What to make of Minnesota?
The Golden Gophers are having what most probably consider a disappointing season.
You can count me in that group as I had them winning the Big Ten West, although I figured they would not have much margin for error. That wasn’t so much a result of a belief they were a superior team as it was a bet they could squeak out wins over the other similar teams in the top half of the West.
Injuries have been a problem for them, but they played up last week against Michigan.
Can they continue that again this week at Ohio State?
I’d guess they’ll go as quarterback Mitch Leidner does. He quite unexpectedly threw for over 300 yards against the Wolverines, but that is a bit of a deceiving number as the Wolverines dropped multiple balls that should have been intercepted. There was a definite feeling as the game went on that he was just getting by on gumption as he was able to put the ball up for grabs on multiple occasions and see his guy come down with it, which is doubly impressive because unlike Connor Cook he does not have a great receiving corps.
Despite also throwing for over 300 yards against Nebraska (which has been abysmal against the pass), Leidner is still only ninth in the Big Ten in passing yards during Big Ten play and seventh in pass efficiency with four interceptions and four touchdowns.
He is not a great athlete, but he can pull the ball and run on the zone read or get tough yards on short-yardage situations.
Overall, the Gophers have been pretty poor offensively, relying on the occasional big play in the running game while Leidner has been OK at executing the short passing game, which is a change from last year.
They have a pair of freshmen tailbacks who have shown some potential in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Both are slasher types who work well in the unique kind of power spread scheme the Gophers run.
The offensive line seems to have taken a step back from last season, when it was pretty good, though pass protection hasn’t been bad.
Leidner misses tight end Maxx Williams, who was by far the biggest threat down the field last season and went pro early, but senior K.J. Maye is a really productive receiver who can be a tough coverage at 5-10, 194. He held his own against Jourdan Lewis of Michigan, making some tough catches against good coverage. On the other side, Drew Wolitarsky is a 6-3, 218-pound junior can be a matchup problem.
Williams’ replacement, Brandon Lingen, had a big game last week against Wolverine and is a good target for Leidner thought he doesn’t seem to be the explosive athlete Williams is.
On defense, Minnesota still has a handful of guys who really stand out.
Tackle Steve Richardson is stout inside and helped the Gophers prevent Michigan from being able to run the ball inside. What success they had was usually on sweeps and counters that broke outside. The ends don’t appear as strong in the running game, but Theiren Cockran has some pass rush ability. Richardson has eight tackles for loss and leads the team with 3.5 tackles for loss.
Minnesota used a very aggressive game plan last year against Ohio State, and you would expect to see that again.
The Gophers have two very good cornerbacks in Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. They can cover and are willing to come up and lay a lick. Both are good tacklers, too. Safety Antonio Johnson, a senior from Shaker Heights, Ohio, has also had a productive season with 55 tackles.
Linebacker is also a strong position for Minnesota. Cody Poock is a plugger inside while De’Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn are playmakers. Lynn has 6.5 tackles for loss. Those guys all play downhill and are very physical.
According to the Football Outsiders advanced stats, the defense has been very good at preventing big plays but struggled at preventing teams from finishing drives. Overall the numbers point more toward a bend-but-don’t-break unit than what we saw against Ohio State last season, so it will be interesting to see what route they take.
Offensively, FO doesn’t show much to like, but the Gophers have been average on standard downs while they have also struggled to finish drives.
This might not be the best week for Ohio State to have to rely solely on Cardale Jones at quarterback.
The Golden Gophers appear to have the personnel to bother what the Buckeyes do best with Jones at the helm, so game planning could be a bit tricky. Of course, Braxton Miller is a pretty nice trump card for the OSU coaching staff to have.
On the flip side, it’s hard to see Minnesota getting much going against the Ohio State defense.