Lost in the Nebraska blowout and AJ Barker quitting while hurling insults and accusations on his way out the door AND Maryland and Rutgers coming to the B1G(?!?!?) Minnesota Gopher football still has one last regular season game to play agains the Michigan State Spartans. And would you believe the Gophers have the better record of the two teams coming in? This could be a slap fight of epic proportions.
Sparty, which started the season as a top 15 team nationally and a trendy pick to go to the Rose Bowl now has to beat the Gophers if just want to go bowling at all this year. Their defense has been as good as expected as they lead the Big Ten in scoring and total defense, and are ranked 10th and 7th nationally in those categories. That's not a recipe for success for the Gopher offense, who couldn't even manage 200 yards against Nebraska last week. The sliver of hope is that, if you can believe it, wait maybe you should be sitting down for this...sitting down now? Good? Ok then...statistically speaking, Michigan State's offense has been about as bad as Minnesota's this year.
SEE? That's why I had you sit down first. You didn't think it was possible, yet somehow, despite the B1G's second leading rusher in Le'Veon Bell (a whopping 315 carries for 1382 yards and 10 TD's), Sparty has the 11th rated scoring offense (Minnesota is somehow 9th) and are 9th in total offense with 365.7 yards per game, just slightly ahead of 10th ranked Minnesota with 337.6.
Still, their defense is otherworldly, their offense isn't good but they can do one thing the Gophers have trouble stopping (running the football), and they absolutely, positively have to win to go to a bowl game. Advantage Sparty? Yeah, I would say so. Yet I'm not counting the Gophers out of this one, it's just yet another week where Minnesota will enter the game as an underdog. They have not done very well in that role this year, but the thought/hope is that this one will turn out better than the blowouts against Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nebraska.
Unlike those games, though, there is most definitely going to be some extra motviation. It's certainly not going to be easy without Barker for an offense that has really struggled without him since he hurt his ankle, didn't get an MRI, then hurt it worse, got an MRI, refused to follow the team-prescribed treatment, got upset when the coaches got upset when he didn't follow the team prescribed treatment and is now no longer part of the team. I think that's the gist of it, right? Basically? The big question, and maybe the biggest X factor for Saturday, is whether Barker's departure will cause the team to fracture or make it even stronger? Are there more guys who feel like Barker does and are just afraid to say it and this whole fiasco will cause the team to come apart at the seams? Or were Barker's feelings about how the coaching staff is treating and handling the players an exception and not the rule? With all the distractions from this (MarQueis Gray kindly asked people via Twitter to stop asking him about it so he can focus on getting ready for the upcoming game. I'm guessing he's not the only one in that locker room who feels that way) the players have to be chomping at the bit to get out there and play and put all of this behind them.
There's also the fact it's Senior Day, and we've heard all season how much this team loves a senior like Gray. There's also plenty of respected defensive leaders playing their last home game like Troy Stoudermire, Michael Carter, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Motivation is a funny thing: you'd think getting their asses handed to them by Nebraska would be motivation enough to go out and play better, but there's definitely going to be something extra because of the Barker fall-out and Senior Day. We'll see if the extra attention for the program and the coaches' tactics are too much for the guys or whether it galvanizes them and they come out fired up. Of course, motivation is just one part of it as this team needs to execute better in all facets too. Maybe this is the week the Gophers actually slow down a solid runing game (I realize statistically Sparty's run game is pretty meh but Bell is the second best rusher in the conference), which would be fun. Better late than never, right? And the pass defense didn't look great either as Kenny Bell and his fro torched the Gophers repeatedly.
On offense, I mean, pick something- ANYTHING- and it needs to improve from last week. At this point in the year I'm ready to stop using o-line injuries as an excuse. A lot of these guys who started the season as backups have had plenty of reps now, and Ed and Tommy Olson should both be ready to start again on the left side of the line. If Jon Christenson can't go again at center, Zach Epping is there and Caleb Bak has had plenty of time now to get acclimated at RG. Otherwise, it's just about back to week one starters if Christenson's ready with Epping sliding back to RG and the one constant (knocking on wood as I type that) Josh Campion there at RT. Nelson's the present and future at QB, but for the first time he looked overwhelmed last week against Nebraska. Back home in the comfy confines of TCF Bank Stadium he should look more like his poised self.
It would be a big help if anybody from the remaining group of receivers would like to step up and be the guy. Really, anytime now, fellas. Whatever your thoughts on Barker, he was by far the best receiver on the team this season, and the only one who proved that he could consistently get open and make plays when he was on the field. Derek Engel's a nice possession guy and it's good to have him back, but he's not a #1 receiver. I put DCT's picture up top because I'm still waiting for him to bust out this year. And yes, I'm aware he led the Gophers in catches and yards last week, but 3 for 22 isn't breaking out or stepping up. DCT is the same kid who went for 8-100 on Iowa last year, and last I checked he's still about 6'2 with good wheels. The talent's there, and this would be a great week for him to take a big step forward. Ditto Isaac Fruechte and Andre McDonald too, big kids with plenty of athletic gifts, but we need to see more. I know they're both young and it's asking a lot, but that's the situation the team is in without Barker.
Barring some kind of medical miracle (acupuncture maybe? Sorry, too soon) Gray's just not going to be able to do much of anything on that ankle. At this point I'd love to have him semi-healthy for the bowl game, but really, I just hope he's ready for the NFL combine and NFL tryouts in February and beyond. He's done more than enough for this program that he deserves a solid shot at the pros, and if the ankle's not going to be close enough to 100% for him to make a difference for this game or the bowl game, then what's the point? He can still be a leader from the sidelines, and he can also have his best chance to impress scouts for the next level.
Finally, the running game. Nobody could run the darn thing effectively, and it's going to potentially be even tougher this week against one of the top run D's in the conference. Stop me if you've heard this before, but Donnell Kirkwood is a solid back who's not going to be able to carry the running game by himselt. He, and everybody else, were shut down last week when Nebraska knew they didn't have to respect the pass and could load up on the run. Nelson and the receivers need to make some plays to give Kirkwood and the running attack any hope of success. Roderick Williams continues to look good and hey- how about a James Gillum siteing? He lives! He didn't do much, but maybe there's hope Gillum can still be a contributor these last two games and next year. You can never have too many good running backs, and this team can use all it can get.
We'll have more as the week goes on leading up to the game, a game the Gophers are definitely not favored to win, but based on all the distractions this week, and that it's Senior Day, and it's the last game of the year, I think I'm smelling upset. Or turkey. One of the two.