Big Ten football season is here. And as October rolls in, Ryan Field and Northwestern get set to welcome the Minnesota Golden Gophers Saturday to kickoff conference play.
The Gophers, projected by many as a top-three team in the Big Ten West prior to the season, have struggled in non-conference play, but come to Evanston at 3-1, and come having won the games they were supposed to win and having lost the game they were supposed to lose. Here are the three things you need to know about this Minnesota team and their start to the 2015 season:
1. Minnesota has struggled against lesser opponents
After opening the season with what many termed an "impressive" loss to No. 3 TCU, 23-17, the Gophers have sleepwalked through games against two MAC teams and a Mountain West foe. First came a nervy encounter with Colorado State, whom Minnesota needed overtime to eventually beat 23-20. Week 3 brought arguably the most troubling performance, a 10-7 win over Kent State. The Gophers' defense was "unreal," but the offense was sluggish against the same Kent State team that Illinois torched for 52 points. Last week, it was third straight three-point win, this time by a score of 27-24 over Ohio.
With every scare, Minnesota looked like less and less of a contender in the Big Ten West. The preseason perception of the Gophers was that the offense would be average and the defense would be outstanding. So far, that's been proven a bit off base. The offense is nowhere close to average right now — it's in the bottom fourth of Division I by any core statistical measure...
... and the defense, while good, has only been outstanding in one game, and really good in one other.
2. Minnesota is pretty much the same team as last year
The Gophers lost both running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams to the NFL, but their philosophy and style are unchanged. You'll hear a lot of words like "physical" and "tough," both of which Pat Fitzgerald used yesterday, used to describe them. You also might hear words like "boring" or "#B1G." And they're all apt. The Gophers will use a blend of the read option — quarterback Mitch Leidner isn't a speedster, but he's a decent runner — and a power run game on offense. But the strength of their team is the stout defense.
Pat Fitzgerald press conference
Pat Fitzgerald press conference
Last year, Minnesota beat NU 24-17 with defense and special teams. Leidner only threw the ball 15 times — which, based on his passing ability, is still too many according to some Minnesota fans — while he and Cobb combined for 37 rushing attempts, but the Gophers' defense held Northwestern in check and won the game with a kick return touchdown.
When asked Tuesday on the Big Ten teleconference whether his offense could do the same this year and come away with a win, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said "That's a good question, I don't know." And then after talking up Northwestern's defense, he said, "We're going to do whatever it takes to win." Kill said he expects a defensive battle, and, reading between the lines, it seems like his approach won't be too dissimilar to his approach last year.
3. Minnesota has more injury concerns than Northwestern
While many Northwestern fans have been fixated on the Wildcats' suddenly troubling injury list, Minnesota has one that Jerry Kill called "a mile long" on Monday. The big potential absence for the Gophers is cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who should be playing on Sundays next year, but was scheduled to have an MRI on his injured knee Tuesday. He'll apparently avoid surgery, but didn't practice Tuesday, and is questionable for Saturday.
In fact, the entire secondary — arguably Minnesota's strongest unit — is banged up. Consider this paragraph from Andy Greder's story on TwinCities.com:
Boddy-Calhoun, [safety Antonio Johnson (concussion)], [safety Damarius Travis (hamstring)] and [cornerback] Eric Murray started against Texas Christian in the season opener. Among those four, only starter Murray, an all-Big Ten cornerback last season, was on the field when Ohio threw an unsuccessful Hail Mary pass on the final play [last week].
Travis has been ruled out for Saturday's game, while Johnson is questionable. Freshman defensive back Kiante Hardin is also questionable.
Minnesota seems to be just as, if not more decimated than Northwestern. Per Greder's article, guard Jon Christenson (knee), tackle Ben Lauer (knee, left hand), and tight ends Lincoln Plsek (back) and Duke Anyanwu (knee) also missed the Gophers' Week 4 game against Ohio; and three more players — safety Kunle Ayinde (unspecified injury), tackle Jonah Pirsig (dislocated shoulder) and guard Joe Bjorklund (knee) — are playing banged up.
Kill said the injuries have especially hurt in one area on which the Gophers pride themselves:
"What it has really leaked into is our special teams," Kill said. "We might have to pull a couple more redshirts. You don't want to do that, but we don't have many more to pull off in the secondary."