As Rick Pitino once said "all the negativity that's in this town sucks."
Your Minnesota Golden Gopher football program is on track for a six win season, which is exactly where this blog thought/hoped they would be. If I remember right, nobody was complaining about a projected six win season in Jerry Kill's second year with the program. We all thought that would be good progress and a step in the right direction. Some of you crazy, rational, more cautious-minded folks even dared to say this might only be a five win team (I know, right?) and that even that result wouldn't be cause to run Kill out of town. Because, you know, it's only his second season here.
Yet here we are eight games into the 2012 season with the Gophers coming off a huge win over Purdue- their first B1G victory of the season- and still have a very good chance of winning one of their last four games to go bowling. Again, about where we thought they'd be and where we were comfortable with them being. However, if you listen to the radio or read the paper, you'd think the team had lost every game by 50, and that Kill was the world's biggest idiot and had spit in the face of every single person in the state of Minnesota. They are treating Kill's decision to wait until the seventh game of the season to start true freshman Philip Nelson like it's the worst decision in the history of the program. Yes, even worse than former AD Joel Maturi hiring Tim Brewster. These sage media football geniuses are, believe it or not, forgetting a few minor details over the past year or so.
Now just so we're clear, the beat writers around town are, of course, keeping everything in perspective. The past three weeks have made me appreciate how good the guys covering Gopher football are, and we're fortunate to have guys like Phil Miller, Nate Sandell and Marcus Fuller (I know not a fan favorite with everyone, but still) covering the team. The so-called "columnists" and radio hosts? Yeah not so much.
Maybe this is the case in every city, but I take anything the oolumnists say in this town with a gigantic grain of salt. You know this, I know this, everybody knows this. They all treat Gopher football like their whipping boy, something they rarely pay attention to, and only bring up if there's something to rip on. And I get it: there's EIGHT teams in this town to cover (five pro teams including the Lynx plus Gopher football, basketball, and hockey), and Gopher football hasn't been relevant since 1967. I'm not expecting daily and intimate coverage from columnists and radio hosts like you see with the Vikings or Twins (or for some reason the Timberwolves. Nobody gets more coverage for doing less than the Timberwolves) because Gopher football hasn't earned it. But I also don't think they've earned the usual mocking and ridicule they're given when the "big boys" need to kick someone when they're down.
So none of the columnists' reaction to the Philip Nelson de-redshirting (pretty sure that is a made-up word) surprised me. Guys like Jim Souhan basically think Kill is a liar and an idiot for not starting Philip Nelson when the season began because "look at how good he is now!!!" Obviously, Kill should be able to make every decision with the perfect judgment that hindsight brings. I would hate seeing Souhan have to make a decision in real life, because he wouldn't know what to do without knowing how it all played out. He was especially harsh on Kill this time around, but his opinion has become almost worthless since it seems every column is meant solely to sell newspapers (good luck with that) and generate page hits with controvery and outlandish statements.
None of that surprised me. What did was how the radio hosts reacted. Well not on KFAN, mostly because I've totally given up on expecting coverage of the team on that station even though, you know, they're the "home for Gopher football" (which is true for two hours before and after the game, for an hour with former Coach Glen Mason, and for about 20 minutes every Thursday morning on the Power Trip morning show) but I expected better of Judd and Phunn on 1500 E!SPN.
Judd on Monday and Mr. Phunn Joe Anderson yesterday both made statements that said Kill should have played Nelson from the beginning and that we need to stop treating Kill and the program with kid gloves. Like Gopher football fans need to stop complaining when someone says something negative like this about their team or their coach. I won't speak for every Gopher football fan out there who puts up with this line of thinking from those who only casually follow the team (or like KFAN only follow as little as humanly possible because they're contractually obligated to), but what bothers me is not that they're critizing the coach, it's just that it seems to come so often without any context or reasonable expectations.
Look, the decision to cancel the UNC series AND have to pay $800,000 is completely inexcusable to me. I understand Kill's reasoning for doing it, but it looks really, really bad, and I don't think he and AD Norwood Teague had any idea how bad the PR fallout would be (or maybe they did and still felt it was worth it?). They deserve every bit of criticism they received for that move. But I feel like that decision is now being grouped together with the Philip Nelson Decision, and that because paying to cancel the UNC series was a bad decision then it's easy to pile on for how he handled Nelson.
My problem with the anger over waiting until game 7 to start Nelson is that the entire argument is used via hindsight. Yes, with how well Nelson played against Purdue, it leaves one to wonder how he would have done all season behind center with a healthier MarQueis Gray at wideout all year. But there's three main points the critics seem to be forgetting:
1) NOBODY was saying that before the season started. Nobody. Souhan and others use the excuse "well if we would have been able to watch practice and see what the coaches see then we would have known in August what we know now." Really Jim? You know more about football and whether a quarterback is ready better than his own coach and staff (that would probably be true of the last head coach here, but not this one)? Gray started last season and improved as the season went on. He led the team to wins over Iowa and Illinois, and played very well against a good Michigan State defense. He has a great work ethic, and his teammates love him, and he put in a lot of work in the off-season, and looked ready to build on his 2011 season in 2012 as a former 4 star recruit who was finally being given a chance to make good on his potential. His backup hadn't looked great in 2011, especially in the blowout loss to Michigan, but he was also playing with an incredibly inexperienced and banged-up offense. He threw pretty well again in the off-season, and from every report we got from beat reporters was that Shortell looked fine as the backup.
So let me get this straight then: your senior returning starter QB has looked good in fall practice, as has your experienced sophomore backup quarterback, and yet it should have been obvious to start a true-freaking-freshman?!?
2) It's not that Gray played extremely well at QB this season, but after his first ankle injury we realized how much the offense needed him to succeed because they couldn't generate a rushing game without him. Sure, Gray struggled with his passing the first three games (he was really hit or miss against UNLV, only threw 8 times against UNH, and barely threw against WMU before he got hurt), while Shortell had looked great in relief in those games. When Gray got hurt, there were thoughts (from yours truly) that the offense would be better off with Shortell at the helm because it would open up the passing game. Then the Iowa and Northwestern games proved that to be false. The offense needed Gray at quarterback to help generate a running game, because without him back there as a threat the running backs (and by "running backs" I mean "Donnell Kirkwood") were not able to generate yards as defenses knew the quarterback run wasn't going to hurt them. And let's be honest, by the Northwestern game Shortell appeared so rattled that they knew the pass wasn't going to hurt them either. After the Iowa Debacle at no point to I remember anyone in the media, or anywhere else, saying "Why aren't they putting Philip Nelson in?!?!?!?"
3) That second point, about the offense struggling to run with their running backs aka Kirkland Kirkwood without Gray, leads to the third: that may still be true even with Nelson in the game. #9 was incredible in the win over Purdue, yet have we forgotten that against Wisconsin he led the team in rushing attempts and yards (just 16 for 68) and the offense generated just 245 total yards because once again a good defense was able to shut down the run? Maybe it was because Kirkwood was hurt, and maybe Nelson really HAS made that much progress in just two starts, but three of the last four are against solid defenses, and two of them- Michigan and Michigan State- are REALLY good. Michigan State and Michigan are not just 1 and 2 in total defense in the B1G, they're 5th and 9th respectively in the entire country. Nebraska is a far cry from it's vaunted "Blackshirts" days, but they're still a helluva lot better than Purdue's defense was. Or, according to the stats, better than Iowa's or Northwestern's too.
Not saying that Nelson and the offense can't succeed against the Michigan schools and Nebraska, it's just that it's not going to be anywhere near as easy as it was against Purdue. The Gophers can hopefully beat Illinois on the road for that sixth win, but if the offense struggles and the team loses against good teams in the other three, will it still be SO freaking obvious Philip Nelson should have started? It may be the offense would have been better off staying with Gray for the rest of this season (if he were healthy enough) and hope that another offseason of practice, conditioing and- at least at running back- recruiting can solve the running game issue against good defenses for next season.
Bottom line, what's done is done, and this is Philip Nelson's team the rest of this season. I hope he continues his brilliance from the Purdue game for the rest of the year, and we can carry some positive vibes into the long, long off-season. Even if he doesn't, it doesn't mean it was the wrong decision because he's getting invaluable game-time experience to help him and the team for next season and beyond. While it could have happened earlier, unless you're using hindsight and a crystal ball, it would seem to me that Kill made the right decision to wait as long as he did to start Philip Nelson. But of course I'm just an overly-sensitive Gopher fan and not a football-genius newspaper columnist, so what do I know?