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Minnesota Gopher Football: Two big issues from the first two games

First off, the good news continues about head coach Jerry Kill's recovery. Team physician Pat Smith expects Kill to be released from the hospital soon, perhaps as early as today. That's pretty incredible considering what happened to him last Saturday. While the chances are looking better that Kill could be back on the sidelines this Saturday, more important to me is that the man is healthy, and is going to be ok.

So with that in mind, take the rest of this with a gigantic grain of salt (I should probably preface every post I write by saying "take this with a grain of salt") but let's talk about the Gopher football team. Two games, two losses. One we expected, the other...yeah not so much. Minnesota lost by a combined 9 points in the two games, and while the opponents couldn't have been more different, the results were eerily similar. The Gophers were outplayed in the first half of both games, made some second half adjustments to get them back in the game (Minnesota has outscored their opponents 21-7 in the second half), and had the ball on the final drive with a chance to tie or take the lead.

Yet both games ended in losses. GN's post yesterday listed the problems for this team thus far, but for me, there's two that have stood out in both games- and neither involve the quarterbacks...

Pass Defense

This one is the most obvious because it's been...well, the most obvious. The pass defense has been atrocious, or perhaps a better description would be "non-existent", as USC and New Mexico State combined for 592 passing yards, 6 passing TD's, 71.1 completion percentage, and a passer efficiency rating of 157.3. A small sample size, but all of those totals are the most given up by any Big defense. Oh, one other stat to throw out- the Gophers still haven't registered a sack yet either.

Look, it's somewhat understandable that the Gophers struggled to contain Matt Barkley and USC in the opener. Barkley put on an NFL-caliber clinic of how to quickly and efficiently get rid of the ball to the right receiver at the right time. Minnesota could have rushed him with tanks and still not have gotten a sack against him. Barkley will be playing on Sundays soon, and so will Robert Woods and probably half of their receiving corps. But New Mexico State?!?

As GN mentioned yesterday, Aggies QB Dexter Andrew Manley was 14-17 for 226 yards and three TD's- IN THE FIRST HALF! Sure, Manley was held in check in the second half by going just 6-14 for just 62 yards, but the Aggies also relied more on their ground game and tailback Robert Gray (20 carries for 97 yards and a score before he got hurt in the fourth quarter) to grind away at the Gopher defense and chew up the clock.

The second half adjustments we've seen with the pass defense in both games is great- but why are they getting torched so badly in the first half? And where is the pass rush in either half? NMSU wasn't doing anything crazy complicated in their schemes, just some misdirection and play-action passes that left their receivers wide open AND gave Manley all day to throw. We knew going into the season that the secondary was a concern, but we figured/hoped/prayed a new and improved pass rush would help alleviate some of the pressure. Obviously, it hasn't happened. Zero sacks, and very few QB pressures or hurries through two games is disappointing to say the least, and the front four are not getting the job done.

DC Tracy Claeys is a very smart man with a long history of success, and he's surrounded by some excellent positions coaches, but he clearly has his work cut out for him this season. If stopping New Mexico State from taking to the air is difficult, just wait until the Gophers face Dan Persa, Denard Robinson, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, or Nate Scheelhaase. Ok I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Let's move on.

Struggling to Run with the Running Backs

For me, the defining play of Saturday's game was this one from the fourth quarter, as described by GN:

Now it was 4th and goal from the one. Easy enough for a Big Ten offensive line to gain one yard against a smaller defensive line right? WRONG! LaMonte Edwards was denied at the goal line when the offensive line mustered zero push. New Mexico State stopped the Gophers cold and took over at the 6-inch line.

Despite all of the mistakes the Gophers have made and having been outplayed to that point, Minnesota faced a 4th and goal from the one to tie the game. One measly yard against a WAC defense is NOT asking much, and the Gophers were unable to get it. The Aggies turned right around, and from the six inch line gained three yards to get themselves out of trouble and away from the end zone. The problem is the offensive line just doesn't seem to be getting much- if any- push up front, and the running backs aren't able to find holes or create much of anything. NMSU's Robert Gray was far from the best halfback Minnesota will play this fall, but he made a few nice runs when there wasn't much there. He also had some nice runs when his line made some blocks. Neither of those things have happened much at all or Minnesota's running game.

The line just doesn't seem to be getting much push, and there doesn't seem to be a much of a hole where the run for a tailback is designed to go. Much of it seems to be up the middle in the first two games, and our three seniors- Chris Bunders and Ryan Orton at guard and Ryan Wynn at center- just aren't getting it done. I love our young tackles Ed Olson and Jimmy Gjere, but it hasn't been much better running off of them either. Tim Brewster left the cupboard pretty bare on the offensive line, and it's showing so far, as the few veterans we have haven't been performing as well as they need to, and the young kids behind them are, well, young.

As for the guys running the ball, Q has been as great as expected when he carries it either on designed draws, option keepers or scrambles, leading the Gophers by a wide margin with 188 yards on 31 carries. Max Shortell has been better than expected with 3 carries for 32 yards in his limited playing time, and WR Macolm Moulton had one nice run for 13 yards. The tailbacks? Not so much. Senior Duane Bennett has 81 yards on 24 carries for just a 3.2 YPC, and redshirt frosh Lamonte Edwards, has 8 carries for just 17 yards. That's a paltry 1.4 YPC! Again, just like with the pass defense, it's one thing if they struggled to run against a team with the talent USC has, on the road, in their first game with a new coaching staff. But at home, against NEW MEXICO FREAKING STATE?!?!?!

Against the Aggies, Bennett had 9 carries for just 25 yards and Edwards just 7 for 11 yards. That's pathetic, but what does it say about the rest of the running backs on the roster when Bennett and Edwards haven't done much of anything, and yet they're the only two tailbacks to register a carry so far? With Bennett and Edwards clearly struggling last week, where was Donnell Kirkwood or David Cobb or Devon Wright? Standing on the sidelines. They must not be close to ready or deserving of the coach's trust, because with such a glaring lack of productivity from the top two backs, no one else has been given a chance.

The line needs to get some push, to blow somebody off the ball, and if they can't do it against a freaking WAC team...ok, ok I'm not going to go there yet. But for a team whose offense is designed to run optimally when they're running almost twice as much as they throw, it's a problem when your quarterback is your lone reliable running threat, and the only two backs you let carry the ball have combined to average barely three yards per carry.

Our coaches are intelligent and proven winners, and you know they're doing everything they can to fix the running game and pass defense. Those need to improve, or it could be a long 2011 season for the Gophers.