Minnesota’s on its way up.
2014 will be the Golden Gophers’ fourth season under head coach Jerry Kill, who despite health problems took over a Minnesota squad that went 3-9 and fired its coach midseason in 2010 and posted records of 3-9, then 6-7, then most recently 8-5. Under Kill the Gophers have been multi-faceted on offense despite constant transition at the quarterback position and tough on defense, but aside from an upset of Nebraska in 2013, haven’t really beaten anyone they shouldn’t yet. In year four, the Gophs take their third starting quarterback in three years and face a back-loaded schedule. Can the Gophers improve on last years’ eight wins?
Things started off just as they should for a team that had padded its schedule with cupcakes: Minnesota hammered UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois, and San Jose State to start 4-0. They skidded briefly against Iowa losing 23-7 and when Kill suffered a pre-game seizure against Michigan, the Wolverines (whose wheels hadn’t fallen off yet) gashed the Gophers 42-13. The Gophers bounced back with a 20-17 win over Northwestern and then upset #21Nebraska 34-23 in Minneapolis. They peaked in back-to-back weeks, winning a 42-39 barnburner against Indiana and toppling Penn State 24-10. The defenses of Wisconsin and Michigan State proved too tough for the Gophers’ efficiency-based offense (losing 20-7 and 14-3, respectively), and the season ended with an ugly 21-17 loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl that Minnesota probably should have won.
Average score, vs. Sagarin 57th or worse: Minnesota 33.8, Opponent 20.9 (7-1)
Average score, vs. Sagarin 44th or better: Opponent 24.4, Minnesota 12.8 (1-4)
While the Gophs were able to efficiency-to-death a whole bunch of teams in 2013, in order to make that leap to the next level they’ll need to find some sort of big play threat. Do they have one?
Turnover at quarterback has plagued Minnesota in the Kill tenure, most recently when then-freshman Mitch Leidner usurped the position from then-sophomore Phillip Nelson, who transferred to Rutgers and was promptly booted from the team after an assault charge. So for now, at least, the job is Leidner’s to lose, although if history is any indicator he should keep an eye on freshmen Chris Streveler and Dominic Roden-McKinzy.
Minnesota has been a run-first offense for awhile (in 2013 Minnesota called over twice as many runs to passes) but the way in which it manifests itself varies depending on who was at quarterback. With Leidner, it’ll be a whole lot of straight ahead power running. Leider was pedestrian with a 55.1% completion rate and 6.0 yards per attempt, and he got sacked a lot (14.3% of his dropbacks, which for a non-mobile quarterback is horrendous) and his arm wasn’t exactly scaring anyone (just three touchdowns and one pick in limited action).
His favorite returning target was tight end Maxx Williams, who brought in 25 catches for 417 yards and 10.4 yards per target, exactly the type of tool a run-first offense needs to dig itself out of a third-and-long. Williams will be aided by fellow sophomores Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones, the three of whom will hopefully build an effective working relationship with Leidner in the next three seasons.
At running back, the stocky 5’11”, 225-lb. senior David Cobb returns after rushing for 1,200+ yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry in 2013. Leidner, who contributed to the running game in 2013 as a short-yardage bulldozer, will likely reprise that role this fall.
And hopefully for the Gophers, an offensive line that was constantly reshuffled due to injuries in 2013 can gel into a solid unit. Statistically, the Gopher line was average in just about every category but when they occasionally clicked, they were powerful, and some experience and depth could give Cobb and Leidner an easier time running (and buy Leidner some more time in the pocket; for a run-first-and-run-second offense to give up that many sacks is just awful). In order to improve this fall, the Gophers will need to find some sort of big play potential. The grind-it-out offense only works as long as your offense is able to put together ten-to-fifteen plays of error-free football, and the odds of that happening multiple times in a game aren’t great. Minnesota was 98th in the country in explosiveness (measured by the ratio of points scored to plays ran) and 71st in finishing drives (number of points scored compared to trips inside the opponent’s 40). A tough, methodical, wear-‘em-down offense can be a double-edged sword for your offensive line and running backs, but Minnesota returns enough experience that the offense should perform at a similar level at the very least, and maybe even improve a bit.
Playing low-risk, small-ball offense can create some difficulties for your defense; namely, a razor-thin margin for error. If your offense plays efficiency football, your defense usually winds up having to play efficiency football by default and try to force opposing offenses into the same kind of long, drawn-out drives your offense runs, and try to be opportunistic and force (or just sit around waiting, and hope your opponent makes) a mistake. Giving up a big play can be a back-breaker.
In 2013 Minnesota showed a statistically strange defense: one that continually stuffed the short plays (10th in stopping third- or fourth-and-short) but struggled to pressure the quarterback and therefore opponents were able to convert more often than the Gophers would like.
Part of that blame falls on the secondary. If your front seven are stuffing the run on first and second down, you’d like your back four to be able to bust up the pass on third down. However, that’s a “in a perfect world” type situation and overall, I think Minnesota should feel positively about their defense’s performance in 2013: apart from Michigan and Indiana, no opponent gouged the Gophers for yards or points, and the defense stepped up to limit Wisconsin and Michigan State to just 20 and 14 points.
Up front the Gophers will feel the loss of Ra’Shede Hageman but his co-wrecking ball Theiren Cockran returns (imagine Hageman but with sacks) and he’s got a lot of help from a lot of three-star guys. They’ll regress a bit but probably not much.
If there’s an area for concern, it’s at linebacker, where the Gophers return a lot less experience, and are an injury or two away from dipping into a reserve of freshmen.
In the secondary, the Gophers should be just fine, and could be a threat if the defensive line can generate some pass rush. Keep an eye on ball-hawking cornerback Eric Murray, who is hoping a few of his ten pass breakups will turn into interceptions in 2014.
MINNESOTA SPECIAL TEAMS
The Gophers shouldn’t have any trouble replacing average placekicker in Chris Hawthorne, and solid punter Peter Mortell (43.3 yards per punt) returns. Antonio Johnson is an excellent return man who averaged 28 yards per kickoff return in 2013.
This schedule is vicious. Indiana and Penn State rotate off in favor of Purdue (yay!) and Ohio State (oh), and as previously noted, this schedule is backloaded as heck. In its final four games this season, the Gophers will host Iowa and Ohio State, and visit Nebraska and Wisconsin (at least they get a bye week before that stretch). I struggle to see Minnesota coming away with wins in any of these four, which means that if the Gophers will need to grab them in the early games. However, even FCS Eastern Illinois is no slouch (hey did finish 47th in the 2013 Sagarin rankings, ahead of eight Big Ten schools, Minnesota included). You can chalk Middle Tennessee and San Jose State up as wins now, but we’ll learn a lot about this team in weeks three (at TCU), five (hosting Michigan), and seven (hosting Northwestern). “Minnesota’s on its way up,” I claimed in this preview’s opening sentence, and while the 2014 version of the Golden Gophers will likely be better than the 2013 version, the record may not reflect it.