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Reviewing the 2017 Minnesota Golden Gophers

The Gophers are 1-5 in Big Ten play.

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Has P.J. Fleck’s boat sprung a leak?

After a 3-0 start (including an impressive 48-14 victory over Oregon State), the Gophers are 1-5 in Big Ten games. Except for last Saturday’s loss to Michigan, the games have all been close.

Make fun of the suggestions that Tanner Lee, er, Mitch Leidner was an NFL caliber quarterback all you want, but it’s clear this year how good Leidner was for the Gophers. Senior Connor Rhoda started the first six games, but has since been benched in favor of sophomore Demry Croft. Rhoda’s numbers weren’t horrible, completing 54% of his passes for five touchdowns with four interceptions. But Croft’s youth and mobility won out in the end. Croft has averaged 3.1 yards per carry while Rhoda nets under two feet a carry, considering sacks. Croft’s passing leaves a lot to be desired, completing just 42% of his passes for four touchdowns and four interceptions.

It’s become a three-man committee at running back for the Gophers, with Rodney Smith leading with 171 carries for 665 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Shannon Brooks has missed three games this season, including last weekend against Michigan; he’s rushed for 369 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. On his radio show Tuesday night, Fleck said that Brooks is in undergoing the concussion protocol and is questionable for Saturday’s game. Kobe McCrary has seen his workload increase in Brooks’ absence, though he left the Michigan game with a neck injury. McCrary is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, rushing for 314 yards and five touchdowns this season.

Sophomore Tyler Johnson is really the Gophers’ only weapon in the passing game, catching 32 passes for 620 yards and seven touchdowns. The rest of the squad has 64 catches for 705 yards and two touchdowns. The Gophers’ offensive line will be shuffled up again this week, as Connor Olson will shift from right guard to center to replace Jared Weyler, who left last week’s game on crutches. Left tackle Donnell Greene was ejected last week for punching Michigan’s Tyree Kinnell in the second half. While the Big Ten won’t be enforcing any additional punishment, Fleck has said that Greene’s punishment will “probably” carry over into this week.

Minnesota’s defense finds itself pretty consistently in the middle of the Big Ten in all but one category: 7th in scoring defense, 5th in total defense, 9th in rush defense but 2nd in pass defense. This might be the weekend to get Nebraska’s rushing attack figured out, especially considering the weather calls for a rain and snow mix. The Gophers defense is led by linebackers Thomas Barber and Jonathan Celestin, who have 82 and 64 tackles respectively. Sophomore linebacker Carter Coughlin leads the Gophers with 4.5 sacks this season. In the secondary, junior safety Jacob Huff leads the Gophers with three interceptions and is fourth in tackles with 43. Cornerback Antonio Shenault returned last week after missing two games due to injury; he’s still third on the team in tackles with 46. Safety Antoine Winfield and cornerback Kiondre Thomas have missed much of the last month with injuries; Winfield could be out for the season and seek a medical redshirt.

Now that Team Jack has assumed sponsorship as one of two “CHAIR”-ities promoting the rivalry, it’s clear that the Broken Chair Trophy is now once again front-and-center as Nebraska’s Big Ten trophy game. (Sorry, overpriced supermarket.) Why the Nebraska athletic department hasn’t embraced this trophy doesn’t make sense, especially since Minnesota is the only Big Ten West opponent that hasn’t defeated Mike Riley.

And considering Minnesota’s issues on offense this season, that could end up being the biggest accomplishment of Mike Riley’s tenure in Lincoln. Below the jump, the rest of the preseason preview of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Minnesota marked their best season of football since 2003 (and just their second nine win season in 112 years) ... by firing their football coach? Granted, Tracey Claeys might not have been the most inspired choice to replace Jerry Kill, though it’s tough to reconcile the results with the choice. And yes, Claeys was undone by off-the-field issues, not the results on the scoreboard.

It’s also pretty likely that Minnesota decided to act once they felt they could land the hot, up-and-coming mid-major coach in P.J. Fleck. Say what you will about about his showmanship and flamboyance, getting Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl is no small achievement. While “Row Your Boat” will undoubtely cause opposing fans to “Roll Their Eyes”, if it works as will in Minneapolis as it did in Kalamazoo, Gopher fans won’t care.

In July, Fleck wanted to pick between sophomore quarterback Demry Croft (6’5” 200 lbs.) and senior Conor Rhoda (6’3” 215 lbs.) But as the season opener approaches, neither has claimed the job, opening up talk that both will split reps. Rhoda had only thrown two incomplete passes in his career before starting the Maryland game for an injured Mitch Leidner, going 8 for 16 for 88 yards and a touchdown. Croft redshirted last season, but completed 7 of 17 passes for 34 yards in three 2015 games. Croft probably is the more mobile of the two, rushing for 38 yards on nine carries; Rhoda has lost 11 yards on seven career carries. Redshirt freshman Seth Green (6’4” 235 lbs.) flipped from Oregon to Minnesota after Scott Frost left for Central Florida, and is currently running third on the depth chart. Who will it be? Fleck told BTN on their visit that the answer will be both.

Without a clear quarterback, Minnesota will certainly lean on their dynamic running back duo of juniors Rodney Smith (5’11” 205 lbs.) and Shannon Brooks (6’0” 210 lbs.). Smith started 12 games last season, rushing for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Brooks mostly was the backup, rushing for 650 yards ad five touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. And if either gets hurt, senior Kobe McCrary (6’1” 235 lbs.) is ready and waiting; he rushed for 176 yards against Indiana State last season.

Last season, Drew Wolitararsky caught a third of the Gophers’ passes, which means that both sides of the Minnesota passing game need to be rebuilt. Senior Rashad Still (6’5” 205 lbs.) caught 18 passes for 349 yards last season to lead returning receivers. Senior tight end Brandon Lingen (6’5” 250 lbs.) only played sparingly in three games due to foot and shoulder injuries. In 2015, a healthy Lingen caught 33 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns. One guy to keep an eye on sophomore Tyler Johnson (6’2” 185 lbs.) who had 14 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman. He was very impressive this spring, and could be the go-to guy in 2017.

Minnesota’s offensive line was injured and inconsistent last season, with the line being shuffled repeatedly. Senior Garrison Wright (6’4” 320 lbs.) started every game last season: five at left tackle, three at right tackle, three at right guard and two at left guard. Redshirt freshman Conner Olson (6’5” 295 lbs.) looks to jump straight into the starting lineup, probably at left guard. But perhaps the biggest reason to believe the Gophers’ offensive line will improve is the hire of Ed Warinner, the former offensive line coach at Ohio State. Warinner may not have been the greatest offensive coordinator, but his lines were well-respected wherever he’s been. That’s OK, because Fleck brought his Western Michigan offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, with him to Minnesota.

Fleck did not bring Ed Pinkham, his defensive coordinator with him; instead, he hired Arkansas defensive coodinator Robb Smith. Smith worked with Fleck at Rutgers and in Tampa, and was probably both Smith and BERT Bielema were looking for a chance to reset. At Arkansas, Smith’s defenses went from top ten in 2014 to subpar (84th & 85th in scoring and total defense) in 2016.

Going into the season, senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson (6’0” 300 lbs.) looks like the Gophers best defender. A third team all-Big Ten honoree last season, he had 31 tackles with seven sacks. Sophomore defensive end Tai’yon Devers (6’4” 215 lbs.) was impressive last season in pass rush situations who had three sacks and three forced fumbles as a true freshman. The main question this fall is whether Devers can be an everydown player.

Senior middle linebacker Cody Poock (6’2” 230 lbs.) missed half of last season with a shoulder injury. As a sophomore, Poock earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors and was the Gophers’ leading tackler with 99. Senior outside linebacker Jonathan Celestin (6’1” 220 lbs.) was second leading tackler last season with 80. It’ll be interesting to see how the Gophers line up this season; junior Blake Cashman (6’2” 225 lbs.), who led the Gophers with 7.5 sacks last season, and sophomore Thomas Barber (6’1” 240 lbs.) are potential contributors this season.

Both safeties return in the secondary with senior Duke McGhee (6’1” 205 lbs.) and sophomore Antoine WInfield (5’10” 195 lbs.) McGhee outdid Nate Gerry last season with three targeting ejections, and still led the secondary with 52 tackles. Winfield, who’s father made the Pro Bowl three times with the Vikings, had 52 tackles last season as a true freshman. Cornerback is the big question for Minnesota, aside from junior Antonio Shenault (5’11” 180 lbs.), there isn’t much experience to be had. Shenault started five games with 32 tackles in 2016. Redshirt freshman Kiandre Thomas (6’0” 180 lbs.) looks like he’ll get the first look at the other corner spot.

Nebraska’s administration doesn’t want to acknowledge it, but the “$5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy” is truly the Huskers only rivalry trophy, at least in the traditional sense. Officially, Nebraska claims two rivalry trophies: a nebulous “Freedom” trophy for the Wisconsin game and corporate sponsored supermarket trophy for the Iowa game.

Neither mesh with the long history of Big Ten rivalry trophies. Floyd of Rosedale didn’t originate with athletic department administrators, but with the governors of Iowa and Minnesota. The original trophy between Minnesota and Wisconsin was a carving of a slab of bacon by a Minnesota doctor so that the winning team could claim to “bring home the bacon”. It was lost for a few years in the 1940’s and was replaced by “Paul Bunyan’s Axe” by some Wisconsin alumni. The Little Brown Jug originated with Michigan coach Fielding Yost bringing his own water jugs to a game at Minnesota because he didn’t trust the Gophers. In the post-game confusion after the Gophers tied the game at the end, the water jugs ended up being lost by Michigan. When Yost asked Minnesota to return the jugs years later, he was told that he’d have to “win them back.”

Rivalry on.

I get that the “Broken Chair” originated with the internet doppelganger of a former Husker football coach, and that many Nebraskans would just as soon leave that in the past. But that former coach had absolutely nothing to do with this trophy, which more closely matches the other classic rivalry trophies in the Big Ten conference. Certainly much more than the corporate concept trophies that were artificially manufactured in a conference room with a theme that has absolutely no relevance to the games themselves.

The “$5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy” is much closer to the spirit that gave life to Floyd of Rosedale and the Little Brown Jug. It looks cheap and tacky, much like the Old Oaken Bucket. It is exactly what a traditional Big Ten rivalry trophy would look like.

Nebraska may continue to hid it somewhere in a storage closet; that’s OK. The Little Brown Jug was lost for years in Minneapolis. As long as the fans continue to claim it, it’ll stay alive and will eventually make it’s way back onto the field at the end of the game. (Update: IT’S BACK!)