With the loss to Wisconsin, Minnesota finished second in their division.
Minnesota Head Coach Jerry Kill is finishing up his 4th year with the Gophers. He took over a down program, and after a 3-9 season in his 1st year, he’s taken the Gophers to three straight bowl games. The Citrus Bowl is their 1st New Year’s Day Bowl since 1962. Coach Kill was recently named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
“Jerry Kill is a great coach,” said Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel. “I’ve known him for years. I have great, great respect for him! They’re a tough, physical team………………………………….. Minnesota is a very well-coached team. They’re disciplined, tough. They have a great running back. The offensive line is very physical. Their quarterback plays well. They pound it in there. Then they play action, and try to go deep. On defense, they’re very physical up front. They’re athletic. They’re just very, very well-coached. They don’t get themselves out of position.”
Minnesota is a tough, physical team that, for Missouri fans, might be reminiscent of a combination of this year’s Arkansas team, or the Collin Klein-led Kansas State teams of about 3-4 years ago. Like Bill Snyder’s teams, they tend not to beat themselves.
“They are a good football team,” said Coach Pinkel, speaking of Minnesota. “Their offense is a little bit like Arkansas’, you know. (It’s) really a power running game, multiple formations, you know, playing a lot of tight ends, trying to get extra bodies at the point of attack. They run, run, run. Then they go down field for the big play with play-action passes. And, (they run) bootlegs. Defensively, they’re very, very sound. They run well. And, they’re very disciplined. You know, they’re just a really good football team.”
On the season, Minnesota outscored their opponents by an average score of 29.3 – 23.4. The Gophers ran the football on 72% of their offensive plays, an average of 47 times a game, and averaged 4.8 yards/carry. They only lost 8 fumbles all year, an average of 1 fumble lost every 71 carries. They were +11 in turnovers on the season. The Gophers converted on 40% of their third-downs, and scored a touchdown on 74% of their red zone incursions.
“We’ve got a good senior group,” said Coach Kill, speaking of the current state of his team. “They’re making sure that the younger guys understand. There’s (good) focus. There’s great enthusiasm! You know, we haven’t been to a January 1 bowl in fifty-two years. So, our fans and our kids, I think everybody’s excited to be here in Florida, no doubt.”
Minnesota’s leading ground gainer is 5’11” 220-pound senior RB David Cobb. He’s the one Coach Pinkel described as a “great running back”. He ran for 1545 yards (5.3 yards/carry) and 13 TDs on 293 carries (24 carries/game). He also averaged one 11-yard reception/game. He’s a work-horse.
The other ‘running back’ in the backfield is 6’4” 237-pound red-shirt sophomore QB Mitch Leidner. He reminds me a little bit of Collin Klein, although schematically, Minnesota’s offense is more like Arkansas’. In addition to their power-I run game, the Gophers also utilize zone-read, and some wing-T, similar to what Auburn does. Leidner is the Gophers second-leading ground gainer, with 462 yards and 10 TDs on 117 carries (3.9 yards/carry). But that includes 138 yards lost due to sacks. So he’s actually averaging over 5 yards/carry in the run game. He’s very good with his sleight of hand and with his reads in Minnesota’s zone read running game. And, when he fakes the ball to Cobb on a run play, he does a good job of hiding the ball, whether it’s a bootleg run-pass option, or a play-action drop-back pass. His passing statistics aren’t as impressive as his rushing stats. On the season, he’s 101-206-8 (49%) for 1540 yards and 10 TDs (120.1 passer efficiency rating). But as you can see, he has averaged over 15 yards/pass completion, so he’s hitting big plays in the passing game.
Remember? “They run, run, run. Then they go down field for the big play with play-action passes.” Like Arkansas, it’s important for Minnesota to stay ahead of the chains. Even when they’re facing third-and-long, they may try to spread the field horizontally with multiple WRs just so they can run a draw, or hit a screen. They try to stretch the field vertically, as well, almost always off of play action.
You’ll see the Gophers line up with multiple tight ends in the formation. And, they’ll overload one side with tight ends to try to outnumber the defense at the point of attack, or to draw the defense away from where they’re really going to run the football. Anything they can do to create a numbers advantage, or to get a defender out of position.
The Gophers leading receiver is their 6’4” 250-pound All-American red-shirt sophomore TE Maxx Williams. On the season, he has 29 receptions for 471 yards (16.2 yards/reception) and 7 TDs. He’s been targeted almost twice as often as any other Minnesota receiver. He’ll block, block, block. Then, he’ll fake a block, and slip out into an open area, or run down the middle of the field.
Minnesota’s starting offensive line-up usually lists a pair of TEs, including 6’5” 269-pound senior Drew Goodger. He’s in there to block. But as soon as you forget to cover him, he’ll be on the receiving end of a play-action pass.
The Gophers also often line up with a fullback in the backfield. And, they occasionally throw the football to their fullback, although Cobb has as many receptions (12 on the season) as all the rest of their backs combined.
Minnesota’s starting line-up usually features just a single WR. The Gophers have dismissed their starting WR, former Missouri commit Donovahn Jones, so they’ll likely go with 6’3” 203-pound senior WR Isaac Fruechte (15 receptions, 278 yards, 1 TD), or 6’3” 226-pound sophomore WR Drew Wolitarsky (10 receptions, 106 yards). Wolitarsky has returned for the Citrus Bowl after missing several games with a high ankle sprain. Then there’s 5’10” 195-pound junior K.J. Maye (13 receptions, 223 yards, 1 TD). He has more carries (21) than receptions. Speed sweeps and end-arounds.
Few college football teams rely on the run more than Minnesota does. But they're not as right at you as they are deceptive. Think shell game.
“They are a big run team," said Missouri Consensus All-American DE Shane Ray, speaking of Minnesota. “They do a great job of running the ball and being able to run play actions off of that, move guys around, and get guys into open space. They just do a good job of switching guys around, and moving them around, and getting their receivers the ball, as well.”
Defensively, Minnesota runs a base 4-3 defense, schematically similar to Missouri’s base defense. It’s likely they’ll play mostly nickel against Missouri. Their safeties like to creep up toward the line of scrimmage, and they’re strong in run support.
Minnesota’s best defensive player is 6’2” 240-pound senior LB Damien Wilson. On the season, he’s made a team-leading 111 tackles, including 10.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, and a QB hurry. He also has an interception and a forced fumble, to go along with 3 PBUs.
Alongside Wilson is 6’5” 241-pound red-shirt junior LB De’Vondre Campbell, who on the season has made 71 tackles, including 6.5 TFLs, and 2.5 sacks, to go along with 1 INT and 1 PBU. Campbell and Missouri’s Markus Golden were roommates at Hutchinson Community College.
The Gophers best defensive back is 5’11” 190-pound junior corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun. On the season, he has a team-high 4 interceptions, and a team-high 8 PBUs, to go along with his 47 tackles.
The captain of the Minnesota defense is 6’0” 208-pound senior safety Cedric Thompson. On the season, he’s made 77 tackles, including 3 TFLs, to go along with 2 INTs, and 1 PBU. He’s also forced a pair of fumbles.
Minnesota’s most-productive defensive lineman is 6’5” 290-pound red-shirt senior Cameron Botticelli, a former walk-on, who on the season has made 28 total tackles, including 9 TFLs, 3 sacks, and 1 QBH.
Except for Wilson and Boddy-Calhoun, the talent and athleticism of Minnesota’s defensive personnel isn’t overly impressive. That's not to say they'e not talented. They’re talented and athletic enough. But they’re effective primarily because they’re tough, physical, and they play smart, sound, disciplined defense. They won’t give you anything, except a hard time. They make you earn everything you get. And, they’ll make you pay for it with their physical, rugged style.
“Minnesota’s a physical defense,” said Missouri senior WR and captain, Bud Sasser. “They’ll play you their cover four look. They’ll play you man. They like to get physical on the outside. They’ve got two good corners.”
In a way, Minnesota’s ball-control offense is their best defense. Their modus operandi is to play keep-away from their opposition, and to limit their opponent’s offensive opportunities. Their +11 turnover margin ranks 8th nationally, so they take the ball away rather than give it away. And when they have the ball, they’re pretty good at keeping it.
Coach Kill said that having some time off from the end of the season until the bowl game has helped his team recover from the rigors of the season.
“I think after a long, tough season, our players have been able to get their legs back, and everybody’s moving around pretty well,” said Coach Kill.
Mitch Leidner weighed in on his expectations for what he called a “huge” game.
“It’s going to be a tough, physical game,” predicted the Minnesota QB.