We’re about ready to find out how much we know & don’t know about the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who come to Lincoln Saturday night for a clash with the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Our SBNation buddies The Daily Gopher, who cover Minnesota sports, are good folks you should be following as well this weekend. IowaGopher, as much as we’d like to tease him, was a champ and helped me out with these questions.
We thank them, and again invite you to head over there for their coverage of this weekend as well. If you do, you can check out our Q/A with them that came out today as well.
1. Minnesota is about as quiet a 7-2 record as you could probably get. They have a set of 3 game & 4 game winning streaks sandwiching one loss that looks pretty good right about now (Penn St.) and one odd looking one (Iowa). What’s the general feeling of this team as they head to Lincoln this Saturday?
It's been an interesting week, because the Gophers are 7-2 but, as you said, no one seems to care, to be quite honest. Even some Gopher fans are having trouble mustering excitement, and the reason for that seems to be the early season losses to Penn State and Iowa. Both were winnable games, and both were played with trophies on the line. To come up empty-handed on both has taken the luster out of the 7-2 record, especially considering the subpar level of competition so far this season.
But I think the next three weeks will ultimately tell the tale of this season, and it all starts with Nebraska. Gopher fans seem to be anticipating this game as a measuring stick for their team. If Minnesota wins, then they're a serious contender in the Big Ten West and their record is no longer a mirage. If Minnesota loses, it will validate that the Gophers have simply taken advantage of an opportunistic schedule and are nothing more than a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack team.
2. For the most part, the Minnesota offense has clicked this season. From an outsiders view, its seems like how Mitch Leidner goes, so goes this unit. Is that a fair statement, or is there more to it?
I would disagree. I think the assumption coming into this season was that Mitch Leidner would be the focal point of the offense, but that role has been usurped by sophomore running back Rodney Smith. Since returning from a concussion he suffered against Iowa, Leidner hasn't been asked to do too much, and he has struggled at times to find a rhythm in the passing game. The Gophers have been able to overcome that because Smith has been in the backfield -- well, that and the fact that their last four opponents have been Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, and Purdue. But I digress.
Smith entered this season without much fanfare outside the program, in large part because his counterpart at running back, Shannon Brooks, was the more explosive back last year. But Brooks broke his foot in preseason camp and missed the first two games of the season, allowing Smith to take the bulk of the carries -- a stranglehold he has yet to relinquish. He is second only to Saquon Barkley in the Big Ten in rushing, with 954 yards on 177 carries and 13 touchdowns through nine games.
3. Defensively speaking, there has been some inconsistency, looking good against other teams but giving up 32 to Rutgers and 31 to Purdue. Are there many worries about facing a Nebraska crew trying to get healthy and wanting to make a statement after the Ohio State loss?
Prior to Purdue, the Gopher defense struggled in games when sophomore cornerback KiAnte Hardin was not on the field. Now that the obstacles preventing him from playing have been cleared, the secondary is solid. The biggest problem for the defense has been allowing big plays in the passing game. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel accepted the blame for allowing two big pass plays against Purdue that went for touchdowns, and the defense responded by shutting down the Boilermakers in the second half.
The key for Minnesota during their four-game winning streak has been turnovers. They lead the Big Ten in turnover margin. The Gopher defense has forced 16 turnovers in their last five games, and the offense has scored 52 points off those turnovers. If you give this team a short on field offense, there is a good chance they're going to capitalize.
What worries me the most is Tommy Armstrong and whether or not he'll see the field. He seems to be the focal point of the Husker offense and could pose a problem for the Gophers with his athleticism and ability to extend plays. If he plays and the Minnesota defensive front can't pressure or contain him, they'll have trouble getting off the field.
4. What’s the one thing that will give us a tell early about how Minnesota will play in this game?
If the Gophers are able to run the ball effectively and consistently with Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, or both, then Minnesota will be in good shape. The offensive line has been slow to get things rolling early in games this season, but I don't think they can afford a slow start against Nebraska. In the past couple games, Minnesota has also had success catching defenses off guard on first down and taking big shots down the field. It'll be interesting to see if that playcalling continues against Nebraska. If Minnesota is able to sustain long drives in the first quarter, I like their chances of having success against this Husker defense.
5. Give us your prediction of the final score on Saturday night.
I think this is a winnable game for Minnesota, but I don't feel confident enough to predict a Gopher victory. Back in our preseason picks, I circled this as a loss and I see no reason to change that at this point in the season. The wild card will be whether or not Tommy Armstrong plays, because mobile quarterbacks have had a tendency to give the Gopher defense fit over the past couple years. If Armstrong is under center, the Huskers have to like their chances. If the Gophers can get their ground game going though, Nebraska could be in trouble. I think it'll be close, but I'll go with Nebraska 30, Minnesota 28.