2014 CFN Preview - Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner
CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - After a year of adversity, Minnesota should come back stronger. (Getty Images)
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Doing a great job of getting through the adversity and the health concerns surrounding head coach Jerry Kill, Minnesota is going full steam ahead.
Head coach: Jerry
4th year: 17-21
21st year overall: 144-94
1. RB David Cobb, Sr.
2. QB Mitch Leidner, Soph.
3. DE Theiren Cockran, Jr.
4. LB Damien Wilson, Sr.
5. S Cedric Thompson, Sr.
6. OG Zac Eppling, Sr.
7. P Peter Mortell, Jr.
8. OT Josh Campion, Jr.
9. DT Cameron Botticelli, Sr.
10. RB Donnell Kirkwood, Sr.
2014 Schedule |
Aug. 28 Eastern Illinois
Sep. 6 Middle Tenn
Sep. 13 at TCU
Sep. 20 San Jose State
Sep. 27 at Michigan
Oct. 4 OPEN DATE
Oct. 11 Northwestern
Oct. 18 Purdue
Oct. 25 at Illinois
Nov. 1 OPEN DATE
Nov. 8 Iowa
Nov. 15 Ohio State
Nov. 22 at Nebraska
Nov. 29 at Wisconsin
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys did one of the best coaching jobs in the country last season, stepping in for Kill, who took a leave of absence as he tried to get his epilepsy under control, but this is still Kill's team and this is Kill's program. He turned Southern Illinois into a winner in his third season, he took Northern Illinois to the MAC title game in his third season at the helm, and last year, in his third year, Minnesota came up with its first winning season since 2008.
But this is really Kill's third full season overall in Minneapolis, with Claeys handling things during the toughest part of the campaign, and now the program appears to be in the right spot with the right parts and the right attitude.
The Gophers' 4-0 start was quickly wiped away with Big Ten losses to Iowa and Michigan. Both were ugly, both saw the offense go nowhere, and both failed to provide any real hope that things were about to change. Claeys was thrown into the fire in a key game at Northwestern, and everyone responded.
No one would've said boo if the season went into the tank, but instead, Minnesota won four straight games, got to eight wins for the first time since going 10-3 in 2003, and turned out to take the step forward everyone was looking for.
They started to play as if they had nothing to lose. Northwestern badly outplayed them, but key plays, takeaways, and capitalizing on breaks led the way to the win – they found a way to get it done.
A shockingly dominant win over Nebraska the next week was the really, really big victory Minnesota had been looking for since Kill took over, and it showed that yeah, the potential is there to be more than just an also-ran. This year's team also has the potential to come up with the big performances on a regular basis. With so many good returning veterans, it's time to build off of everything accomplished in 2012 and do even more.
At his previous stops, Kill won with a bruising, efficient running game and a defense that found its way into the backfield on a regular basis. Claeys will handle the defensive side, but the offense could quietly be a big-time threat with a terrific line paving the way for a deep group of backs and a quarterback in Mitch Leidner who appears ready to become a star.
They're in the easier of the two new Big Ten divisions, but it'll be tough to make too much of a dent with road games at Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska and getting Ohio State at home.
But this might be the type of team that can rise up and pull off a big upset or three just by doing what it does best.
If this group could adapt and thrive without its head coach, just wait and see what it might do now that he's settled in.
What to watch for on offense: The short-to-midrange passing game to go along with the tough ground attack. The Gopher passing game wasn't efficient, but when it came time to throw, it came up with its share of big moments, averaging 14.1 yards per catch, but Maxx Williams was the top target averaging 16.7 yards per catch as he tied for the team lead with 25 catches – he's a fullback/tight end. Mitch Leidner isn't Tom Brady when it comes to the deep ball, but he's growing as a passer and he'll utilize his H-backs and tight ends more for the safe, easy throws to balance out the offense a wee bit. It would be nice if a deep target would emerge, and it would be great if a wide receiver would turn into a playmaker, but as long as the chains keep moving, everything is fine.
What to watch for on defense: Can the defense get behind the line without Ra'Shede Hageman? The Atlanta Falcon might not have been an every down defender, and he might have disappeared at times, but when he was on, he changed games around by himself from his spot on the nose. Even when he wasn't getting behind the line and blowing things up he was being keyed on, allowing the rest of the line to roam free. Can someone occupy the double teams inside? There isn't the bulk to replace him, but the rest of the veteran front four has to become playmakers on its own. Theiren Cockran was one of the team's most dynamic pass rushers into the backfield, and tackle Cameron Botticelli quietly had a fantastic year with Hageman taking up so much attention. The rotation up front has to be sound right away, and while there's no replacing Hageman's talent, the production has to be found somewhere.
The team will be far better if… the Gophers win the turnover margin. There's little margin for error with the way Minnesota operates – this isn't a team built to overcome big mistakes or comeback in the fourth quarter. 5-0 last season when they were on the right side of the turnover margin, the Gophers were able to overcome a rough day against Northwestern by being +3, and they were a +2 against Indiana. There were other reasons why they lost to Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but in those four games, the Gophers were a combined -6. Under Kill – at least since he took over as head coach – Minnesota is 12-1 when winning the turnover battle, only losing to Texas Tech in the 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl.
The Schedule: The Gophers have to take advantage of all the home non-conference games, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to get by TCU on the road, to have any shot at a bowl game. Middle Tennessee and San Jose State are decent, and Eastern Illinois might be a bit of a fight in the opener, but starting out 3-1 before going to Michigan to start the Big Ten season is a must to have a realistic shot at a bowl game.
It's a bad, bad scheduling break to play both Michigan and Ohio State from the East, but it helps that four of the next five games after the date in Ann Arbor are at home, with winnable games against Northwestern, Purdue and Iowa a part of the mix along with a road game at Illinois. And then comes the nightmare of a finish with Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin – the Gophers had better have six wins banked before November.
Best offensive player: Senior RB David Cobb. It was supposed to be Donnell Kirkwood's running game last season, but Cobb took over in the middle of the season and became the more effective, tougher back to carry the workload. Kirkwood is still a talent and still in the equation – he led the team in rushing in 2012 with 925 yards and six touchdowns – and rising star Berkley Edwards and quarterback Mitch Leidner will take on plenty of carries, but Cobb proved last season that he could handle the job by himself.
Best defensive player: Junior DE Theiren Cockran. Linebacker Damien Wilson might be the team's leader, safety Cedric Thompson was the team's top leading tackler, and tackle Cameron Botticelli could be the key cog for the line, but it's Cockran who has to shine as the team's top pass rusher. The secondary should be terrific, even without the star corner Brock Vereen, with Eric Murray a rising corner and Thompson a potential all-star, but the pass rush has to be better, and it has to be more dangerous despite the loss of Ra'Shede Hageman. Cockran came up with 7.5 of the team's 18 sacks, and he needs to be even better from the outside without Hageman occupying the interior.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore WR Drew Wolitarsky. Wisconsin might like to run the ball, but the offense goes from great to unstoppable when its passing game works and a Jared Abbrederis-like receiver is making things happen. Kansas State might have a great system that Minnesota all but mimics, but it's helped by having a Tyler Lockett target who can rock and roll down the field. Minnesota needs its own dangerous playmaker to help make Mitch Leidner better, and that could be the 6-3, 208-pound Wolitarsky, who caught 15 passes for 259 yards and a score, highlighted by a four-catch, 94-yard, one touchdown day in the bowl loss to Syracuse. If he's not the deep threat, someone else has to be.
The season will be a success if ... the Gophers win nine games, going one better than last year. Minnesota has to be at the point where it shouldn't be a problem handling a Middle Tennessee, or a Northwestern at home, or an Illinois on the road. Those have to be givens if the program is going to keep progressing under Kill. It's probably not going to be good enough to beat TCU on the road, or Ohio State at home, or Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin away from TCF Bank Stadium, but it has to be good enough to come up with at least one win in those games, maybe two, and not stumble against a Purdue or an Iowa. Winning eight games and a bowl isn't going too far out on a limb, but it's going to require a lot of luck and a few breaks.
Key game: Nov. 27 at Michigan. The 42-13 loss to a flaky Wolverine team that turned out to not be 42-13 good was the low point of last year on the field. Minnesota beat Michigan 23-20 in 2005, but through thick and thin, good times and bad, no matter what, the one constant is always that the Little Brown Jug stays in Ann Arbor. Before that 2005 shocker, the previous Gopher win came in 1986, in one of the season's biggest national upsets. Before that, it was 1977, and before that, 1967. It's the Big Ten opener this season, and with Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa to follow, if the Gophers can pull off the win, there's a great chance to go on a fantastic run to start the conference campaign before hosting Ohio State.
2013 Fun Stats:
- First Quarter Scoring: 44 – Second Quarter Scoring: 122
- Time of Possession: Minnesota 32:53 – Opponents 27:07
- Fourth Down Conversions: Minnesota 14-of-20 (70%) – Opponents 13-of-22 (59%)
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