Saturday's victory versus Air Force was a historic experience for Gopher fans, the University and the State of Minnesota. While the casual observer reveled in the fanfare and the splendor of TCF Bank Stadium, die-hard football fans watched a Gopher team defeat a disciplined Air Force squad that had won their previous game by a score of 72-0 versus Nicholls State. Granted that Nicholls State was not a top tier opponent, but do consider that Nicholls State defeated Duquesne this past Saturday by a score of 14-7. Air Force was no cupcake.
More important than a single victory is the direction in which the Minnesota program is moving. Is the program getting better, worse, or has it hit a plateau? Based upon my observations of the past two weeks, here are three points that indicate the program is headed in the right direction:
Player Development- The play of Nate Triplett and Lee Campbell over the last two weeks is indicative of a program in which players improve from year to year. Triplett was a three star recruit in 2005 on both Rivalsand Scout, yet played mostly special teams until this season. Campbell was a two star recruit on both Rivalsand Scout, and has improved markedly during each year in the program.
Taken alone, these players could be examples of "late bloomers." However, looking up and down the roster similar stories are evident with defensive tackles Eric Small and Garrett Brown, tight end Nick Tow-Arnett, cornerback Marcus Sherels, and safety Kyle Theret. All of these players received little interest from major college programs, yet have become solid Division I football players. As an obvious logical consequence, the future is bright for the development of players that entered the program with exceptional measurables and interest from other programs over the last two years.
In all fairness, the 2008 recruiting class is Tim Brewster's first full recruiting class, and when that class has redshirt seniors playing in 2012 the program should begin to fully reflect the efforts of the Tim Brewster era.
Halftime Adjustments - Over the last decade of watching Gopher football, fans began to expect a strong first half showing followed by secondhalf disasters. Opposing teams would make adjustments for the second half, while Minnesota would continue to run the same game plan from the first half. This year has been different. First, Kevin Cosgrove and Ronnie Lee deserve praise for their halftime adjustments. Air Force moved the ball against Minnesota into the third quarter, but adjustments in the Gophers' defensive scheme slowed them down as the game progressed.
One example, the Nate Triplett fumble recovery, was the result of Kim Royston adjusting his position to force the quarterback to cut inside on the option.
Here's a first and second half comparison of the Gopher defense this season:
Three and Out %
As you can see by the above chart, the Minnesota defense improved in each of the listed statistical areas in the second half for the first two games of the season. The most likely reason for these disparities is a combination of good defensive adjustments and having players that tire out to a lesser extent than the opponents.
So how about the offense?:
Once again, the Gophers improved for every statistic from the first to the second half for the first two games of the season. Second half improvements are a new phenomenon for Gopher football, and if this trend continues throughout the season is a good sign for the future of the program.
- Deleon Eskridge- Last season, Deleon Eskridge stepped in as a true freshman for the injured Duane Bennett to shoulder the bulk of the carries for the Gophers. Bennett exhibited good slashing abilities, but was fumble- prone and didn't often make the first tackler miss. Saturday, Eskridge looked bigger and faster than last year, and was able to shake the first defender more often than not. Unless Saturday was an enigma, the Gophers may soon have a duo of capable running backs in Duane Bennett and Deleon Eskridge. Such a luxury will pay dividends as Minnesota progresses through a grinding schedule.
Developing players in the system, out-coaching opponents with adjustments throughout the game, and having more than one capable running back are all signs of a program heading in the right direction. While I still believe that the Gophers will be fortunate to have a winning season due to an extremely difficult schedule, the future is beginning to look golden for the Gophers.