A Gophers vs Hoosiers football game with vital importance for both teams? Well I never! But this Saturday is a football contest that both teams really need, Indiana perhaps even more so than Minnesota. IU coach Kevin Wilson is coaching for his job in this his third season, as neither of his first two resulted in bowl berths. IU has five games left to win three more for bowl eligibility, and as you take a look at their remaining schedule, try to guess which three games look the most winnable:
Nov 4 vs Minnesota (6-2)
Nov 9 vs Illinois (3-4)
Nov 16 @ Wisconsin (5-2)
Nov 23 @ Ohio State (8-0)
Nov 30 vs Purdue (1-6)
Hint: it's neither of their road games. If Indiana is going bowling winning their three remaining home games looks like a much more doable task than trying to pull a monumental upset- ON THE ROAD!- against the two best teams in the B1G. So you better believe with two full weeks to prepare for this one thanks to their bye week. Indiana's players are fully aware of how important this game against Minnesota is for them. I have no idea how much they love or don't love Wilson and his coaching staff, but you better believe every kid that plays D1 college football wants to play in a bowl game, and they know to get there, beating Minnesota is as close to a must-win as you can get.
Indiana is looking at Minnesota just like most Gopher fans (myself included) look at the Hoosiers: "well it's ONLY Minnesota" or "it's ONLY Indiana". The Gophers haven't been good in sixty years while the Hoosiers haven't been good in football ever, so at times it may be tough take them seriously. But this IU team can pile up points like crazy, and if Minnesota doesn't bring not just the effort and intensity we saw against Nebraska but also the play-calling we saw against the Huskers, Minnesota is going to have a tough time winning in Bloomington.
The Hoosiers were the hot team coming into the season with a tilt-a-whirl offense and improved defense, but seven games into the season IU is 3-4 overall as their defense has been as bad as their offense has been good. And that offense has been REALLY good, to the tune of eighth in the country in scoring (42.4 per game), 10th in passing yardage (342.7 avg) and 10th in total yards per game (a whopping 514 per). Their rushing offense isn't great at 171 yards per game, good for 63rd in the country, but that's not bad either. To put that in perspective the Gophers played San Jose State earlier in the season and they have a slightly better passing offense (9th in the country at 349.6) than the Hoosiers, but they cannot run the ball at all at 103rd nationally. As Matt said in the podcast last night, the idea Tracy Claeys came up with to slow SJSU down in the second half of a 3-1-7 defensive alignment won't work against IU because they can run the ball effectively.
Then there's Indiana's defense. Holy hell is it bad. In yards given up per game, they are 119th in the country at 498.1 yards per game. Only four schools- Temple, Cal, Idaho, and a team Gopher fans may be familiar with in the AGGIEVISION New Mexico State- are worse. They're 110th in points against (37 per), 108th in passing yards allowed (277), and in the most encouraging news for Gopher fans, are 112th against the run at 221 rush yards per game. As scary as IU's offense is, their defense, at least on paper, couldn't be more perfect for Minnesota to line up and run over.
As we've seen over the past month, what looks good on paper doesn't always translate to performance on the field for both sides. The only thing more shocking than Minnesota getting pasted by Iowa was them beating Northwestern, and then following that up with their first victory over Nebraska since 1960. I'm ok saying ANYTHING can happen this Saturday against IU, and I'm trying to prepare myself for that. The last two weeks have brought hope back to this Gopher program and one or two more victories couldn't be looked at as anything but a big step forward. A 4-4 Big Ten record and perhaps an eight win season is within sight for Minnesota as they begin November, and while we've seen some crazy things happen this season, it likely doesn't happen if the Gophers don't win this weekend. Indiana and Penn State are the two most winnable games remaining on the schedule as beating Bucky, even at TCF Bank Stadium, looks almost impossible, and while there's some who disagree, as things stand right now I don't like Minnesota's chances of beating Michigan State in East Lansing much better.
With all the goodwill and positive vibes the last two weeks have created, they need to keep it rolling Saturday, and we'll see which Gopher team shows up. Minnesota has not fared well against the pass this season, and while they've been better here recently, Indiana might be the best passing team they'll face all season, yes even better than the 439 yards SJSU's David Fales threw for earlier in the season. Brock Vereen's move back to corner has gone well, but Derrick Wells' status remains iffy, and all of IU's spread formations and hurry-up attack are going to severely test an already depleted depth chart in the secondary. To take pressure off the DB's Ra'Shede Hageman will need to keep playing in full beast mode and Theiren Cockran needs to keep bringing loads of pressure off the edge. I highly doubt Minnesota will be able to keep IU in check series after series and drive after drive, so pressure, sacks, and turnovers are going to be needed.
Offensively we've heard talk of time of possession and keeping Indiana's offense off the field. While that's all well and good, it won't do Minnesota much good if they hold the ball for 40 minutes but only have 20 points, as IU is more than capable of putting up three or four TD's in the blink of an eye. The Gophers will likely need to score in the 30's to win Saturday, meaning that their long, sustained drives need to end in points not punts, and more often than not end up in touchdowns not field goals. For that to happen, we need the same creative, diverse and aggressive play-calling we saw from OC Matt Limegrover last week, not the conservative, take-no-chances stuff we've seen from him in just about every game this season prior to that. I'll admit I'm scared to death that Limegrover is going to revert back to the conservative, non-aggressive approach we saw previously because he'll be more worried about not turning the ball over than not scoring. As bad as Indiana's defense has been, even against the run, it's still highly unlikely the Gophers will have prolonged success just handing the ball to David Cobb on every play. Let's hope we see the jet sweep, the play-action passes, the QB rollouts and even an occasional down-field throw to mix it up and move the ball. We've seen Limegrover is capable of great things calling plays, so let's just hope last week's more aggressive approach was the new one and not a one week thing.
This November and the final four regular season games are the biggest of the Jerry Kill Era at Minnesota, as thanks to back-to-back victories the Gophers have already equaled last season's win total at six. Whether they can push through to new territory and beyond in this final month is theirs for the taking, but another big step forward for this season and the program begins this Saturday in Bloomington.
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