by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Players to watch
Offense: Marqueis Gray
Seeing as Gray may not suit up for this game, this might strike you as something of a surprise. But there is no player on Minnesota’s who brings greater game-changing potential than Gray. There are a host of dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten: Kain Colter, Nathan Scheelhaase, Braxton Miller, Denard Robinson, Gray. While Gray may not be the best passer of the group, none of them offer the same imposing physical package. Gray is a 6-4, 240-pound battering ram who strikes fear into defensive backs that dare try and impede his progress. Even if he’s not 100 percent against the Wildcats, chances are he’ll bust a big play or two. Gameplanning against this physical specimen is never easy; when he can enter the game unannounced, at random times, Gray can be a major force.
Defense: Troy Stoudemire
It seems unfathomable that Stoudemire is still playing college football. He belongs on the Big Ten’s six-year letterman squad, if such a team existed. In his final season with the Gophers – knowing Stoudemire, he’ll probably be back for another year – Stoudemire has honed his skills at cornerback and returned to his explosive punt-returning ways. He played just four games in 2011 before an injury ended his season. If his recovery was ever in question, Stoudemire has silenced those concerns. He’s playing at a very high level, and in turn lifting the performance of his peers in the secondary. While Stoudemire doesn’t boast optimal physical tools (5-foor-10, 195 pounds), he makes up for it with a high football IQ and an unrelenting intensity.
Biggest Strength: Pass Offense
Playing without Gray the last two weeks required a particularly difficult adjustment for Minnesota. But the Gophers have transitioned well into a pass-heavy offense with big-armed Max Shortell running the show. He’s not nearly the dynamic playmaker Gray is, but from a pocket-passing perspective, Shortell easily tops the injured Gray. Shortell gives the Gophers a stronger deep passing game, and with a host of explosive receivers – A.J. Barker, Isaac Fruechte, Devin Crawford Tufts are but a few of the Gophers’ deep threats – Minnesota can maximize its personal composition by flinging the ball downfield. The major caveat here is that Shortell may not ply the entire game. Still, even if Gray takes over, the Gophers pass attack is one to be reckoned with.
Biggest Weakness: Defensive line
There is no doubting Minnesota’s defensive line is better than last year’s unit, which managed just 19 sacks all season. Tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and end D.J. Wilhite have instilled the line with a newfound energy and pride, and it shows. Pressure, even in small and sporadic quantities, can disrupt opposing offenses. Give the Gophers credit. But the line is still a rebuilding effort. It won’t be winning any battles against elite Big Ten offensive lines until Kill can replenish the recruiting ranks. Based on Minnesota’s D-line statistics to date, you’d think the line is on pace for a huge season. That may be true, but against a decent (and that’s a huge compliment) Iowa O-line in a 31-13 loss two weeks ago, the Gophers totaled zero sacks and zero quarterback hurries. Even in this year’s watered-down Big Ten, if you can’t pressure the quarterback, it’s awfully hard to get stops and limit opposing offenses. There are signs of encouragement, but Minnesota is yet to prove its early pass-rushing success isn’t a mirage.
Under the radar: TEs John Rabe, Drew Goodger
The temporary loss of Gray presented a silver lining for coach Jerry Kill’s offensive personnel creativity. With a greater focus on the pass, these two reliable tight ends became vital pieces of the Gophers’ offensive attack. Rabe and Goodger have combined for five of Minnesota’s 11 receiving touchdowns this season, a byproduct of Gray and Shortell’s red-zone trust meter with these sure-handed targets. Having two safety valves like Rabe and Goodger alongside a wealth of explosive receivers gives Minnesota an element of diversity in its aerial attack. With players like Barker, Fruechte and Crawford-Tufts stretching the field, Rabe and Goodger can work underneath and make plays in front of the secondary. Accounting for this many targets is a tough ask for any defense. Rabe and Goodger are proceeding with less hype than Minnesota’s other receivers, but with equal effectiveness and efficiency.