Gophers trying to deal with distractions
Distractions have become commonplace for the Golden Gophers.
Minnesota takes a 1-3 record into Saturday's Big Ten opener at undefeated Michigan. The players will be dealing with several issues going into the game.
It's unclear if head coach Jerry Kill, who went back into the hospital Sunday after suffering another seizure, will be back on the sidelines. The Gophers are also coming off a shocking 37-24 loss to North Dakota State.
The players are receiving a clear message from the coaching staff this week.
"You've got to get rid of the distractions," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "We won't be good here until we learn to eliminate not worrying about the distractions and worrying about what goes on the football field."
Claeys realizes that's easy to say, but not as easy to accomplish, especially dealing with a team whose confidence has been shaken by Kill's situation and three losses in four games.
"That's our challenge as coaches," Claeys said. "That's why we like to keep each week as normal as you can. It doesn't matter who you play; you do your job to prepare yourself."
There's also the not-so-small detail that the Gophers will be going against 110,000+ hostile fans in a stadium referred to as "The Big House."
"I don't even look at it that way," Claeys said. "I know we're going to go play against a lot of people, but in between the lines, it's the same game. It doesn't matter if you go out on a little field out in the country. It's still football."
--The offensive line had mixed results against North Dakota State. The line didn't give quarterbacks MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell enough time to throw. The Gophers allowed five sacks and the two quarterbacks combined to complete only nine passes. On the other hand, the line opened enough holes for the running game to gain a season-high 168 yards. Backs Donnell Kirkwood and Duane Bennett combined for 130 yards.
--The punting game has improved significantly since 2010, thanks to sophomore Dan Orseske's turnaround season. Orseske is averaging 45.9 yards on 12 punts, which puts the Gophers No. 8 in the country in net punting. Orseske averaged 36.1 yards per punt last season, ranking No. 94 in the nation.
--The Gophers have yet to have a conventional punt return in four games. Duane Bennett's return of a blocked punt for a touchdown against Miami is Minnesota's only punt return of the season.
SERIES HISTORY: Michigan leads Minnesota 69-24-3 (last meeting, 2008, 29-6 Michigan).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell both saw time at quarterback against North Dakota State. That unsettled situation doesn't help the big picture since their strengths are so different. Gray, who is still learning the passing game, likes to take off and run while Shortell is a pocket passer. Gray will start against Michigan, but is coming off the worst game of the season. He completed 5-of-12 passes for 53 yards, no touchdowns and an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Gray also picked up only 23 yards on 13 rushing attempts after cracking the 100-yard mark in his two previous games.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Minnesota allows an average of 26.8 points a game, a total that's a bit inflated since North Dakota State returned two interceptions for touchdowns last week. The Gophers give up an average of 104.8 yards per game on the ground, but that will be tested by Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, the nation's leading rusher, averaging 168.7 yards per game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's tough. So the key will be if we do miss him is that we force him back to where we have help. If he makes three or four of them miss like everybody else, then that's why he's a special player." -- Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota at Michigan, Oct. 1 -- The Little Brown Jug will be on the line for the first time since 2008. Michigan has won 19 of the last 20 in the series. Minnesota's only win in that span came in 2005, a 23-20 victory in Ann Arbor. The Gophers haven't played at Michigan since 2007.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Keep an eye on the quarterback. Of course, that's easier said than done when the quarterback in question is Denard Robinson, who's a nightmare for defensive coordinators. Robinson can hurt a defense with his arm and even more with his legs. Robinson can make a big play even if the defense does everything correctly from covering receivers to pressuring the quarterback.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
CB Brock Vereen -- He's made big strides from his freshman season when he appeared in nine games. Vereen is second on the team with 27 tackles, including 2 1/2 for a loss of yardage. He's also recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass and broken up four other passes.
LB Gary Tinsley -- The senior is having another solid season. Tinsley is third on the team with 26 tackles. He plays well against the run and the pass. Tinsley has two tackles for a loss of yardage while breaking up two passes and defending two others.
RB Duane Bennett -- He gained a team-high 74 yards on 13 carries against North Dakota State. Bennett ran 70 yards on seven attempts in the first half.
RB Donnell Kirkwood -- He rushed for a career-high 70 yards on 10 carries and two touchdowns against North Dakota State. Kirkwood ran for a 30-yard score in the second quarter.
--LB Brendan Beal has missed all four games because of a knee injury. The transfer from Florida has been taking part in drills to test the knee, but hasn't returned to practice.
--OT Josh Campion sustained a concussion in fall practice and has missed all four games. He could return in a couple of weeks.
--WR A.J. Barker has missed the first four games with a hamstring injury.
The TSX Files: Minnesota Midweek
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