay you if you don't bring your "A" game. (Ask Iowa, who lost 51-14 to Minnesota last season.)
But the 2015 Gophers need to replace their top two playmakers on offense. Running back David Cobb literally came out of nowhere in 2013 to seize the starting job midway through the season, and last year rushed for 1,629 yards and 13 touchdowns, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors. Cobb didn't exactly get the respect he deserved in conference play with guys like Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon stealing the spotlight last season. Cobb heads south to Tennessee as the fifth round draft pick of the Titans, leaving a huge hole that won't be filled by one guy. It looks like Minnesota will turn to a tag team of senior Rodrick Williams (5'11" 229 lbs.) and sophomore Berkley Edwards (5'9" 192 lbs.) William brings the thunder as a power back; he scored on a 19 yard run on fourth down last season in Lincoln in relief of the injured Cobb. Edwards brings lightning; he's the brother of former Michigan receiver Braylon and a former Michigan state champion sprinter. He played a bit in the non-conference part of the season, but not much during the conference schedule as a freshman. Even though Minnesota will surely depend on the run this season, the Gophers won't be as effective at it this season.
Tight end Maxx Williams declared early for the NFL Draft, going in the second round to Baltimore and leaving a huge hole behind in Minnesota. There are plenty of tight ends on the roster (senior Lincoln Pisek at 6'4" and 260 lbs., sophomore Brandon Lingen at 6'5" and 245 lbs., sophomore Nate Wozniak at 6'10" and 267 lbs, and sophomore Duke Anyanwu at 6'4" and 239 lbs) - but none with the playmaking ability of Williams. Senior receiver K.J. Maye (5'10" 199 lbs.) is the leading returning receiver - 16 catches for 298 yards and one touchdown in 2014. Eight of those catches came in the last three games of the season, so he might be starting to come into his element in the Gopher offense. Junior Drew Wolitarsky (6'3" 217 lbs.) was impressive as a true freshman (15 catches for 259 yards), though injuries limited him to just ten catches for 106 yards in a half-season. The player to keep an eye on is freshman Jeff Jones (6'0" 207 lbs.), who was ineligible last fall due to academic concerns. The MVP of the 2014 Under Armour All-American game wowed coaches this spring with his playmaking ability, so they decided to move him to receiver to get him on the field more this season. Look to see him line up anywhere and everywhere (except quarterback and on the line) this season as they look to get him touches.
Up until last season, Jerry Kill had a tendency to rotate quarterbacks, but last year, junior Mitch Leidner (6'4" 236 lbs.) played well enough to hold the job. Or maybe it was the one for seven passing performance by backup Chris Streveler (6'2" 227 lbs) against San Jose State when Leidner was out with a knee injury that convinced Kill to stick with Leidner when he was healthy. Leidner rushed for 600 yards and ten touchdowns last season while completing 51.5% of his passes for 1,798 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. 111 of his rushing yards (and two of his touchdowns) came against the Huskers in that road upset. It's clearly Leidner's show, though Streveler does periodically enter the game for some designed quarterback runs; Streveler rushed 36 times for 235 yards and a touchdown in 2014.
Much like their neighbor to the east, Minnesota has built a reputation for solid offensive lines, and the Gophers should be solid once again, even though they have to replace a second team all-Big Ten honoree this season. Senior Josh Champion (6'5" 310 lbs.) has started every game in his career, mostly at tackle, but will move inside to right guard to make room for juniors Ben Lauer (6'7" 314 lbs) at left tackle and Jonah Pirsig (6'9" 324 lbs.) at right tackle. Lauer was a freshman all-American in 2013, but was limited by injuries last season.
Minnesota's defense won't lead the league, but it's solid all over - especially with seven returning starters and most of the key reserves. Up front, senior defensive end Thieren Cockran (6'6" 257 lbs.) will lead the charge; he's a second team preseason all-Big Ten pick by Phil Steele. In 2014, he had 23 tackles - seven for a loss. He should be the Gophers' top pass rusher this season. Sophomore nose tackle Steven Richardson (6'0" 291 lbs.) was forced into action when Scott Ekpe tore his ACL in the 2014 season opener. Now Ekpe is expected to be ready to return to pair up with Richardson, which should make Minnesota's rush defense stronger in 2015. Younger brother Hank Ekpe (6'5" 244 lbs.) had an impressive spring and is expected to start at the other defensive end spot.
The last two years, Minnesota has had to replace two starting linebackers, so only having to replace one would usually be a good thing. Except when the guy you lost was a first team all-Big Ten honoree and fourth round NFL draft pick in Damien Wilson, of course. Senior outside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (6'5" 241 lbs.) is the leading returning tackler from last year with 75 (6.5 for a loss); he's a third team preseason all-Big Ten honoree by Phil Steele. Junior Jack Lynn (6'3" 240 lbs.) started seven games last season at the other outside linebacker position with 57 tackles. The leading candidate to replace Wilson in the middle appears to be junior Cody Poock, who redshirted last season after tearing his ACL in March 2014. Poock had 17 tackles in this year's Minnesota spring game and 73 tackles in 2013 for Iowa Western Community College.
Three of four starters return in the secondary, with senior cornerbacks Briean Boddy-Calhoun (5'11" 188 lbs.) and Eric Murray (6'0" 196 lbs.) both being named by Phil Steele to his second team preseason all-Big Ten list. Murray is the corner that quarterback's shy away from, though Boddy-Calhoun makes them regret that choice with his five interceptions and nine pass break-ups last season. This pair should be even better in 2015. Senior safety Damarius Travis (6'2" 215 lbs.) also returns after a 61 tackle and two interception junior season where he split time with senior Antonio Johnson (6'0" 211 lbs.), who added 33. This is an experienced secondary who looks to be even better in 2015.
When Nebraska joined the Big Ten, fans pointed to Wisconsin as a preferred rival while conference administrators selected Iowa as a rival. But in Big Ten history, the best rivalries have developed organically, with trophies evolving from the play on the field. Iowa and Minnesota play for Floyd of Rosedale, a brass pig that commemorates a 1934 bet between the governors of the states. Minnesota and Wisconsin play for Paul Bunyan's Axe, with the winning team using the axe to mockingly chop down the goal posts. Last season, an Twitter conversation between mascot Goldy Gopher and Faux Pelini led to the creation of the "Bits of Wooden Chair Trophy" for last season's game.
And Minnesota proudly carried it off the field and back to the Twin Cities.
Nebraska's first true Big Ten rivalry trophy, sadly, has never been in the possession of the Huskers. Will Mike Riley's team be able to claim the trophy that Faux Pelini helped create and Bo Pelini couldn't win? Oddsmakers and predictors mostly assume the Huskers will, but just like last year, I think most people are once again underestimating the Gophers. Nebraska is certainly more talented than the Gophers, but the Gophers have been the best coached team in the league in recent years and have beaten several teams that didn't bring their "A" game to face the Gophers. I don't see that changing in 2015. Underestimate the Gophers at your own peril.