1. OK, what the heck happened Saturday against Rutgers? Minnesota's better than that, right?
Minnesota let the foot slip off the gas pedal after the first quarter, and specifically on offense, they were never able to find it again. After three very easy drives down the field against the Rutgers defense in the first quarter that all resulted in touchdowns, Minnesota only managed six points from their offense the rest of the day. On defense, Rutgers came out physical at the point of attack, and were able to move the ball on some designed quarterback runs that it didn't appear the Gophers were anticipating. Minnesota was also without a few defensive backs on defense due to some legal issues, and one being their starting corner KiAnte Hardin who had interceptions in back to back games before missing this weekend's game. His impact on this entire defense has been profound as when he's played, this defense is a different beast. He's expected back for this weekend's game.
Minnesota has yet to play a complete game this year, and that's the reason they're 5-2 and not 7-0. If the offense is having a good day, then the defense struggles or vice versa. The Gophers need to play a complete game here starting this weekend if they want to be contenders in the Big Ten West.
2. Minnesota, like Illinois, awarded its interim coach with a short-term contract after last season. Unlike Bill Cubit, Tracy Claeys was given at least a season to show what he's got. The Gophers are off to a 5-2 start and one win away from bowl eligibility. How would you evaluate the transition to Claeys and what is the level of support for him from the athletic department and from the fan base?
The transition from Kill to Claeys was pretty seamless, and Claeys has made the moves in the off-season that were necessary. He fired offensive coordinator / offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, and when you look at where Minnesota struggles on offense, those two positions will stand out. Minnesota has not recruited well at either position, and that needed to change.
As far as the fan base support, I'd say that's questionable at best. Most fans have not been pleased with the amount of close wins against "inferior" opponents this season, and the two close losses to Iowa and Penn State hurt as well. Those are two games that Minnesota has multiple chances to win, and arguably should have won. It comes back around to that complete game thing we were talking about earlier. Claeys' future will be decided on these next five games.
3. Honestly, I was shocked to see Todd McShay last spring label Mitch Leidner as a first-round prospect. How would you evaluate he and the Minnesota offense so far this season?
Mitch Leidner is not a first round draft pick, and he should have never been labeled as such. Leidner has been fine this season for Minnesota, and while he has turned the ball over in four straight games, he's not the biggest issue with this Minnesota offense.
The biggest issue with Minnesota's offense is the lack of big-play ability. The Gophers rank dead last in terms of team's longest completion, as Minnesota's longest completion on the season is only 34 yards, and the Gophers gained that last week. The next worst team has a completion of 44 yards. They don't have the field stretchers as the receiving options are lacking that separation, and they don't really have a guy that can take a bubble screen or a slant and make a big play out of it. Minnesota only has TWO plays of 50+ yards on the season, and while I don't know where that ranks nationally, I'd have to imagine very close to the bottom.
This offense is carried by sophomore running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, as both have been creating yardage for this team, when it may not necessarily be there. They are the catalysts to this Minnesota offense and it's hard to imagine where Minnesota would be without them.
4. Under Jerry Kill, Minnesota earned the reputation of a physical defense with a talented secondary. How has that identity sustained or shifted into 2016? And who are some key defensive players for Illini fans to watch out for on Saturday?
It's been about the same this season when Minnesota's had sophomore corner KiAnte Hardin at their disposal. He allows defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel to be more creative with his front seven in terms of generating pressure and stopping the run, and safety Damarius Travis has been outstanding this season.
Defensive tackle Steven Richardson has been fantastic this season for Minnesota as he's been getting constant penetration into backfields and he's been causing havoc in the run and pass game. Linebacker Jonathan Celestin is playing at a high level as he has 22 solo tackles in the last few weeks as well.
5. What are the keys to a Minnesota victory on Saturday and what is your score prediction?
Minnesota's got to find some big plays on offense, and because they're not happening organically, they have to start being creative with their play calls and design to manufacture this big plays. I expect Minnesota to do what they've done the last few games which is put the ball in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks' arms 20 times a game and see them create and make plays. I'm really hoping for a big play in the passing game, but with tight end Brandon Lingen out for the remainder of the year, it's going to have to come from Drew Wolitarsky or Rashad Still.
With Hardin back, I think this Minnesota defense will regain their form, and if the offense can find some sustained success, the Gophers should emerge with their third consecutive Big Ten victory.
Minnesota 24, Illinois 20