It doesn't take much to make an argument that the Gophers are exceeding expectations. For a team that many thought would struggle with Montana State, a 6-1 start with two Big Ten wins is rather impressive. And while it's easy to look at the record and simply give the Gophers an "A" at the midway point of the season, that wouldn't really be a fair testament to how they've played.
Today, we grade the offense: quarterback, running backs, wide receivers and offensive line, as well as the offensive game plans. Later in the week we'll grade the defense.
Feel free to disagree or add your own.
Quarterback: Adam Weber has been nothing if not efficient. He ranks 28th among quarterbacks nationally with passer efficiency, surrounded by the likes of Pat White from West Virginia and Matt Grothe of South Florida. For a sophomore, completing 68 percent of your passes and throwing just two interceptions is nothing short of phenominal, especially when you consider what defenses are trying to do to the Gophers. The opposition knows Weber wants to throw to Decker and Weber throws it to Decker anyway. On the negative side, Weber does stare down Decker too often and, in my opinion, doesn't go for the big play enough. But that's not much to complain about. Grade: A-
Running back: After taking over for Duane Bennett, true freshman DeLeon Eskridge quickly grabbed the starting role. Since then, he's rushed 120 times (up there with the league leaders in the conference) for a 4.0 average. By comparison, in two games Bennett was averaging 4.4 yards per carry, though that was clearly against lesser opponents. The most legitimate knock on Eskridge has been that he hasn't been the pass-catching threat out of the backfield that Bennett seemed poised to be. In 5 games as the go-to back, Eskridge has hauled in 17 passes for 174 yards. In just two games, Bennett had 12 grabs for 125.
Eskridge showed breakaway speed at Illinois last week, but he's rarely showed the vision to bounce a run outside, or to make the one cutback necessarry to turn a 4 yard run into a 12 yard run. Some of these things can come with time (and an improved o-line). Since Eskridge grabbed the job, Shady Salamon and Jay Thomas have played sparingly.
For a freshman, Eskridge has been more than fine. But he needs to continue to grow and to sugar-coat his performances and say he's been perfect would be drinking GN's kool-aid. So, we grade down because Eskridge has to grow as a pass-catcher and a runner. Grade: B.
Wide Receiver: Through half of the season, Eric Decker has been the best wide receiver in college football. Fifty-nine catches leads NCAA wideouts. Same thing for 782 yards. Decker has been dominant. He's drawn the best defenders the opposition can muster and still excelled. This on a team that has no other serious option at wide receiver.
But Decker isn't the only wide receiver on the field for Minnesota, even if it might feel like it sometimes. Ben Kuznia has caught 17 balls for 155 yards, but has shown no ability to either go deep or run consistent underneath routes. Ralph Spry, who seems to be on the field most of the time, has just 7 catches for 63 yards (and that almost very costly fumble last week) in seven games.
The somewhat-hyped newcomers--Brodrick Smith, Brandon Green, Da'Jon McKnight and David Pittman--have combined to catch 3 balls for 31 yards. If the Gophers are going to finish 10-2, someone not named Decker needs to step up. If I had to guess, I'd point to Troy Stoudemire. But for now, because of the lack of depth, Decker's excellence can only take this group so far. Grade: B-.
Offensive Line: The most beleaguered group of Gophers, the offensive line has been a relative clusterf&%k all season. Dom Alford, Nedward Tavale and Jeff Tow-Arnett have all missed time. A young group as it is, the frequent injuries have hindered Minnesota's ability to find stability along the offensive line. The mix-and-match group has allowed 13 sacks which ranks 9th in the conference.
That number would probably be higher but Mike Dunbar's offense relies a lot on quick looks and underneath routes. The o-line's struggles might be one reason we haven't seen Weber air the ball out often. And also consider Weber's escapability. If the Gophers had a slow-footed quarterback and/or relied on a down the field aerial attack, Minnesota's offensive line could well be at the bottom of the conference in sacks allowed.
Individually, it has been right tackle Ryan Wynn, a redshirt freshman from Plymouth, that has stood out in a negative way. Against Indiana, Wynn was routinely manhandled by the Hoosiers and that resulted in Minnesota's inability to finish drives and beat Indiana more convincingly. Wynn's struggles aside, this group is very, very young and should improve. Don't forget that Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel will be around next year. But we're grading on the first half of this season, and as far as the offense is concerned, it's this group that deserves the most criticism. Having the 10th ranked rush offense in the conference doesn't deserve high marks. Grade: D+
Mike Dunbar: A purported spread ofense guru, Mike Dunbar took over the offense from the run-oriented Glen Mason regime and, contrary to popular perception, has used the spread to play ball control. The 2008 Gophers haven't been about quick strikes, they've been about methodical drives.
Minnesota is second in the conference in time of possession at 32:06 per game and have run the ball 261 times while throwing just 143 times. For some context, let's look back to 2006, Mason's last year. Then, the Gophers ran the ball 467 times and dropped back to throw 373 times. I've been the type to argue against the spread because I suggested the Gophers need a traditional offense to control tempo given our suspect defense. I was wrong. With the spread, Dunbar is controlling the game on the ground as well, if not better than Mason's traditional offense did. For this ratio, I give Dunbar high marks.
And he also seems to be using his personnel wisely. The Gophers can't afford Adam Weber to get dinged up. So, Weber hasn't been running and taking the beating he did last year. Dunbar has the best wide receiver in the country and despite the attention opposing defenses are paying to Decker, Dunbar has found ways to get him the ball. Decker is lining up in different spots, he's running the ball on end-arounds. For the Minnesota offense to excel, Decker needs the ball. Dunbar is getting it to him.
That said, Minnesota hasn't been able to get others into the act. The offense is basically Eskridge right, Eskridge left and look to Decker. Dunbar needs to find ways to get others involved. It doesn't matter if it's Jack Simmons, Brandon Green or Ralph Spry, the Gophers need another weapon to emerge. Because while ball control has been nice, the numbers Minnesota is putting up are relatively weak.
The rush offense ranks 10th in the conference and the Gophers are averaging 361.1 yards per game, good for a bottom echelon conference ranking. Minnesota's ability to limit turnovers and create them on defense has worked to blind us to some of the offense's shortcomings, but it's my opinion that the offense has plenty of room to grow.
So, Dunbar is graded up for controlling time of possession and getting Decker the football, but graded down simply for overseeing an offense putting up yawn-inspiring numbers. Grade: B-