It's pretty obvious by now that Ohio State and Michigan are the cream of the Big Ten while Indiana, Illinois, and Northwestern are going to be the bottom feeders. But Wisconsin, Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota, and Penn State are amassed in a peloton that has yet to sort itself out. This weekend when the Nittany Lions travel to play the Golden Gophers of Minnesota one piece of the pecking order will fall into place.
Last year Minnesota had a regular season record of 7-4 and earned a birth to the Music City Bowl where they lost to Virginia by a score of 34-31. The Gophers come into this game with a record of 2-3 with an 0-2 record in the Big Ten. Their two wins came against Kent State and Temple by a combined score of 106-0. Their three losses came against California (17-44), Purdue (21-27) and Michigan (14-28). Last season the Golden Gophers lost to the Nittany Lions by a score of 44-14 in Happy Valley.
Offensive Preview (or at least a mildly vulgar preview)
The past several years the heart and soul of the Minnesota Golden Gophers has been their punishing running game. Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell combined to roll up 2659 yards (each going over 1000 yds) and 28 TD. This year Maroney is rolling up yards playing on Sunday afternoons while Russell is, well, working in a Seven-Eleven right now after failing to enroll in fall classes. Good career move.
The Minnesota rushing attack has dropped off some, but not much. Amir Pinnix has stepped up and leads the team with 477 yards and 2 TD. Also getting carries is former linebacker Alex Daniels who has 300 yards and 5 TD, but Pinnix has established himself as the clear starter. Both are big physical backs with Pinnix having slightly quicker feet than Daniels.
Returning to lead the Gophers at quarterback is serviceable but uninspiring senior quarterback Bryan Cupito. He has decent numbers with 957 passing yards, 9 TD, 3 INT, and completing 59% of his passes, but when was the last time you remember seeing a Bryan Cupito highlight on SportsCenter? He won't make any Troy Smith-like plays where he scrambles 40 yards in the backfield and heaves it 60 yards down field to a double covered wide receiver for a touchdown, but he won't beat himself by turning the ball over either.
Logan Payne is Cupito's main target with 25 catches for 349 yards and 7 TD. But TE Matt Spaeth (19, 249, 1) and WR Ernie Wheelwright (9, 109, 0) are also formidable targets. Payne and Wheelwright are tall receivers standing 6'2" and 6'5" respectively and have the speed to break a big passing play. I'm always worried about how well the Penn State cornerbacks, who only stand around 6'0", match up against these taller receivers. These guys are all experienced and will offer a better than average threat to our secondary.
The Minnesota offensive line dominated the Big Ten last year. At times their running game looked unstoppable averaging 273 rushing yards per game and only giving up three sacks all year. They lost two outstanding players from last years offensive line in All-American center Greg Eslinger and All-Big Ten First Team guard Mark Setterstrom. But this group is experienced and so far they are doing well averaging 203 rushing yards per game and have only allowed 5 sacks.
The defensive line has three new starters this year who play alongside Steve Davis, a sophomore DE who started last year. Davis leads the team in sacks this year with 2.5. His sophomore DE counterpart Willie VanDeSteeg has 2 sacks. The Gophers are getting an ok pass rush on teams having registered 10 sacks on the year which ranks them 52nd in the NCAA. But teams are running over the Gophers like Niagra Falls. Minnesota ranks dead last in the Big Ten giving up 167 rushing yards per game.
The Golden Speed Bumps
Part of the blame for their problems with the run defense must lie with the linebackers. Mike Sherels and John Shevlin are the two main guys with 37 and 30 tackles respectively. The other linebacker position seems to be a platoon of a few players. From what I've seen these guys don't attack the line and seem to let the play come to them. They have trouble getting off blocks and tend to miss tackles.
A Minnesota defender demonstrates their patented "Dead Fish" tackling technique.
In watching their game against Michigan last week, it was obvious the Gophers were cheating up the safeties to support the run defense. As a result Michigan was able to hit a few big plays as Arrington and Manningham were in single coverage. The Gophers also utilized this approach with Cal and got burnt there too. Their pass defense is giving up 214 yards per game, but discard the Temple and Kent State games and Minnesota is giving up 275 yards per game. Overall this defense is not very good and are ranked #98 in the NCAA accordingly.
Sophomore place kicker Jason Giannini is 4-5 on the year with a long of 41 yards. Last year he missed 8 PAT, but he is 20-21 so far this year. Justin Kucek returns to handle the punting duties this year. He is averaging 36.4 yards per punt landing 8 of 19 inside the 20 and 8 touchbacks on the year. Dominic Jones is a dangerous returner averaging 12.6 yards per punt (#1 Big Ten) and 28.4 yards per kickoff (#2 Big Ten, #12 NCAA).
When Minnesota Has the Ball
The Gopher offensive attack is very well balanced. With the right play calling they might be able to keep the Lions guessing. Spaeth is an excellent tight end. Good tight ends have had success against Penn State this year as the Lions tend to try to cover them one-on-one with Posluszny. It seemed Poz was chasing the tight end all day against Notre Dame. Minnesota's offensive line is pretty good, but they have dropped off this year as have the running backs without Maroney and Russell. Michigan did an ok job of containing the run holding the Gophers to 81 yards on the ground using just the front seven. I think Penn State can have similar success and should be able to hold the Gophers to around 100 yards rushing. Their wide receivers are good and will pose a challenge to the undersized Penn State corners. In my opinion this matchup will play a huge part in determining the winner of the game.
When Penn State Has the Ball
The Penn State offensive line is hurting and not very deep. But still they should have success against an undersized and inexperienced defensive line. Minnesota is going to stack the box with 8 men like they did against Cal and Michigan. If I was the opposing defensive coordinator and I saw Anthony Morelli at QB and Tony Hunt at RB I would do the same thing. They will force Morelli to beat them and try to take Hunt out of the game. So early on we should see single coverage on either Butler or Williams and I expect the Lions to take a shot deep in their first three plays to stretch the defense. The corners proved they cannot handle guys like Manningham and Arrington from Michigan and DeSean Jackson from Cal who burned them for 3 TD. The big plays will be there and Penn State must hit them to force the Gophers to spread out and open up the run.
- Tony Hunt carries the ball 27 times for 135 yards and 2 TD.
- Despite his record setting day last week, Minnesota still fears Derrick Williams more and opts to double cover him leaving Butler in single coverage most of the day. Butler has another huge day with at least 6 catches and 100 yards.
- Amir Pinnix gets 25 carries for 92 yards and 2 TD.
- Penn State makes 3 field goals.