In Focus: Scouting Minnesota

As Syracuse heads out to its first road game of the 2012 season, take an in-depth look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

History under Head Coach Jerry Kill:

Kill is in the midst of his sophomore year at the helm of the Golden Gophers' football program. Last year, in his first season with Minnesota, Kill amounted a record of 3-9, leaving much to desire in the Big Ten Conference.

But Kill is no newcomer to the headset-on-the-sidelines' position. This is Kill's 19th season as a head coach. His overall record stands at 133-82, including Minnesota's 3-0 start in their young season.

Offensively for Minnesota:

Change at center. Starting quarterback MarQueis Gray will not be activated for the Golden Gophers match with the Orange, according to Kill. Gray is a dual threat, serving as a quarterback who essentially is a running back who also can pass.

In three games, Gray has been balanced, trying 44 attempts through the air and 45 on the ground. He has seven total touchdowns this season, five passing and two rushing. Gray has the big play ability, too, on the ground, as seen in his 75-yard ground gainer this season.

If Gray's sprained ankle does indeed keep him from competition against the Orange, Syracuse's defense will be prevented from facing another running quarterback. Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter's ability to run through Syracuse's defense illustrated the weaknesses the Orange still have at stopping a quarterback who utilizes his legs.

However, as Syracuse football head coach Doug Marrone has stated, "…to label Max Shortell as a backup would be unfair…" Shortell is technically the backup on Minnesota's depth chart, but he did not play like someone unworthy of a starting job at center when he came in for an injured Gray last week.

With about four minutes to go in the second quarter, Gray went out after a running play. In came Shortell, leading the Golden Gophers to a touchdown on this his first drive at quarterback for Minnesota this season. Shortell completed two passes of more than 20 yards on that drive. He would go on to lead the Golden Gophers to two more touchdowns. Shortell was three-for-three on his first three opportunities to score, all coming off of passes. Hew finished the game 10 of 17 for 188 yards, those three touchdowns, and one interception.

Shortell will provide trouble for an Orange secondary that is still growing. Cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson still lacks good coverage in one-on-one situations. Fellow cornerback Brandon Reddish is day-to-day after suffering what Marrone has called a "lower body injury" during last week's game versus Stony Brook.

Cornerback Keon Lyn had the best coverage by any Syracuse corner against the Seawolves last week, but has been inconsistent through the first three games.

The lack of consistency and possible loss of a starter in Reddish leave the Orange vulnerable yet again to the pass.

But, Syracuse does have some talented corners on their bench in Jaston George and Julian Whigham. Both had the best man coverage during Fall camp, with George edging Whigham in that category due to more pass breakups.

On the receiving end. Though Shortell has not been the starter in Minnesota's first three games, receivers are no stranger to him. Even before his impressive performance last week against Western Michigan, Shortell was getting opportunities. He was 5 or 6 for a total of 72 yards, including one touchdown in the game before versus New Hampshire. In that game, Gray only attempted two more passes than Shortell.

The receiver among everyone in the core that is no stranger to a respectable performance has been A.J. Barker. Barker had five catches for a total of 101 yards, averaging a little over 20 yards per catch, including three of Minnesota's four touchdowns last week.

2 for 29 versus New Hampshire, one for a touchdown

In the Golden Gophers' first match of the season, Barker totaled 101 yards once again, this time on a mere three catches, averaging over 30 yards per catch.

Barker's only game where he has not surpassed 100 yards receiving was in week two against New Hampshire, where he caught two balls for a total of 29 yards. But Barker still stayed productive, turning one of those receptions into a touchdown.

When Syracuse played Stony Brook last week, the Seawolves were coming in with one big yardage receiver in Kevin Norrell. Despite having only one real deep threat, the Orange still struggled to stop Norrell at times, giving up a 63-yard passing play to Norrell for a touchdown.

It is not difficult to see that Syracuse will then have trouble with Barker, who has been able to make the most of receptions in his first three games, gaining over 100 yards in two of three contests.

Ground presence. Donnell Kirkwood had by far the most carries of any running back on the Golden Gophers' squad last week with 23, compared to Gillum's four. On his 23 carries, Kirkwood amassed 110 yards, averaging almost five yards per carry. But he did not find the end zone.

Kirkwood also led all running backs in carries the week before with 17. Devon Wright was the closes to Kirkwood with 3. On his 17 carries, Kirkwood achieved 70 yards and a touchdown.

The week before, in their season-opener, was the only game so far this season that Kirkwood did not have the most carries among the running back core. But, he was only behind by one, getting 13 chances to teammate James Gillum's 14. Nevertheless, Kirkwood made more of his opportunities, gaining 81 yards to Gillum's 51, leading all backs for Minnesota. Gillum, however, score the only rushing touchdown in that game for the Golden Gophers.

Syracuse must account for all backs. Each team they have faced so far has had more than one threat on the ground. Through three games, the Orange are allowing 180 rushing yards per game.

Gillum was brought in as a junior college transfer after gaining 2,339 yards on the ground over two seasons. His teammate, Kirkwood, has been the most productive running back on the team thus far, with 261 rushing yards through Minnesota's first three games.

The defensive line as well as the linebacker core of Syracuse gave themselves a difficult road to come back from, after allowing almost their season average of 180 rushing yards per game in the first half alone against Stony Brook last week. The first two lines of Syracuse's defense have been unsuccessful more often than not in containing the run.

The positive for the Orange going into this game is that after allowing almost 180 rushing yards in the first half versus the Seawolves, they gave up a mere 45 yards on the ground in the second half. If Syracuse can take their second-half tackling from last week's game and establish an earlier stance against the run versus Minnesota, they stand to give the offense more opportunities to be in the game and get ahead early.

Protection. Passing and running do not just become successful elements of the game via the quarterback and running back positions. Minnesota has experience on the line with three out of the five places at the line being filled by returning starters. Ed Olsen, Jr., came back to take his place at left tackle, Tommy Olson is at left guard, and Zac Epping at right guard. Zach Mottia won the job of center and was involved in six games last season, while right tackle Josh Campion is the only lineman that came into this season without game experience as a Golden Gopher.

The offensive line has given up five sacks over three games, with two of those three games ending with only one sack against their protection.

Going into their match-up with Syracuse, the health of Minnesota's center Mottia may play a factor after his undisclosed injury occurred earlier this week.

Syracuse's pass rush was quieted last week by Stony Brook, amounting no sacks. But in the previous two games, the Orange accumulated seven sacks. Consistency comes into play again in this area of Syracuse's game. If the pass rush shows up from the first two games, the Orange have an opportunity to disrupt Shortell and the offense. If the defensive line looks like it did against Stony Brook, then Shortell, a better passer than Kyle Essington of Stony Brook, will have plenty of opportunities to test the Syracuse secondary, an area of concern for the Orange.

Defensively for Minnesota:

End game. Defensive ends Michael Amaefula, Ra'Shede Hageman, and D.L. Wilhite have all attained sacks this season. Wilhite leads the group with 3.5, with Hageman close behind at three, and Amaefula with 1.5.

Right tackle Lou Alexander will have to have a better outing against Minnesota than he has had in the first three games, especially against these three gentlemen.

The good news for Syracuse is that Sean Hickey has been taking care of the left side of the line well in the absence of Justin Pugh. If Alexander can stay away from penalties and put his body on his defenders more, the entire line will prove difficult to penetrate.

But even with Alexander's troubles, the Orange protection has been better than last season for quarterback Ryan Nassib, allowing the offense to move the ball more than they did in 2011.

Veteran leadership in the middle. Every starting linebacker has returned from last season with Mike Rallis, Keanon Cooper, and James Manuel. Rallis, Cooper, and Manuel all reside in the top five in tackles for Minnesota this season. Rallis is second in assisted tackles for the Golden Gophers with 10 and second in overall tackles with 26. All but Cooper have had tackles for losses this season among the three aforementioned linebackers.

The Orange can run the ball. They have the depth. They have experience. They have running backs with more than just running ability. But they have to find what is working and stay with it. Syracuse may be moving the chains with Gulley catching passes, then he is taken out for Smith to run the ball, or vice versa. Knowing which one of your backs is providing the best chance to score is vital to the Orange capitalizing on offensive opportunities.

There should never be an all-out drought on the ground for Syracuse because they have too many weapons. Against Minnesota, they are facing linebackers that can and have taken players down when given an opportunity. But with so many ways to attack the Golden Gophers or anyone for that matter, the Orange should have no excuse why running the ball would be a concern, especially since running back Ashton Broyld appeared more comfortable than he has been in last week's game versus Stony Brook.

Against the pass. Free safety Derrick Wells, strong safety Brock Vereen, and cornerback Michael Carter come into this game against Syracuse with at least one interception each. Wells leads the secondary with two.

Wells and Carter, along with interceptions, have prevented five passes each in their first three games.

Cornerback Troy Stoudermire, despite no interceptions or pass breakups, has had success in the tackling game, amassing 19 total tackles, good for third best on the team.

The good news for Syracuse is that although Minnesota has many productive players in the secondary, the Orange have Nassib, who has picked apart defenses, win or lose, in his first three matches this season. Nassib has thrown for 1,139 yards and has a touchdown to interception ratio of three to one, with a total of nine touchdowns to three interceptions. His completion percentage has risen every season from 52.9% when he began in 2009 to 66%, where it currently stands.

Add in that Nassib spreads the ball and the secondary, no matter how productive they are, will have to account for every receiver on the field at all times, a task tough for even the best of the best. Nassib will move the ball. It is whether or not Syracuse will score on their drives that is the question.

Overall:

Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are averaging just under 430 yards on offense each game, while giving up a little more than 290 yards per game to their opponents.

They run a pretty balanced offense, averaging about 219 passing yards per game to approximately 210 rushing yards.

Syracuse. The Orange are gaining a little over 100 yards more per game than the Golden Gophers at 530 yards of offense per game, but are allowing their opponent's a little more than 360 yards of offense per game, almost 100 yards more than Minnesota allows.

Their passing game trumps their rushing attack by over 200 yards per game, about 380 passing yards to approximately 154 rushing yards per game.

Keys to the Game:

Minnesota:

Run the ball. With Syracuse giving up 180 yards per game on the ground, there is no reason why Minnesota should shy away from their running game. Kirkwood has over 260 yards in three games and is coming off his first 100-plus rushing yards performance of the season.

The Golden Gophers provide another two-headed rushing attack for the Orange to face. Syracuse has not stopped the run consistently for an entire game all season, so Minnesota would be foolish not to test the ground.

Challenge the secondary. Even with a healthy Reddish, Syracuse has not been consistent in stopping their opponents' passing attack, outside of last week, where the Orange faced a quarterback, Eassington of Stony Brook, who tended not to pass and only tried deep plays, making him easier to stop because of the lack of depth to his game.

Establishing the run and then utilizing play action can make for a difficult night for the Orange as they continue to grow on the defensive end to a more consistent group that is able to slow down an opposing offense through four quarters.

Attack the right side of the line. Alexander continues to struggle with penalties in his first season as a starter. On top of penalties, Alexander has had trouble preventing opponents' pass rush from getting by him. His first hit from shooting his hands is not always met with a strong stance to keep bodies from going around him. If Alexander continues to be the weak link of the Orange offensive line, look for the Golden Gophers to attack the right side often.

Syracuse:

Keep spreading the ball. Nassib has thrown to at least eight different receivers in each of the team's first three games. Defenses cannot double team a receiver if there is no consistent target each game. Nassib has had success throwing to so many different players, from wide receivers to tight ends to running backs that the Syracuse offense should be able to continue to capitalize on Minnesota not knowing where the ball is going from play to play.

Translate first downs into points. The Orange have 87 first downs through their first three games to their opponents' 51, yet Syracuse is 1-2 on the season. The offense moves the chains, but they have failed multiple times to gain points despite moving the ball, including in their opponents' red zones.

Minnesota has 61 first downs to their adversaries' 53 over three games, but the Golden Gophers are 3-0 despite giving up almost as many first downs as they have gained.

Identify weaknesses and continue to attack them. In Syracuse's last match-up against Stony Brook, running back Jerome Smith had charged forward on two plays within the same drive, having success through the middle on the Seawolves' defense. Then, Smith was not utilized as much. When a play is working or a player specifically is hot, the Orange need to continue to go to that play and/or player. Sometimes Syracuse seems to go onto the next play in the book rather than focusing on what is working at that time.

Do not force plays. Nassib by no stretch of the imagination is a bad quarterback, but he can improve. Back-to-back forced passes toward wide receiver Jarrod West last week were unsuccessful, taking away a touchdown opportunity. Nassib also forced a pass at running back Prince-Tyson Gulley, who was running toward him, meaning if he caught the ball, the Orange would still be in the negative. The Syracuse general has made many good decisions. Improving his game by not forcing plays can make him even better, and prevent interception-worthy plays from occurring.

Prediction:

The game ties early at 7-7 before Minnesota gains another touchdown to make it 14-7. That will be the score at halftime.

In the second half, Syracuse will tie the game at 14 before Minnesota kicks a field to make it 17-14.

The Golden Gophers will advance the lead in the fourth quarter to a 27-14 lead. The Orange will challenge, making it a 27-21 deficit, but will ultimately run out of time.

Minnesota wins, 27-21


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