It's been almost two weeks since Michigan has played football, and fans will do almost anything to forget that thing that happened at the end of that one game. So let's turn our attention to Michigan's next opponent: Minnesota. We gave you a first look at the Gophers yesterday, but much has changed in the past 24 hours. Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill stunned us all with an announcement on Wednesday that he is retiring effective immediately for medical reasons. We sat down with Mark Mowery, who is an editor at The Daily Gopher, to ask him about Kill's retirement, its impact on this weekend's game, and what he thinks will happen on the field on Saturday.
Originally, this opening question was going to ask why this season has been underwhelming for Minnesota and how it alters how fans view the Gophers' trajectory as a program. However, Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill stunned us with an announcement on Wednesday that he's retiring effective immediately due to health reasons. Kill is a survivor of kidney cancer and has suffered from epilepsy, which caused him to miss the Michigan game in 2013. It's a sad day for college football that Kill no longer will be a coach in it, and I hope that his health will improve in retirement. What will Kill's legacy be at Minnesota? And I have to ask: how will this surprising mid-week announcement impact how the Gophers perform on Saturday?
The news was indeed shocking. It is with utmost hope that Jerry Kill can continue to work towards a good status of health and enjoy many years of happiness with his family, as is his intention.
Kill's legacy will be one of establishing a firm foundation for whomever his successor may be to build upon. He inherited a 3-9 team with no depth, discipline, and poor classroom performance. He alleviated all those problems in a matter of three years' time and, in the current Year 5 of his tenure, was about to welcome his most celebrated recruiting class to date to campus in fall of 2016. He accomplished a long list of things that few people in Minnesota football history have accomplished and are too long to list here. And he did all this with class, genuine kindness, and a passion for the state of Minnesota that will be hard to replicate for many years to come. Interim AD Beth Goetz has already said that Jerry Kill's legacy will be attached to the newly approved Athletic Village that will revolutionize the Minnesota Athletic Department. His legacy will be rich, full of fond memories, and lasting.
As for the impact on the upcoming game, it is anyone's guess. The results of college football are based on the performances of dozens of 18-24ish year old males, working in tandem towards a common goal. It is already unpredictable in its regular state. This news is no doubt a shock to the system to all of the players. Whether they choose to come together and "win one for Jerry" or are overwhelmed by the magnitude or the circumstances is hard to say. I don't doubt that the players love Jerry Kill. The outpouring of positive stories and things to say about him from former and current players on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and the like emphasize the kind of impact he had on his players, not just on the football field, but in life. He will most certainly be on their minds when they take the field Saturday night. We shall see what that ultimately means in due time.
Let's move on to football. One reason why Minnesota has underwhelmed may be the inordinate number of injuries the team has suffered. I read recently that only four Minnesota defenders have started every game and the offensive line has had the same starters in only three games. How critical has the bye week been with regards to healing players? What is Minnesota's injury situation for the game this Saturday?
Thus far, the bye week hasn't helped all that much. The injuries are so long I have to break them down into offense and defense.
Defense: Starting senior safety Damarius Travis was recently shut down for the season and will apply for a medical redshirt since he only played in the first game against TCU this season. Linebacker Cody Poock, defensive tackle Scott Ekpe, and defensive end Theiren Cockran, all usually starters, are still questionable for the Michigan game, even with the extra rest. Linebacker De'Vondre Campbell should return at full strength since his absence from most of the Nebraska game can be explained by the birth of his first child the previous night. If the players who are questionable do, in fact, play, the Gophers should be relatively healthy on the defensive side of the ball. If not, they could be down nearly half their starting lineup.
Offense: Neither of our originally starting tight ends, Lincoln Plsek and Duke Anyanwu, will see the field Saturday (and more than likely the rest of the season). Offensive lineman Josh Campion, arguably the most important cog in the blocking machine, is still out with a concussion. The best news coming out of the bye week is the return of center Brian Bobek to the offensive line. His presence should certainly help in lieu of Campion's absence.
Last season, Minnesota's offense mostly consisted of "David Cobb runs left" and "David Cobb runs right." The strategy worked as Cobb carried the football 315 times for 1,629 yards (5.17 YPC) and 13 touchdowns and Minnesota's run offense ranked 38th in S&P+. However, Cobb graduated, and no one has been able to fill his shoes. The run offense has plummeted to 99th in S&P+, and the Gophers' leading rusher, Rodney Smith, has totaled 115 carries for 467 yards (4.06 YPC) and one touchdown. What does Minnesota miss most about Cobb? And how will the Gophers try to jump-start the ground game against Michigan, which has the nation's second-best run defense?
Honestly, it has more to do with the lack luster line play than the available talent at running back. Gopher Nation is forever indebted to the amazing career of David Cobb but the combination of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks has a lot of fans excited and optimistic about the present and future of the running back core, considering both are freshman and have shown glimpses of big play ability in the first seven games this year. When the line has give the two backs space to work with, they have been very successful. Since opposing defenses have generally stacked the box against the Gophers and they haven't been able to establish the pass, the rushing numbers have also suffered. Hopefully the return of Bobek to the line in tandem with the bye week will allow for a more cohesive (and hopefully successful) effort against a very skilled and talented defensive line.
Throwing the ball hasn't been a strength of Minnesota's since Adam Weber was on campus. In his second season as the full-time starter, Mitch Leidner has seen his accuracy improve (51.5 to 59.2 pct.) but his YPA drop (7.6 to 6.2). This signals that the downfield throws haven't been open, which wouldn't be a surprise since Minnesota runs to set up the pass and Minnesota hasn't been nearly as effective on the ground as last season. Do you agree? How would you evaluate Leidner's performance this year?
The loss of All-American tight end Maxx Williams has certainly contributed to the drop in YPA. The Gophers just don't have a truly game-breaking option in the passing game anymore. The play action Minnesota relied on heavily at times last year has been lacking in effectiveness and use so far this season. Because Leidner hasn't been spectacular and the offensive line has been inconsistent in giving him enough time to set up for long throws, the big plays in the passing game have all but disappeared.
Leidner has been a divisive subject among Minnesota fans this season. Everyone acknowledges he's suited to be the cliche "game-manager quarterback" making the throws off play action and running the ball in the read-option when called upon. But since he has lost a step in his ability to run, one of the primary weapons of Jerry Kill's offense has been removed, making defending the Gopher's offense all too easy. Mitch hasn't been great by any stretch. But a combination of line inconsistency, dropped balls by receivers, and not being 100% the first half of the season have made him appear less capable than he actually is. The bye week may have allowed him to rest. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw him keep the ball for QB runs at least five times on Saturday.
In 2014, defenses knew they needed to contain Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams (36 rec., 569 yards, 8 TD), who led the team in every receiving category and doubled the number of catches the next player on the list had. However, Williams left for the NFL, and K.J. Maye (33 rec., 350 yards, 3 TD), Drew Wolitarsky (26 rec., 297 yards, TD), and Eric Carter (21 rec., 245 yards, TD) have become Leidner's new favorite targets. What does each receiver bring to the table? And what are their odds of success against a Michigan pass defense that is first in YPA, first in passer rating, and ninth in S&P+?
Maye is the most athletic of the three. The coaching staff tries to find creative ways to get him the ball in space including jet sweeps. He has had a few drops this season which has really hurt the offense at times. Wolitarsky is more of a "possession" receiver who has better hands than Maye and can be found in flat trying to use his size to break tackles and get intermediate gains. Carter is the youngest of the three and has often been a target down the middle of the field in longer situations. He's had a few good instances of yards after the catch and the Gophers could really use him to break off a long run or two after a short slant or crossing route. Their odds for success are indeed low, unless offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover can utilize some creativity to compensate for the overall lack of talent in the receiving core. Since the Gophers are coming off of a bye week, it would be foolish to assume a business-as-usual approach so I'll be interesting to see what wrinkles they attempt to neutralize the elite Wolverine pass defense.
Minnesota's defense had a very strong start, holding a potent TCU offense to 23 points, but the unit just surrendered 48 points and 7.14 yards per play to Nebraska. What went wrong defensively in that game? How did Nebraska attack the Gophers?
With two starting linebackers out, the secondary mostly decimated, and the defensive line lacking two of it's usual contributors, the Gophers finally ran out of gas on defense against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska ran the ball at will against the Gophers when four of the starting front seven were incognito throughout most of the game for one reason or another. Having success in the run game opened up easy passing lanes for Armstrong, and Minnesota's inability to force turnovers led to the Huskers racking up points. However, seven of Nebraska's 48 points did come on a pick six in garbage time. Forty-one still isn't a good number but even with Michigan's strong defense, I personally don't see the Wolverines scoring 30-plus on the Gophers this coming Saturday if the questionable defenders return with moderate health.
Given the strength of Minnesota's pass defense (12th in S&P+, 13th in YPA, 21st in passer rating) and Michigan's inconsistent aerial attack, my guess is that Michigan will try to pound the ball against the Gophers with De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson, who should be close to 100 percent this weekend. The stats indicate that Minnesota's run defense has been just average this season (61st in S&P+ and 45th in YPC). How do you expect Minnesota's defensive front seven to hold up against the point of attack?
If Campbell, Poock, and Jack Lynn are all reasonably healthy and playing, the front seven should be in pretty good shape. Minnesota is capable of shutting down an offense's strengths, especially when defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has an extra week to prepare. The Nebraska game really hurt the Gophers' advanced profile defensively but I think with a week of healing up and Claeys ability to scheme should give Minnesota a respectable showing. By no means am I predicting them shutting down Michigan's preferred plan of attack but I don't think you'll see them rushing for 5.2 yards a carry like Nebraska did.
Name an X-factor on each side of the ball for Minnesota against Michigan.
On defense, cornerback Jalen Myrick, playing in place of injured cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, has been an excellent complement to cornerback Eric Murray. You rarely see Murray rack up stats or hear his name called because opposing defenses generally don't throw to his side of the field. If Myrick can capitalize on this stratagem and get an interception or two when the Wolverines venture to pass down the sidelines, it could help the Minnesota cause greatly.
On offense, I'm going to go Mitch Leidner's legs. If he can be a threat to run, as oppose to the run-up-the-middle-with-a-running-back strategy that appears to have become very predictable for Gopher opponents, it will add another dimension to the offense that the Michigan defense will have to account for. If this is the case, it may open up opportunities for the freshmen running backs to make plays in open space and make it easier to complete intermediate routes in play-action pass.
How do fans feel about Minnesota hosting a night game on Halloween? Are they excited and revved up? Or are they disappointed that the game will cut into other Halloween festivities? What type of atmosphere will Michigan walk into that night?
I don't live in Minnesota anymore but I get the sense that a 6 PM start has the students pretty fired up. With the game ending around 9:30 PM or so, the night is just beginning for your average college student so the night start won't interfere will just be phase one of their frivolities. The last time the Gophers hosted a night game at TCF Bank Stadium, it was a sight to behold. I expect the crowd to be pretty rowdy and into the game if it's at all close for longer than the opening minutes. If the Gophers can stay in the game and keep the crowd interested, I would expect them to become a factor the later on in the night the game goes.
Fill in the blank: in order to beat Michigan, Minnesota must ______________.
Keep the game close in the first quarter by utilizing some sort of offensive wrinkle that allows them to get the momentum early and takes pressure off of their defense. If the offense can lend a helping hand to a beat up defense and take pressure off of them, I think the Gophers would have a chance. This seems unlikely but if there is to be any sort of crazy upset, I think the offense will have to strike early with some tricks and treats. Do I think this is at all likely or successful? Not necessarily.
Prediction time. Michigan is a 13.5-point favorite against the Gophers and expected to reclaim ownership of the Little Brown Jug. Will that be the case? Or will Minnesota spring the upset and hold onto the greatest rivalry trophy in college sports until 2017?
In general, I am a starry eyed optimist. And thus far through my Q&A predictions, I am 6-1, with my lone incorrect prediction being last game against Nebraska. With these two facts in mind, I'm going to take the Wolverines to grind one out over four quarters and escape with a 20-10 win. I think Minnesota will come out a little healthier and have enough success on the ground to keep it close for the first half but in the end, Michigan's superior defense and semi-capable offense are enough to take back the Little Brown Jug. So the Gophers will cover but ultimately fall short of glory.
Thanks to Mark for answering all of our questions! Follow him on Twitter here.