by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Each week, InsideNU will bring you an opponent’s take on the matchup ahead in the interest of providing a wider perspective on each game. As the Wildcats look to rebound from their first loss of the season against Minnesota, Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune was kind enough to take a few minutes and share his vast knowledge of this year's Gophers. Following a decade covering the NBA and MLB, Miller is back on the Minnesota grind with excellent coverage from his Gridiron Gold blog. Follow him on Twitter @millerstrib.
What is the main difference in the offense with Max Shortell at quarterback? How has he handled the starting job? Will Jerry Kill lift the redshirt of highly-touted freshman Philip Nelson if Gray's injury troubles persist longer than expected?
PM: Shortell is a more accurate passer and has a stronger arm, so the downfield possibilities open up a little more with him at quarterback; MarQueis Gray is a far bigger two-way threat. He was the Gophers' leading rusher last year by far, and likely would have been again this year (still could be, actually). He's a fair passer, not great, but was throwing the ball more confidently this year before getting hurt. Shortell has been relatively popular since Gray went down, because deep passes are flashier, but the coaches clearly want Gray to get back soon. As for Nelson, he's only an option if both Gray and Shortell are unavailable. Half a season in, they don't want to spend a year of eligibility if they don't have to.
What is the general feeling around the program about the direction of Jerry Kill's tenure? Has he met/exceeded/undershot expectations thus far? In what ways will the recently-announced Populous facilities master plan affect Kill's progress?
PM: I said before the season, Kill was the most popular 3-9 coach in the country. Minnesota fans are win-starved to the extreme, and Kill's track record, his honesty, and his unwillingness to overpromise (unlike his predecessor) have won over most Gopher fans. People really are willing to be patient, and the perception is strong that he is already making progress, albeit incremental. The master plan is much needed to upgrade what have become (now that Northwestern is building) the Big Ten's worst football practice facilities, so Kill is strongly in favor, though he's careful not to come across as demanding improvements.
After getting out to a 4-0 start, Minnesota was humbled in Iowa City (31-13 loss). How do you expect the Gophers to bounce back from that defeat?
PM: Well, as Kill said this week, they've got some experience in bouncing back. Actually, I think the coaches took the loss harder than the public or the team, because they honestly believed it would be a competitive and potentially winnable game. But defensive breakdowns in the second quarter eliminated any chance of pulling that off. They had a bye week, healed up, and remain outwardly confident. I think they go into this week believing they can/will win.
Sophomore Donnell Kirkwood has emerged as an effective backfield weapon. After failing to break the 300-yard threshold last season, Kirkwood is nearing 400 just five games into the season. Have you noticed any major differences (physical or mental) in his preparation or his running style?
PM: He's stronger, older and so far healthy. That latter factor was particularly important, because he has had recurring problems with leg injuries that have held him back. He's sort of a bowling-ball style of runner, quick to jump into a hole and willing to knock people down as he goes. But the key to the Gophers' running game is Gray, who gives defenses a second runner to key on.
How has this team adjusted without Marqueis Gray at quarterback? Do you expect a transition period when he returns under center?
PM: Shouldn't need one, no, as long as Gray is close to being completely healthy. But his game relies very much on his legs, so lingering soreness from the high ankle sprain, and especially the sprained knee, might keep him on the sideline. The Gophers are a more traditional pocket-passing team, not completely but to a greater extent, with Shortell in the game, and he's done a good job as understudy.
Gray, Kirkwood and receiver A.J. Barker have been paramount in the Gophers' offensive attack this season? Who are some other offensive playmakers to watch out for? What about on defense?
PM: The tight ends, John Rabe and Drew Goodger, have turned into weapons because they both are pretty sure-handed. And the Gophers would like another receiver or two to step forward; Barker is the only receiver with more than 10 catches. Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte have the speed to do it, along with Marcus Jones at slot receiver, but so far, none has had a real breakout game. On defense, end D.L. Wilhite and tackle Ra'Shede Hageman have given the Gophers' pass rush the teeth it's lacked in recent years, and even a moderate amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has had a noticeable effect already.
What is Minnesota's greatest strength? greatest weakness?
PM: Gray and his ability to move the ball with or without help has been the Gophers' best weapon, but they've shown a resilience in his absence that people didn't know they had. And their defense has been hugely improved over a year ago; until the Iowa game, they had not allowed a gain of 30 yards all season. Their weakness is in their lack of a go-to guy, a playmaker they can count on. They have no real standout players other than Gray, and while teamwork has gotten them a long way, they really could use a little star power to carry them through tough games.
PM: I think four quarterbacks will make big plays in the game, and the Gophers will get into their first real shootout of the season. I'm guessing 35-31 Gophers, given the sense of urgency around here, but I could certainly see 35-31 Wildcats, too.