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TDG Previews the Minnesota Golden Gophers vs Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

Mtsu_raiders_logo_mediumI think for much of the season JG will do the previews but he is off the grid right now so I get to handle the week 1 preview. First a few details.

For those of you new to TDG, be sure to come back here during game time for the OPEN THREAD. It is a live comment extravaganza with other Gopher fans as we watch the game.

Time: 6:30 p.m. (CT)
Location: Mufreesboro, Tenn.
Stadium: Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium
Surface: Sportexe Synthetic Turf
Capacity: 30,788
TV: ESPNU (Anish Shroff - play by play and Jay Walker - Analyst)
Radio: Gophers Radio Network - WCCO 830 AM
Opponent Radio: MTSU Radio Network

OK, so now that we have the details out of the way let's take a look at the matchup. It feels like it was a long time ago that the Gophers lost an ugly game to Iowa State and they now begin the journey to make their third straight bowl game. MTSU finished 2009 with a 10-3 record winning their New Orleans Bowl matchup with Souther Miss. They were an offensive power averaging 32.0 ppg and 421.7 yards per game. In the program's history the Gophers are 11-1 against Sun Belt teams but they have never played MTSU.

Minnesota on Offense

The Blue Raiders, as mentioned, were 10-3 last year with a potent offense. But it should be noted that their defense also contributed 19 interceptions and 38 sacks. This big play defense did lose two of their lineman one who was the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, they lost two linebackers and they lost two all-conference DBs. Not that we should be holding the loss of defensive starters against an opponent, but those are some heavy losses. On the bright side they return safety, Jeremy Kellam who is potentially the next Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and they return DE Jarami Lattimore who had six sacks last year as a sophomore. Overall their defense is similar to ours in that they are replacing both starting corners and are replacing some experienced linebackers with athleticism.

It has been well established that the Gopher offense is bigger than the Blue Raider defense. Our offensive line is very big and the rumor is we are actually going to try and run the ball with some authority. This would be the team to do that against. We have a distinct size advantage and if we choose to do so we should be able to pound the rock all day long. The question will be if that's enough. If the MTSU offense is able to move the ball with relative ease against the Gopher defense that is starting with 11 new starters, will we be able to afford to move the ball on the ground all day long?

If we are able to get out to an early lead I think you'll see a lot of yards racked up on the ground. If this gets into a shootout then we'll get an early look at the 2010 version of Adam Weber.

KEY MATCHUP - Offensive line vs. MTSU defensive line

I like this matchup a lot. Our OL was much maligned last year and this will be an opportunity to finally establish a power run game. In pass protection it will be interesting to see how Jeff Wills will handle himself against a speed rusher. Remember this MTSU defensive line racked up nearly 40 sacks last year. They are fast, they blitz a lot and they get to the QB.

Minnesota on Defense

The MTSU offense all about speed, points, yards and points. But that was 2009 and this is 2010. They lost a couple wide receivers and one offensive lineman but those aren't the losses that should concern Blue Raider fans. Quarterback Dwight Dasher was expected to return but we all know that his gambling problems are preventing him from playing in week 1. He's a huge loss, but don't underestimate the loss of their offensive coordinator, Tony Franklin.

Franklin is an offensive guru who maybe didn't invent the spread offense but he has perfected running it. He had a short stint at Auburn that failed miserably but much of that was due to the staff not giving him full control. Anyway, Franklin should be given a lot of credit for the offensive success they had in 2009 but he has moved on. I believe his loss is as great as the loss of Dasher. The architect of the offense and the man responsible for running it are both gone. They do return four starters along the offensive line and they'll be getting back tailback Phillip Tanner. This offense is talented but it will be different this year and it will be interesting to watch them tonight.

But not as interesting as watching our new defense. We've talked about the added athleticism for months and we'll finally get to see what our defense with 11 new starters will look like. I've said it before but although we have 11 new starters this isn't a brand new defense. Along the line Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey played nearly as many snaps as the starters a year ago and they could actually outperform Brown and Small. D.L. Wilhite played every game last year as a DE. Keanon Cooper and Gary Tinsley saw a lot of action as LBs last year. Michael Carter and Ryan Collado have plenty of experience in the secondary. So this defense isn't all redshirt freshmen getting their first taste of D1 football.

Now I would feel better if our senior safeties were able to play tonight but they'll be playing eventually. And we do have some guys who actually are getting their first taste of playing a lot of downs. Ra'Shede Hageman, Matt Garin, Kendal Gregory-McGhee, Christyn Lewis, James Manuel and even Mike Rallis are going to be playing the bulk of the snaps for the first time in their careers. I'm very interested to see how this defense plays as a unit and how disciplined they are against this spread offense.

KEY MATCHUP - Gopher secondary vs. Blue Raider pass attack

We have two brand new starters at safety. We have a true freshman and a DII transfer backing up at corner. This is a diverse passing attack that fortunately will have a backup QB under center. If our secondary can keep from giving up really big plays, especially plays for touchdowns then I don't just like our chances but I think we win this one going away. With their brand new quarterback, MTSU may try to utilize their experienced OL and talented tailback and run the ball more than expected but I'm confident in our front seven containing the run. We just have to show we can defend the pass.

The Final?

Long ago I used to really dive into individual matchups and stats and try to really predict how the game was going to play out. But football is just far too difficult to predict who will dictate the game, control the ball and come out on top. Turnovers are often so random and if a game were played 3 weeks in a row the tempo and outcome could be completely different. Ultimately I think we win this game. I felt good before Dasher went down and I feel much better now that he isn't playing.

For my prediction I think we run the ball and run the ball and run the ball in the 1st half. If we get ahead early I think we'll control the clock and rush our way to a W. If MTSU gets a few big plays early and jumps to a lead then I'm far less confident. I don't mean to underestimate the Blue Raiders, they are a talented team. But I'm also confident that the Gophers are better than advertised and we will be 1-0 at this time tomorrow.