In just his second season, Jerry Kill has already helped to revitalize the Minnesota football program. Although there is still work to be done, the Golden Gophers stormed out of the gate in 2012, winning their first four games.
These wins came against less than formidable opponents, including Syracuse, but in a struggling Big Ten, any victory comes as a positive.
The Gophers already surpassed their 2011 win total, and maintain a solid home-field advantage. Of the seven wins in the Jerry Kill era, six have taken place within the confines of the relatively new TCF Bank Stadium.
Minnesota on Offense
Many were initially concerned that the injury would turn out to be more serious, but now, Gray appears ready to take the field and see limited action in the NU contest.
Gray saw mixed results against the Cats last season. He struggled in the passing game, completing only nine of 21 throws for 124 yards with an interception. Gray found success with his feet, gaining 160 yards on 27 attempts in the 28-13 loss.
It remains to be seen how Gray fares in game action. Kill figures to ease his dynamic pivot in. Regardless of how many snaps he takes, Gray provides another challenge for the NU defense in terms of preparation.
In his absence, Max Shortell lined up under center. The sophomore posted strong numbers in the win against Western Michigan, throwing three touchdowns. He also managed the game well enough to earn a 17-10 victory over Syracuse.
Shortell struggled at Iowa, with three interceptions— the first time a Gophers quarterbacks had thrown that many since 2009. Kill said the receivers needed to do a better job of helping their quarterback. Against an inconsistent NU secondary, Shortell has a shot at redemption.
Donnell Kirkwood emerged as the primary running back for Minnesota this season. Kirkwood averaged more than 90 yards per contest heading into the Iowa matchup, but the Hawkeyes held him to only 33 yards. The sophomore looks to bounce back, and will likely receive double-digit carries as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover tries to implement the run game.
Factoid: Minnesota has a coach, Nate Griffin, dedicated to "offensive quality control." Not sure what his role entails, but I'd bet Griffin is also hoping to rebound from the Iowa loss.
The offensive line, which was expected to improve this season, has done fairly well. The unit allowed seven sacks in the first four games, but opened up holes for the running game.
The NU defensive line played perhaps its poorest game of the season against Penn State, as it struggled to pressure Matt McGloin throughout the afternoon. The Gophers look to protect their two quarterbacks and prevent an improved performance from NU.
Minnesota on Defense
Last year, the Minnesota defense was a wreck. During a four-game losing streak – which included a matchup with North Dakota State – the Gophers allowed more than 45 points per game.
Again, the competition has hardly been stout, but the Minnesota defense put together early-season gems in 2012. NU yielded 471 passing yards to Ryan Nassib, as compared to Minnesota, which allowed just 228 to the senior.
Sophomore Derrick Wells, who converted from corner to safety before the season, leads the resurgent defense. Wells, in five games, has tallied 36 tackles, two interceptions, and seven pass breakups. He ranks first on the team in all categories.
After sitting out the final eight games of 2011 with an injury, Troy Stoudermire has played a major role in the team's defensive success, with 31 tackles.
Redshirt senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite continues to inflict pain on opposing quarterbacks. Wilhite is second in the Big Ten with four and a half sacks. Entering the season, he had just four sacks in his entire career.
A team not known for its speed may have trouble stopping a rushing attack led by Kain Colter and Venric Mark. The Gophers' opponents average 139.2 yards on the ground, but the Wildcats pose their greatest challenge to date in that department.
Last year, the Wildcats cruised to a 28-13 victory after a weak effort from Minnesota.
This year's Gophers squad is not the same, though, and the potential two-quarterback system could rattle the NU defense.