Tomorrow the Nittany Lions and the Minnesota Golden Gophers square off in the Metrodome in an important game for both teams. The winner keeps their dreams of a new years day bowl alive. The loser will most likely finish in the middle of the Big Ten. To preview the game I interviewed Cory Doffing from The Gopher Hole this week. So come along, Alice, and let's see how deep the gopher hole goes.
How would you rate the performance of the Gophers so far this year? You had some dominating games against Kent State and Temple, but looked less than stellar against Cal, Purdue, and Michigan.
If you're looking at the big picture, it's pretty easy to see that Minnesota is not playing that well so far this year. But coming into this season most Gopher fans knew this year could be a long one, so it's not really too much a surprise to us. We obviously lost a lot of offensive talent from last year, and this year we only have 8 scholarship seniors on the team. So if you look at it from that perspective I think it's going about as expected.
The most disappointing aspect to me so far has been the pass defense. This is one area of the defense that was supposed to have improved this year but to this point it really hasn't. We have a 4 year and a 3 year starters at cornerback and a couple of promising sophomores at defensive end, but so far the DE's have not been able to pressure the quarterback and our cornerbacks are not covering well. Because of that you have games like Cal, Purdue, and Michigan where we've given up a lot of passing yards.
A positive for us has been special teams. Last year we had freshmen kicking, punting and returning, so needless to say we took some lumps. Our kicker missed 8 extra points, and our punter dropped a snap which led to a TD and loss to Wisconsin. We also gave up a kickoff and punt return for touchdowns. This year has been a lot better though. We finally have a kicker who can produce touchbacks in former walk-on Joel Monroe, our place kicker (Jason Giannini) has only missed one extra point and our coverage and return games have improved dramatically. Punting is still a little weak but we're hopeful that will improve as well.
Are you glad they are playing the game this weekend or were you hoping for a bye week?
Most fans are happy to be playing this weekend for several reasons.
-- Even though a lot of Gopher fans are also Twins and Vikings fans, we're sick of being 3rd in the pecking order when it comes to stadium rights. Beyond all the obvious problems it causes, it's just an embarrassment to us so we're glad we don't have to put up with that.
-- Our athletic department is not the richest one in America, so it's so a positive that we won't have to pay the extra travel costs that moving the game would've caused.
--- Our team health is pretty good right now, so we don't have a big worry about trying to get guys rested up.
-- We play a D-1AA team 2 weeks from Saturday, so that might serve the purpose of a bye in some ways, or at least give our guys a little bit of a mental break from the Big Ten season. Psychologically I think the team is in pretty good shape (nothing really horrible has happened) so I think that our guys should be mentally ready to play.
You guys obviously miss Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell this year, but Amir Pinnix and Alex Daniels seem to be doing a pretty good job for you. How would you compare the running styles of Pinnix and Daniels to Maroney and Russell?
All four are very different. Maroney was a very patient runner with great vision and great speed. He was excellent at waiting for the line to open up a whole, seeing it, and then turning on the jets. He was a true breakaway threat. Russell was like a bowling ball. He had a very strong lower body and was tough to bring down. I may be wrong about this, but I believe that Penn State in 2005 was the only team in Gary's two years to ever tackle him for a loss.
This year our clear #1 guy now, and maybe our only guy, is Amir Pinnix. I don't think he has one dominant quality, but he does several different things well and I think that's what makes him effective. Now keep in mind Amir has only been the feature back in about 3 games as a Gopher so everyone is still kind of getting used to watching him. But from what I've seen I think his best quality is he seems to find the path of least resistance very well. He's good at maximizing his yardage potential on any given play. He's done well in finding the holes so far and I like the way he finishes off runs. As for Alex Daniels, you might not need to worry about him too much because his production has been steadily falling the last few games. Alex is a great athlete for a guy that' 6'3" 255 lbs, and that makes for tough matchup for a team like Kent State, but against better, faster defenses Daniels has been a non-factor. His strength is his strength, literally. He's a very strong guy (even for a LB he would be considered strong) and he hits like a ton of bricks. But what's killing him in the Big Ten is he's not nearly quick enough to make things happen against the better defenses. Unless Pinnix gets injured, you probably won't see Daniels more than 3 or 4 runs a game.
The Gophers are ranked dead last in run defense in the Big Ten giving up 167 yards per game on the ground. How are they going to go about trying to stop Tony Hunt and the Penn State rushing attack which is ranked third in the Big Ten?
The last couple years our run defense has been pretty average, but so far this year it's definitely taken a couple notches downward. Ideally our front 7 will improve their play a lot this week, but I kind of doubt that will happen so I think our only alternative will be to get safety help and then hope our pass defense can handle it.
Against Cal and Michigan we saw the safeties creeping up to support the run leaving the corners vulnerable to giving up some deep passes. How well would you say your corners match up with the Penn State wide receivers?
Not very good. Our corners do not have good coverage skills at all. We play very soft on the line, almost 5-8 yards of cushion every play, and we seem happy if we can just keep guys in front of us and prevent big plays. With Penn State's fast receivers I don't think that scheme will change at all this week. But as you know, a cornerback can be made to look a lot better if there is a fierce pass rush happening in front of them. If we can find a way to pressure the QB (something we didn't do at all against Michigan) then maybe our corners will play with more confidence.
We're halfway through the season now and the cream is starting to separate. It's becoming obvious that Michigan and Ohio State are the teams to beat and Illinois, Indiana, and Northwestern will probably finish at the bottom. But in the middle we have this mushy creamy filling of teams like Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, Minnesota, Iowa, and Penn State that have yet to sort themselves out. They've all beaten teams they should have beat and lost to teams most consider pretty good this year. How would you rank this group of six teams right now?
My order would be: Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State. One thing about Iowa is they ALWAYS improve as the season goes on. If you look back at their past teams, they'll start out the year getting killed by Arizona State, losing to Iowa State, losing bad to Michigan, etc. But even though they've lost guys like Clark, Banks, Gallery, Russell, Sanders, etc, and always have some holes at the beginning of the year, by the end of the season they're always playing great football and in a New Years Day bowl. So even though they haven't looked great so far I don't see why this year will be any different. At the bottom of the list, Michigan State could be near the top if they had a different coach. They have talent and as we've seen are capable of playing great football, but I don't know how you can blame anyone other than the coach after some of the inexplicable lapses they've had. You just never know which team is going to show up, and after the Illinois loss I don't know how they can recover. But, this is Michigan State after all so I guess I wouldn't be surprised if they come out this week and beat Michigan by 20!
Last question. There's two minutes left in the game and you're down by four points with 80 yards to go for the touchdown. Who would you rather have on your team: Troy Smith or Brady Quinn?
I'd have to go with Troy Smith. I like Quinn a lot, but he seems a little more prone to hit with an erratic streak and seems a little more likely to force things. I also like what Smith can do with his feet if the receivers aren't there for him.
Thanks Cory. Good luck on the rest of your season.