Western Michigan promises to give the Gophers their toughest test of the young season. Minnesota is 2-0 against a 1-AA school, and a UNLV squad that lost to a 1-AA school. How's this for coming back around...UNLV lost to Northern Arizona 17-14 last week, who lost to 63-6 Arizona State in week 1, who beat Illinois 45-14 in week 2, who beat...oooooooh Western Michigan in week 1 24-7. Ok so all of that probably means nothing. About the only thing we can take away from that is the two teams Minnesota beat aren't very good, and Western Michigan would be a quality win. Here's some things to watch as the Gophers line up against the Broncos on Saturday...
PASS RUSH-- What we know about WMU so far is that if you can pressure QB Alex Carder, like Illinois did in week 1, Alex Carder and the Bronco offense struggles. If you don't get pressure then things turn out like last week when WMU put a whoopin' on Eastern Illniois. As you've no doubt been reading ad nauseum all week, the Gopher d-line has been wreaking havoc through the first two games, and if they hope to win this one, then they have to keep it up.
HOW WELL WILL MARQUEIS THROW? He was not consistently good enough in week 1. In week 2 he attempted just 8 passes but completed 6, including 2 TD's. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict WMU does what both opposing defenses have tried so far, and that's to load up the box to stop the run and force Q to beat them with his arm. Vegas almost accomplished it, New Hampshire didn't come close. While we've talked a lot all week about how WMU's offense is going to be Minnesota's toughest test yet, what we've failed to mention is their defense will be the U's toughest test to date too. The Broncos held Illinois to just 17 offensive points and 248 yards of total offense (the last TD was a pick-six that ended the game), and after a rough first quarter against Eastern Illinois allowing 14 points, they didn't allow them to score again until late in the second half when the game was pretty much over. Gray will have to prove he can throw accurately enough to keep them honest if the Gophers want to win. Unless...
SOMEONE OTHER THAN GRAY RUNS THE BALL WELL-- I'm looking at you, Donnell Kirkwood. "Kirkland" has been by far Minnesota's best back thus far, piling up 71 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in the win over New Hampshire
but he's failed to find the end zone yet. James Gillum has been a disappointment, with a nice TD run in the opener against Vegas but just 5 carries for one measley yard against UNH. He needs to be better. I have a feeling that we're going to see even more of Marcus Jones and KJ Maye, as both are explosive as all get-up (which,if you're wondering, is pretty explosive), and both are adept at running the ball the traditional way via handoffs, or the new way teams "run" the ball with bubble screens and other quick hit "around the line of scrimmage" passing. Whatever it takes, both for this game and for success this season, the Gophers need more than just MarQueis to be a running threat.
PUNTERS PUNTING LIKE PUNTERS-- After being its usual abysmal self in the opener, the punting game was substantially better against UNH. That needs to be the new norm for Minnesota's punting game. Field position is far too important, especially for a team still finding itself on offense, to be giving away with shanks.
COVERAGE MATTERS TOO-- The pass rush needs to be there- heck it HAS to be there for the Gophers to play well. But the guys in coverage can't just be sitting back twiddling their thumbs or playing on their iPhones. The Broncos employ a lot of four and five receiver looks with the idea of creating as many isolation matchups as possible. That's going to put pressure on the Gopher backers and secondary to be smart, disciplined, and tough in coverage all game long.
IS THIS THE GAME FOR ANDRE MCDONALD? The highly touted true freshman has yet to make a real impact, but perhaps this is the game. He was targeted multiple times in the win over UNLV, and missed last week due to an infection. He's supposed to be good to go for WMU, and the youngster with the immense potential should have every opportunity to start making a difference. There's some other guys playing well in front of him, but there's always room in the receiver rotation- and the starting lineup- for someone with this kind of talent. McDonald's play is by no means a key to victory, but if he proves he's ready to be a playmaker, it'll bode very well for the passing game for the rest of this season, and beyond.