Minnesota might be the biggest surprise of the Big Ten, as they head into Saturday's tilt with a 7-2 record and a 3-game winning streak thanks to a grind-it-out offense that controls the ball despite middling statistics. Penn State hasn't been competitive away from Beaver Stadium this year, and Minnesota has all the momentum. But is the Gophers' strong start for real? For that, I went to the folks at The Daily Gopher, and JDMill answered my most pressing questions. Tomorrow, he'll post my answers to his questions, but remember to check TDG all season long for Minnesota news.
Black Shoe Diaries: If I told you before the season that Minnesota would have 7 wins before the end of October, what would you have said? What's happened since the losses to Iowa and Michigan to turn this team from Big Ten also-ran to darkhorse division contender?
The Daily Gopher: - I actually predicted the Gophers would be 7-2 at this point. The only difference I had was I thought the Gophers would beat Iowa and lose to Nebraska. Now, let's be honest. That was a completely homer prediction. I did what I thought was going out on a limb and picked 8 wins for the Gophers. I think the losses to Iowa and Michigan taught us a couple of things. First, I think we knew the offense that was successful in the non-con schedule wasn't necessarily going to serve us as well in the B1G. They offense got switched up a bit for the conference slate. Still very run heavy, but not as much with the power formations. The reality is that our offensive line didn't adapt to it as quickly as hoped, and Iowa has a much better run D than we thought (seriously, did you see how well they handled Wisconsin for 2 1/2 quarters?). We saw a glimpse of what the offense might be capable of for a half against Michigan, but again, our offensive line was over-matched. The difference in the last 3 weeks is that the O-line has really started to win the line of scrimmage.
BSD: Jerry Kill will be coaching this one from the press box, as he recovers from yet another seizure. What's your take on the situation, given that he's missed games in each of his years at Minnesota? -
TDG: My take is that Minnesota is a program that went 3-9 in Jerry Kill's first year, 6-6 in his second year, and are 7-2 so far in his 3rd year. The Gopher football program is in good hands, is being built the right way, and is going in the right direction. Whether Jerry Kill is on the sideline, in the box, or sitting at home, his influence and leadership are felt all over this football team when they are on the field and anybody who suggests that he should be removed or he should step down because of his medical condition is completely misguided.
BSD: I think all most non-Gopher fans know about Minnesota is that they sometimes run the Maryland I. What kind of schemes, offensive and defensive, constitute the Jerry Kill philosophy?
TDG: Well, you should know, it's no longer called the Maryland-I, it's called the Golden-I now [ed note: nope]. The Golden-I [ed note: stop trying to make Golden-I happen. It's not going to happen], along with the inverted wishbone, and other power-run formations, will be in play on Saturday. The scheme that Matt Limegrover is running right now can create a lot of confusion for an opposing defense. The Gophers will set up in these power formations, do a lot of shits and motions pre-snap and a lot of different things will be thrown at the defense. Straight ahead runs, jet sweeps, and read-option, plus they'll use these formation to set up the seams, flats and some deep routes in the passing game. Watching this offense emerge, and the creativity of Limegrover have been a lot of fun. Following the Michigan loss, a lot of people were thinking that Limegrover wasn't running an offense that was creative enough, but what we've learned is that Limey was building and setting things up in a very purposeful way.
BSD: If Penn State is going to pull off the upset, what weaknesses of the Gophers will they have to exploit?
TDG: As Indiana showed, our pass defense can definitely be exploited, but it has to be done with quick routes and 3 step drops. If you give our D-line 5 or 7-step drops (as if anyone still does that regularly), they will get to you. The Gophers rank 6th in the conference in Total Defense, Scoring Defense, and Run Defense, but drop off to 9th in the conference when you get to Pass Defense. PSU's other best chance to beat the Gophers is to keep our offense off of the field. The Gophers are typically very good at putting together long drives that eat up the clock and they are averaging over 33 minutes/game in time of possession. And those possessions lead to points more often than not. The Gophers have converted 29 of 30 trips to the red zone into points, and nearly 73% (22 of 30) of the time they make it to the red zone, they score a TD.
BSD: Alternatively, which Gopher players are poised Saturday for a big game against Penn State?
TDG: David Cobb has emerged as the Gophers #1 rusher and he's been on a tear lately. He isn't the fastest guy on the field, but Cobb's vision has been the difference. He's patient, he finds holes, and he hits them hard. LB Damien Wilson is the Gophers leading tackler and has been everywhere lately. You will also likely hear from DB Brock Vereen. Vereen converted from Safety to CB mid-season due to some injuries in the unit, and he has really stepped up. He's a good coverage guy and a great tackler that has really made a difference in the defensive backfield.
BSD: The line is 2.5 points. How do you see this one shaping up?
TDG: I think it's going to be a battle. You've got two teams here that are disciplined and don't hurt themselves with penalties. I think it will be a close game in the first half. PSU holds a close halftime lead, but Minnesota wins a close one as they control the clock in the second half and come up with a key turnover. Minnesota 31 Penn State 24.
Thanks again, JD, and remember to read The Daily Gopher tomorrow for my answers to his questions and all season long for news about Minnesota footbal.