Minnesota is in a bad place right now. First Jerry Kill was forced into retirement due to continuing health concerns. That's a tough road to hoe, considering how much Coach Kill did in his short term in Minneapolis. The overwhelming thought was that he had the Gophers headed in the "right direction" with regard to the future, and was already primed to bring in a very talented recruiting class. Not to mention the fact that the team on the field, while underwhelming this year, was far from an easy out for any competition in the Big Ten. There's no way to be sure, especially with an interim coach in Tracy Claeys, and an athletic department in flux.
And then there was last week's loss to Michigan (and you can watch the beauty part of said loss linked below). Surely not the ideal situation to head into a new-ish era of Gopher football. After Kill's departure, and the loss to Michigan, surely Minnesota really wishes it could flex its current schedule to get Purdue at this point. Instead, the
#1 #3 Buckeyes welcome the Gophers to an evening showdown in the Horseshoe.
But things are in flux for the Buckeyes, too! J.T. Barrett will sit after failing to order an Uber last weekend. Cardale Jones, who hasn't been great as a starter, gets the call. Minnesota is certainly better than their 4-4 record suggests, but how much better are they? We spoke to Mark Mowery of SB Nation's The Daily Gopher to find out about all things Minnesota in advance of Saturday's showdown.
Land-Grant Holy Land: I watched Jerry Kill retire, and thought about how difficult it must have been for him, his family, and for Gopher football in general. What is the mood around the program now after a very successful coach stepped away to, basically, save his own life?
The Daily Gopher: I feel like it left Minnesota fans feeling hurt and sick. Hurting in their hearts for Jerry Kill and the obvious monumentally difficult task of putting aside the thing he loved to do most in the world to save his own life. Sick to their stomachs to know that the man who brought them out of the football abyss wouldn't be able to continue to do so. Just when we thought things were looking up and the program was prepared to turn a corner, with a great recruiting class coming in 2016, a new expansive athletics facilities project breaking ground, and a product the fanbase could be proud of both on and off the field, the architect of all these things had to step aside.
Everyone is obviously glad that Jerry Kill has his priorities in order. Family and his own life before football. But the fanbase is also extremely sadden that he is no longer with the program and worried that his replacement might not be able to keep up the momentum he created.
LGHL: Preseason expectations for this Minnesota team were pretty high: ESPN had the Gophers 4th on their blog, ahead of Michigan (7th) and Iowa (9th...we all missed on that one!). The results, however, do not a top-four team make. Between then and now, what is the biggest reason why this team is only 4-4?
TDG: I believe the three biggest reasons the team is 4-4 are injuries, lack of depth, and lack of development at key offensive positions. First off, the inordinate amount of injuries at multiple positions on both sides of the ball have derailed what many believed would be at least a 7 win team. Because these injuries occurred, it exposed the lack of depth the Gophers have throughout their roster. The offensive line got banged up and the cohesion that is a requirement for a successful five man unit never fully came to fruition. When your offensive line isn't consistent, it kills you as a run-heavy offense, who's goal it is to chip away at defenses and catch them off-balance on play-action.
Furthermore along these lines, the continued lack of development at wide receiver has hurt the offense and quarterback Mitch Leidner's inability to mature past his generally inconsistent play has piled on to the offensive line issues and created a middling offense. This stagnant offense had a further domino effect on the defense, which is, in my mind, still a high quality unit. The offense hasn't been able to stay on the field for long periods of time, creating more wear and tear on the defense. One last issue this team has seen is that the quality of their special teams has decreased from last year. Last year, Minnesota finished 28th in S&P+ special teams rating, regularly putting the opposing teams' offenses in bad positions with great punts and having great coverage on kicks. Currently, the Gophers are 66th in the nation in S&P+ special teams rating. This precipitous drop has hurt the team's bottom line: their win-loss totals.
LGHL: One more off-the-field question: Do you think Tracy Claeys will keep his job after this year, or will Minnesota go looking for a new staff this off-season? If so, who might they look to as the next head coach?
TDG: I believe, in order to preserve the upward momentum Jerry Kill has gathered for the program and retain a majority of their well ranked recruiting class, that Tracy Claeys will be the head coach of Minnesota next year. Looking for a new staff at this point in time would prove to be rather difficult, considering the massive number of openings that have been created throughout the college football landscape. Since Claeys is familiar with every aspect of the program, has proven to be a quality coach while he was interim in 2013 during Kill's extended absence, and has shown a strong aptitude for the position (next question notwithstanding), I think safe money would say they'll eventually remove the interim tag. Personally, I'd like to not consider the alternatives at this time because Minnesota is likely to be pretty far down the list of "attractive" jobs this off season and the list of candidates thrown out by media pundits has been pretty scary (example: Brady Hoke?!??! Whaaaaaa??????)
LGHL: Let's talk about that Michigan game, specifically the ending. So many pre-snap moves on the first play, and a pedestrian call against a good defense on the next play. What went through your mind watching that?
TDG: Confusion, frustration, shock, disappointment, etc, etc, etc. We've been over it ad nauseam at the Daily Gopher about how it went wrong, whose fault it was, how could something like this happened, why us, and so on and so on. But, at the end of the day, it's basically college football and life in a nutshell. College football in that anything can and will happen on any given Saturday, even when a team is favored by double digits and appears to have every advantage in the book. Life in that people make mistakes. Coach Claeys and his staff have admitted to their clock management error. The question is: can they dust themselves off and move on? Gopher fan certainly hope so.
LGHL: Without J.T. Barrett, the Buckeye offense will likely rely on Ezekiel Elliott running, and Cardale Jones passing the ball. How does the Gopher defense match up against that kind of attack?
TDG: Honestly, I think this change will benefit the Gophers, if only slightly. If Briean Boddy-Calhoun is healthy and ready to play at cornerback along side Eric Murray, I feel pretty confident in the secondary's ability to put forth a strong effort. Since Jones is a better deep ball threat than Barrett but less of a runner, this plays to Minnesota's strength on defense. Ezekiel Elliott terrifies me and I think he'll probably have a pretty big day but I'm also slightly comforted in the fact that the Gophers' defense with Cody Poock and De'Vondre Campbell returning to the mix at linebacker after missing the Nebraska fiasco were able to hold a run-heavy Michigan offense to only 3.7 yards per rush on 34 attempts.
To summarize, I believe the Gopher defense matches up a little better against Jones than Barrett, especially considering a major reason the Buckeyes escaped from Minneapolis with a win last year was due to 389 yards of offense from Barrett. Since the Buckeye offense will be two-prong (Elliott run, Jones pass) as oppose to three-prong (Elliott run, Barrett run, Barrett pass), it could be slightly less ugly than expected.
LGHL: What are some names Buckeye fans can expect to hear called during this game, on both sides of the ball, and why?
TDG: On offense, expect to hear the names of two freshman running backs, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, called a lot due to the Gophers preference to run the ball. They have been splitting carries for a majority of the season now and have shown, when given holes and space by the o-line, to be quite adept at breaking off long runs. Tight end Brandon Lingen had a break out game against Michigan tallying 111 yards receiving on just 5 receptions. I think the offense might look to see if they can keep his roll going.
On defense, as mentioned above, linebackers De'Vondre Campbell and Cody Poock will set the tone against the Buckeyes' run attack. If these two are shedding blocks like they did against Michigan, they could make things slightly more difficult than expected on EE. Meanwhile, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray are both All-Big Ten caliber players at corner. BBC had a interception last week and you won't hear Murray's name much because teams tend to stay away from his side of the field due to his ability to shut receivers down. Defensive tackle Steven Richardson is also a name to look for because he is capable of having an impact on the pass and rush defense of the Gophers through his ability to stuff rushing lanes and occasionally putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
LGHL: Prediction time: Advanced stats say Ohio State (-20), and Vegas says Ohio State (-23.5). Do you like the Nerds, the Bookies or neither on Saturday night?
TDG: In this space, I currently stand at 7-1 in predictions on the year (W-L, not against the spread). And I am generally an optimist when it comes to the Gophers' chances against superior competition. That being said, due to the fact that Barrett isn't the Buckeye quarterback in this matchup, the Gophers getting a few players back on the defense that weren't around for some of their poorer performances, and the fact that the game takes place in the Horseshoe at night, I'll take the Buckeyes to win 30-17, with Minnesota covering and making national media pundits go crazy talking about how poorly Ohio State is performing, ignoring the fact that Minnesota actually has a good defense.
Special thanks to TDG's Mark Mowery for talking to us. They had questions, too, and you can see the LGHL Q&A on their site. Please check that out - there's a FANTASTIC Halo comparison of which I'm quite proud. Give TDG some love, Buckeye fans: another stellar SBN blog.