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Know your opponent: week 8 edition, Minnesota

Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.

The basics
Returning starters: Offense – 10, Defense – 7
2012 record: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
Coach: Jerry Kill, 3rd season

2012 capsule 

Progress was the byword for Minnesota’s 2012 season. The Gophers reached a bowl game for the first time since Jerry Kill was hired two years ago, and quite possibly would have won that bowl game (the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas) were it not for Texas Tech’s last-second field goal. They posted a clean four-win sheet in nonconference play, including a seven-point win over Big East co-champion Syracuse. Bowl eligibility, at that point of the season, almost felt like a formality. The Big Ten season was a harsh and humbling twist on a theretofore undefeated season. Minnesota won two of its eight conference games, and – but for an eight-point defeat to Northwestern – was basically steamrolled in every loss. The Gophers did manage to win one crucial game, a 17-3 slugfest at Illinois, their saving grace in a regular season that nearly ended, like the two others before it, without a postseason game to look forward to. Minnesota made most improvements in 2012, and Jerry Kill is giving the appearance of pushing the right buttons and generally advancing the program towards a brighter future. 2013 should see the Gophers move closer towards Big Ten respectability.

Offensive overview

The move to pull freshman quarterback Philip Nelson’s redshirt was bold and slightly controversial, and it’s impossible to say whether the Gophers would have won more or less games without activating their highly touted freshman midseason. What can’t be denied is the experience Nelson did accrue in 2012 will help him have better command of the offense this season. Minnesota desperately needs a first-rate receiving target to emerge after losing its top wideouts from last season, and senior Derrick Engel – who hauled in four catches for 108 yards in the bowl game – is a veritable option. Even if the Gophers don’t have the pieces to field a formidable passing game, their running game, led by power backs Rodrick Williams Jr. and Donnell Kirk wood, will be their biggest offensive strength. 

Defensive overview 

Insofar as Minnesota’s defense exists, Ra’Shede Hageman is a critical part of its most basic functions. Hageman is a powerful 6-foot-6, 310 defensive tackle with plenty of quickness to boot. Blocking him is the first, second and third priority. The Gophers also, per the usual under Jerry Kill, are bringing in a host of JUCO transfers to populate the defense, and all dispatches out of Minneapolis indicate Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Cambell should help a depleted linebacking corps right away. Losing both starting cornerbacks from last season would be a huge obstacle for any defense, but the Gophers appear to have adjusted capably by switching former safety Derrick Wells to one empty CB spot and enlisting a trio of junior college transfers to compete for the other.

Three players to know

Ra’Shede Hageman, Senior DT – There will be plenty of double teams and reinforced blocking arrangements used to repel Hageman at the line of scrimmage. The rest of the Gophers’ defensive line wavers between mediocre and “yeah, never heard of him,” so Hagemen will be the main focus.

Philip Nelson, Sophomore QBLanding Nelson out of Mankato West (MN) high school was one of the biggest recruiting victories of Kill’s short tenure, and after starting seven games last season, his prospect hype could be realized in college competition this season.

Donnell Kirkwood, Junior RB – I like to think of Kirkwood less as an actual running back and more as an enraged bowling ball. Why? The hit he laid on Ibraheim Campbell (and yes, I am fairly certain this play counts under Kirkwood’s season tackle quota) explains it best.

Behind enemy lines: Pioneer Press Minnesota beat writer Marcus Fuller (@GophersNow), on what to expect from the Gophers this season:

“Minnesota Gophers football coach Jerry Kill is used to making a significant turnaround in Year 3. He did it at Southern Illinois. He did it at Northern Illinois. Both programs won 10 games in Kill’s third season. But the Gophers have had a 10-win season only once (2003) in the modern era of college football. So returning to a bowl game and finally winning one are more realistic goals for a team led by sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson and senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman.” 

Final thoughts

A return to the postseason should be a basic expectation, but I tend to think – with a manageable nonconference schedule (though a week 4 game against San Jose State and NFL-bound quarterback David Fales could serve as a nasty momentum-killing trap on the eve of conference play) – and at least two winnable conference games (Iowa at home, at Indiana), the Gophers should be able to match, and quite possibly, upstage last season’s six-win total. Seven wins is a reasonable goal to strive for, and if Nelson develops more quickly than expected, Minnesota could well exceed that number. It’s just hard to find more than seven wins on the schedule, unless the Gophers manage to pull an upset or two along the way. Wins aside, Kill has the wheels rolling in Minneapolis, and if his team continues to make incremental improvements, slowly chipping away at their conference counterparts, a breakout season could be on the horizon. This season is more about smaller gains, another small step or two towards the larger goal of eventual conference contention.