1. What have you been able to learn about Minnesota, considering it has only played three games (all at home) and the competition has been so-so (at best)?
I've learned that the offense looks much improved from previous seasons, with new coordinator Jay Johnson and new line coach Bart Miller. Minnesota's been able to stay balanced on offense so far, but more importantly, the offensive line has been able to open run lanes for the backs and protect Mitch Leidner. Minnesota's offensive line had been struggling in the previous seasons, and they're now one of the strengths on this team as the Gophers are rushing for more than 200 yards per game on the ground and already have double digit rushing scores. I've also learned that a healthy Leidner is fun to watch. He had often been injured to this point in his career, and now that he's fully healthy heading into the Big Ten schedule, it'll be interesting to see what Minnesota can do.
The defense is still a work in progress as Minnesota's working in the 4-3, 3-4 and 2-4-5. So with three different looks on defense, the Gophers are working on perfecting each. Minnesota's secondary has had some growing pains, as well. Three defensive backs are currently suspended, including starter KiAnte Hardin, so the Gophers have been vulnerable through the air.
2. How much different is this program in the first full season under Tracy Claeys than it was under his friend and mentor, Jerry Kill?
Not too different at all. Claeys made the decision last November to part with longtime friend and coach Matt Limegrover (now Penn State's OL coach) and QB coach Jim Zebrowski, and he's tried to make his own stamp on this program.
Most of the coaches from Kill's staff are still here and you see many of the same philosophies with Claeys as you did with Kill. Where I think Claeys differs from Kill is Tracy is much more analytical and he's not afraid to take chances. Jerry Kill teams were very risk-averse, and Claeys isn't afraid to go make some gutsy calls if he believes his team can execute and convert.
3. Mitch Leidner has only one interception on 76 pass attempts. He's also only been sacked once. How much better is he as a decision-maker this year than he was last season?
Much, much improved as a decision-maker.
As to what's changed from previous seasons for Leidner, that's a good question. Some would point to his health, as he played on a torn tendon in his foot in all of 2015, so anytime he planted on that foot, he'd be in some serious pain. Maybe it's because, as you point out, the offensive line is actually giving him legitimate time to go through his progressions in the pocket, and he doesn't have to worry about being annihilated when he gets to the top of his drop. It also might be the new offense, as Jay Johnson has much fewer plays than what Matt Limegrover and Jim Zebrowski had, and so Leidner is able to grasp more of their concepts.
Whatever the reason, Leidner needs to keep making smart decisions with the ball, as it's allowing Minnesota's offense to be very efficient while on the field.
4. The Gophers rank 10th in the Big Ten and 56th nationally in scoring defense, which does not seem very good considering the quality of competition they've faced. FCS program Indiana State even scored 28. Can you give us a scouting report on what's going on there?
They're going through some growing pains.
As I mentioned earlier, Minnesota's defense is attempting to run the 4-3, 3-4 and 2-4-5, and they're just not staying as a consistent as they need to be with their play. Through three games thus far, the Gophers defense has played extremely well on 90 percent of plays, but it's those 10 percent where there's a blown coverage or mental lapse or some missed tackles that lead to be a big play or penalties, which have been a major issue for Minnesota through three games (27 penalties already). It's really just inconsistent play.
Minnesota hasn't had its starting corner, and is dealing with some injuries, but this is the best defensive line Minnesota's had in the Kill/Claeys era. The Gophers have some talent at linebacker and in the secondary, but they're young. Minnesota played four true freshmen on defense last week, and two were true starters. Anytime you're playing that many young guys, no matter how talented they are, they're going to take some lumps as they learn.
So the scouting report would be that Minnesota's defense is talented, but just needs to stay consistent against Penn State.
5. What is your score prediction for this game and why?
I honestly could see this game going either way, and it may be a true 50/50 game for either team. Will Minnesota be able to move the ball, and more importantly for this offense, run the ball against a Penn State defense? Can Minnesota's linebackers not over-pursue on their run fit, so Saquon Barkley won't have enormous cut back lanes to go to if things break down in front of him?
Penn State's listed as a three-point home favorite, which again, makes this essentially a toss up. The Gophers have high expectations for this season in the Big Ten West, which looks pretty open depending on how you view Wisconsin right now, and if you're going to truly compete, Penn State is a team you have to beat.
I have this being a relatively high scoring game as I think Barkley goes over 100 yards with a score, but I also believe Minnesota's able to find success on the ground.
I'm going to go with a 31-30 Minnesota victory, as the Gophers keep the Governor's Victory Bell.