The Gophers are 3-0 and heading into what is probably the most critical 2-week stretch of the season. Unfortunately the
prevailing only Gopher related discussion point around the radio/internet water-coolers is about Jerry Kill and his latest seizure. I think it was beautifully, masterfully, accurately and tactfully covered here by PuckettWept and GoAUpher here. Those guys nailed this topic and in short order. I'm not going to try and duplicate their work; and I'd fall short of their quality anyway. I'm moving on; much like the coaching staff, team and administration did on Saturday afternoon.
The Gophers, as fully expected, are 3-0 after dispatching one of the worst teams in the Mountain West, one of the worst independent teams in FBS and then a mediocre FCS school. The schedule has been incredibly weak and the Gophers have taken care of business each time. Even if there were some slow starts, this team eventually established an offensive identity and made the plays necessary to win each game by a decent margin.
Before I start looking ahead, I think this is the right time to look back at the first three games looking at what we have done well and what still is a work in progress.
What I've Liked
I'll start with the defense. For the most part this group has played rather well against both the run and the pass. 5th in the Big Ten in yards allowed may not be a praiseworthy ranking but the fact that we have given up several offensive possessions due to special teams and defensive touchdowns, this defense has had more plays run against it than most of their Big Ten brethren. More plays equals more yards. When you break things down on a per play average the Gophers rank 3rd in the Big Ten.
Secondly, I am starting to like our ground game. It didn't dominated in the UNLV game but since then the running backs have averaged 8.0 and 6.1 yards per carry in the NMSU and WIU games respectively. This is in part to the offensive line and it is also due to Rodrick Williams and David Cobb starting to become better runners with each carry they are getting. Each game saw a different back begin to emerge as the primary ball-carrier. I like what I've seen out of David Cobb the most and hopefully the lightbulb has done off for this kid. He is the most dynamic of our three backs and I'd love to see his carries increase before changing the pace with the bruising combo of Kirkwood and Nugget.
There are other things I have liked (offensive line, special teams and secondary for the most part) but the overall defense and the rushing game stand out to me.
What Needs to Improve
The passing game is the one thing that desperately needs some help. Maybe the Gophers have been playing things rather vanilla through the first three games. Maybe they were talented enough to just run through their first three opponents. But eventually, when you start facing Big Ten defenses, you are going to have to move the ball through the air and keep teams off balance with the pass. The Gopher passing offense ranks last in the Big Ten and it is last by a long way. Michigan State ranks 11th in the league with 160 yards per game, which dominates our paltry 116 yards per game. This is where I'll point out again that we have faced 3 very weak defenses. Here again you can go deeper inside the numbers to see that part of the reason our total yardage is so low is because we attempt far fewer passes than anybody else (for example, we have 50 attempts to Michigan State's 85). But this needs to improve and it has me very nervous.
I know I just praised the Gopher defense but the other area of concern to me is the rush defense. This largely comes down to a few, key mistakes by the front seven. At times this front seven is very strong and has dominated the line of scrimmage. At others they get out of position and get gashed for big plays. We saw in last year's Iowa game where even just making a few poorly-timed mistakes can cost you against better competition.
The last thing I have not liked are the slow starts. Against the level of competition we have faced you can often get away with slow starts and early deficits. Against better teams, especially when we start to see some of the better Big Ten teams, we will be down and out before we have a chance to come back. As a Gopher apologist I would point to the difficulty of getting up and hyped for games against FCS opponents or small crowds in Las Cruces, New Mexico. But excuses shouldn't be necessary here and better execution must be expected from the opening kickoff.
But we are done facing teams where we can afford to make mistakes as we get better. We are done with the guarantee-games (which are not guaranteed for the Gophers in recent years) and heading into a crucial 2-game stretch. The next two are both challenging yet winable and they will go a long way towards determining the Gopher's bowl fate.
First up is San Jose State. The Spartans were riding an 8-game winning streak from 2012 before losing to Stanford in their second game of the season. Gone from last season's 11-2 is basically just their starting running back, DeLeon Eskridge. Yes, that DeLeon Eskridge! The former Gopher rushed for over 1,000 yards last season in San Jose. But this offense is fueled by the arm of David Fales. The senior quarterback is a likely early round draft pick and threw for nearly 4,200 yards last season with a 33:9 TD to INT ratio. This is the game where our pass defense will be truly tested.
More than anything else I believe that the Gopher game plans have been rather vanilla on both sides of the ball. I don't know that we'll see the entire playbook thrown at San Jose State but I do believe we'll be forced to more offensively as their potent passing attack will certainly challenge our defense more than the previous opponents. Time to get on with better execution and fewer mistakes while continuing to do what we do best.
I do appreciate how most of the fan base is not overly enthusiastic about the 3-0 start. We all recognize that anything less would be a huge disappointment. The Gophers still have much to prove and it starts this week.