Big Ten Game Preview: Minnesota

As the leaves continue to turn, cooler temperatures set in and Homecoming is celebrated in Columbus, the Ohio State football team will turn toward the home stretch with a late-October clash against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers expect to come into Ohio Stadium with a high-powered offense, but will the defense be good enough to allow them to contend?

Oct. 24, Ohio Stadium (Homecoming)
Head coach Tim Brewster
2008 record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten (T-6th)

2008 was a tale of two seasons for the Golden Gophers. Brewster's charges showed rapid improvement on the way to a 7-1 start, but five straight losses to end the season proved that there is still a long way to go in Minnesota. However, good vibes flow through the program, especially with the on-campus TCF Bank Stadium set to open.

What We Know: Adam Weber and Eric Decker will form one of the best strike forces in the Big Ten, and highly sought after target Hayo Carpenter should do nothing but improve the aerial attack.

Major Questions: Will a young offensive line and running game that fell apart at the end of the 2008 season be improved? Will a defense that did the same continue to mature as more talent is added?

Offensive Overview: It's not hard to figure out what happened with the Minnesota offense in 2008.

In the seven games the Golden Gophers won, they averaged 133.1 rushing yards per game and topped 100 in six of the contests. In the six losses, Minnesota did not reach triple digits in any of them and posted an average yardage on the ground of 69.7.

Of course, the Golden Gophers were facing better teams in the losses – of the team's seven wins, four came against nonconference cupcakes and two against the Big Ten's woeful Indiana-based teams – but the above comparison certainly reveals a stark truth about what made the Minnesota offense tick.

It was never going to be easy for the Golden Gophers to run the ball in 2008 given that the offensive line was a young, patchwork group thrown into the fire. The task became harder when Duane Bennett, who looked like a dangerous all-purpose threat coming out of the backfield, lasted just two games before injury ended his campaign.

DeLeon Eskridge did his best when he took over, compiling 678 yards and seven touchdowns, but Minnesota just didn't have the tools to put together an effective ground game once the meat of the conference season hit.

As a result, too much pressure was put on a passing attack that simply couldn't handle it. While Adam Weber proved he's one of the toughest and best quarterbacks in the league last year and Eric Decker showed signs of being a megastar at the college level, there simply weren't enough talented targets that defenses had to take seriously.

By the end of the year, Minnesota was sputtering, averaging just 15.2 points per game while dropping the final five contests.

So what is the plan for improvement in 2009? Well, it has a number of prongs. First, new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has Minnesota ditching the spread offense in favor of a pro-style attack (perhaps he saw the evidence above). Secondly, Minnesota worked out dual-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray quite a bit while Weber was sidelined by injury during the spring, and Gray could provide the element of surprise. He'll almost certainly be part of the Golden Gophers' packages.

Then there was some major work done on the passing game, which included the recruitment of five-star JUCO wideout Carpenter and four-star tight end Ra'Shede Hageman. Getting a major contribution from those players while receiving maturation from last season's green group of wideouts could result in big things for the Golden Gophers.

After Decker's 84-catch, 1,074-yard, seven-touchdown first-team All-Big Ten campaign, much will be expected of the two-sport star. He boasts a solid combination of size, speed, skill and know-how that makes him one of the few No. 1 targets in the league.

The dropoff from Decker to the secondary targets was clear a season ago. Tight end Jack Simmons was next with 36 catches and two touchdowns – he was the only other player to catch more than one TD pass – while the next best wideout was former walk-on Ben Kuznia, who had 31 catches for 310 yards.

Minnesota also likes the skills of sophomores Xzavian Brandon, Brandon Green (who had 20 catches), Da'Jon McKnight and Troy Stoudermire, all of whom got their feet wet a season ago as freshmen.

The Golden Gophers will have Bennett and Eskridge back, so talent might not be a question in the backfield. What will bear watching, however, is the development of the team's offensive line.

The word is the unit struggled during the spring getting used to the new offense, a change that came after comfort amongst the hogmollies was hard to find last year.

Minnesota went through a number of line combinations throughout the early part of the year before landing with Dom Alford at LT, Ryan Wynn at LG, Trey Davis at C, Ned Tavale at RG and Matt Stommes at RT. From left to right, Minnesota was playing a sophomore, a freshman, a freshman, a junior and a junior along the line.

Expect some changes in 2009. Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel, a guard, should move into the starting lineup, while Stommes has been moved to left tackle, pushing Alford one spot over to guard. Brewster was pleased with the cohesion the five-man unit that had been created through the spring.

Improvement will be absolutely key to the team's prospects. In addition to failing to produce a consistent push, the offensive line also allowed 2.31 sacks per game, 10th of 11 Big Ten teams.

Key To The Season (Off): The development of a running game. One might be tempted to write off last year's struggles running the football to injuries and youth. If that's the case, the return to health of Bennett and the experience gained by the offensive line should help the Golden Gophers improve after being the worst rushing team in the league last year.

Defensive Overview: Minnesota rebounded from a historically awful defense in 2007 to merely a bad one in 2008, finishing 10th in the league in yards allowed and sixth in scoring defense.

The dichotomy between the two Big Ten rankings is almost entirely because of the 31 turnovers Minnesota forced, the second-most in the Big Ten behind Iowa's 32. With turnovers being so fickle from year to year, Minnesota will need to post a major improvement in stopping teams from moving down the field.

The Illinois game from a season ago serves to illustrate that purpose. The Fighting Illini compiled 550 yards of total offense but missed a field goal, threw an interception, twice turned the ball over on downs and lost two fumbles. It's hard to sustain such a highwire act from game to game, let alone year to year.

In fact, the gambling Minnesota defense finally fell off the wire during the final losing streak. Three of those opponents topped 400 yards, and the quintet averaged 417.0 yards, 37.0 points – and just 1.4 turnovers, well below the 3.0 that Minnesota's first eight opponents coughed up per game.

The Golden Gophers will need equal improvement when it comes to stopping the run, where they placed eighth in the league, and against the pass, where they occupied 10th in yards per attempt, passing yardage and passing efficiency defense.

Minnesota will also be hurt by the loss to graduation of Willie VanDeSteeg, who paced a squad that topped the Big Ten in sacks with a team-best 10.5 during a dominant senior season from his defensive end spot. No other Gopher had more than four, though that was the number reached by linebacker Lee Campbell and hybrid Simoni Lawrence. In all, eight Gophers had two or more sacks on the year.

Up front, the line will be anchored by tackles Garrett Brown and Eric Small, who combined for 59 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Reserve Jewhan Edwards is a monster run-stuffer as well.

Lawrence and Campbell are playmakers at linebacker, though they have wildly divergent styles. Campbell, who was moved to the middle early last season from defensive end, is a 246-pound mauler who had 80 tackles, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble last year. Lawrence, a freakish athlete who checks in at 6-1, 218 pounds, had 66 stops, 10.5 TFL, an interception, two forced fumbles and a recovery.

The Minnesota coaches also like Keanon Cooper, a redshirt freshman cut from the same cloth as Lawrence.

The secondary got a much-needed infusion of talent last year but still struggled. This year, a major addition is Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston, who will compete for a starting job right away at safety.

That's because the position is a weak point after the academic suspension of Tramaine Brock. Returning starter Kyle Theret is also short on football acumen; his three picks, 2.5 TFL and two fumble recoveries were offset by some big plays he allowed going the other way.

"Big Play" Traye Simmons had a solid first year at corner last year, making 62 tackles and four interceptions to qualify for the All-Big Ten second team, while Marcus Sherels is one of the best athletes on the team on the other side.

Key To The Season (Def): The play of the secondary. This might be the weak link of the entire team, especially the safety spot. Teams near the end of the season torched the Golden Gophers for big plays in the passing game, and that was even with one of the best pass rushes in the Big Ten. Some players there will have to make major steps forward.

Special Teams: The Golden Gophers should have some outstanding special units in 2009. Joel Monroe won't be the best kicker in the Big Ten, but was a solid 12-16 on field goals last year and boasts a strong leg. Improving on his chip shots – he was just 4-6 inside 30 yards – will help. Punter Justin Kucek averaged 41.9 yards per kick, had 15 of 75 tries go 50 or more yards and plopped 22 punts inside the 20.

In the return game, Stoudermire possesses a name Big Ten fans need to know. He's like lightning in a bottle on special teams, a trait that helped him average 25.8 yards per kickoff last year on the league's second-best return unit. He could get a chance on punts, too, but Sherels did pretty darn well last year, averaging 11.9 yards per bring back, second in the conference.

New Name To Know: Carpenter, 5-11, 175, Santa Clarita (Calif.) College of the Canyons – It's hard to find a Big Ten recruit this year who will be more ballyhooed than this speedster. A five-star prospect who was wanted by some of the best schools in the nation, Carpenter elected to attend Minnesota. He will immediately provide more skill in a wideout group that lacked a true complement to Decker last season.

Best Case Scenario: Much of the Golden Gophers' progress will depend on how much the kids have grown up. If the maturation process was a fast one, Minnesota should see jumps forward from some important positions. The opening of a new stadium also should provide momentum; if everything comes together, nine wins aren't out of the question.

Worst Case Scenario: The first eight games of 2008 are proven to be a fluke and Brewster finds out that there are still too many holes on his team to be perceived as a Big Ten contender. Bowl eligibility is expected yet again, but a few major failings in some key areas could make that a tough task.

OSU Game: Ohio State was the first to show the chinks in Minnesota's armor last season, drubbing the Golden Gophers in Ohio Stadium. In a scheduling quirk, Goldy has to return to Columbus in 2009 to face an OSU team that won't be coming off the toughest game of the year at Purdue.

The Buckeyes forced the Golden Gophers to become one-dimensional in 2008, taking away the run game and putting the fate of the contest in the hands of Weber, who didn't have enough time or targets to be successful. With Ohio State returning a tough defensive line, one could see similar problems for the Minnesota offense again this year.

The Golden Gopher defense didn't provide much resistance, either. The unit should keep getting better as 2009 progresses, so it would be hard to predict the Buckeyes will be able to romp in the same fashion as the season before.

But all things considered, this is not a good matchup for Minnesota. The Golden Gophers will have the talent to post a win in Ohio Stadium, especially if they get on a roll, but the odds are on the Buckeyes' side as we sit here in July.

Buckeye Sports Top Stories