So that was not the best of weekends or the happiest of Mondays for Minnesota Gopher football fans after seeing their team dominated by the most hated Iowa Hawkeyes (especially if you have Hawkeye fans in your office. Egads). Hopefully you've recovered from whatever method you chose to use to get over the frustration and anger that losing to Iowa usually brings, magnified by how ugly the loss was. I drove five hours back to the Twin Cities Saturday night trying not to veer into oncoming traffic, or flip off every vehicle I passed that either had a Hawkeye sticker on it or some stupid Hawkeye personalized license plate. Which, for the record, was EVERY vehicle on the road. Or at least it seemed that way. Anyway, by the time I got home I was too tired to drink away my sorrows and fell asleep to the horrid vision of Mark Weisman busting off another 40 yard run. #$%^&!!!!
Sunday morning I awoke to a world that was still there and apparently orbiting the sun. When I looked to the sky, it did not at all seem to be falling, or was even about to. Yesterday morning, same thing. This morning, ditto. The world did not come to an end by losing- and losing badly- to Iowa, it just felt that way. But today is a new day, and with the bye week upon us, we have far too long to stew over this and look ahead to Northwestern. Maybe not a bad time to take a pulse of where we're at as we hit October. As crappy as Saturday was let's be honest here- the Gophers sit at 4-1 heading into the bye week and that's about exactly where most of us thought and/or hoped they'd be before the season began. We're still on track to have a CHANCE to go bowling, still needing to find just two more wins on the Big Ten slate to get to six wins. The Gophers have also shown some improvements from 2011 through these first five games, and obviously still have plenty to work on too.
A lot of us were dreaming big before the Iowa game, and the expectations have been brought back to earth a little bit after the loss. This most likely isn't an eight or nine win team anymore with New Year's Day bowl aspirations, but instead bowl eligibility and six, or even seven, wins is not out of the question. Again, had we told you before the season that the Gophs would win four of their first five and have a great opportunity to go bowling in just the second year of a major rebuild under Jerry Kill, you'd have accepted that gladly, right? Right.
So the question this morning then is where do you see this season going? Do the Gophers get to six wins? More? Less? The Iowa game was a wake-up call and showed there's some improvement to be made, some of which may not be possible this season. At the same time, let's not get too carried away with the results from one game- Iowa hadn't played that well all season and likely won't again. Minnesota hadn't played that poorly all season, and let's hope they won't again. After five games we know this team has some talent, is better than last year's group, and has a better defense than a year ago, but the Hawkeye loss exposed a few things:
- The defense had looked poor at times against the run leading up to the Iowa game, and looked much worse than poor trying to stop the run against IU. Iowa just lined up and flat ran over the Gophers, and unless they sold out and sent 8 or 9 or 10 guys, they had no answer for the Hawks' big line. Weisman may be a really good back, but holy crapola you or I could have run for 100+ yards with the holes he was running through. The d-line got walled off, and the linebackers were nowhere to be seen. It seemed like the corners and safeties were making every tackle.
- The running game woes are back, as is a lack of depth at running back. We had hoped JUCO transfer James Gillum would be the feature back this season and give our returning backs a chance to add depth, but it hasn't panned out. Donnell Kirkwood has stepped up nicely into the featured role, but he's not someone who's going to make people miss. He's a straight-ahead, downfield runner who needs a hole to run through, and he didn't find many against Iowa. Gillum looks to have fallen off the depth chart completely, as KJ Maye and David Cobb garnered a carry or two, but that's it. Maye is an excellent runner in the open field, but at his size he's not going to do much damage between the tackles. Cobb is VERY intriguing, a kid who's been buried on the depth chart not for a lack of ability or size (listed at 220 and looks it), but because apparently he hasn't been picking up the offense as well as the coaches would like. The Hawkeyes found Weisman by default as others went down in front of him, and maybe Cobb breaks out with the opportunities given right now. It couldn't come soon enough as Kirkwood needs help.
- The passing game struggled mightily. I've had conflicting reports on the receivers in that Iowa game as from the vantage point I had at Kinnick it looked like guys weren't getting open. People who saw the game on TV have said they were open, and Max wasn't getting them the ball. Let's split the difference and say both need to improve. The receivers are both very young and/or very inexperienced, so I'm confident this will come in time. Same with Max, who is just a true sophomore. Syracuse threw the kitchen sink at him and he handled it pretty well; Iowa threw the kitchen, both bathroom, and laundry sinks at him as well as a heavy dose of a hostile road crowd and, not surprisingly for a young kid, he struggled. The first INT could have been a TD but he underthrew it, and his timing was way off on the play-action throw to a wide open DCT as he overthrew him badly. Both Max and the receivers will have better days ahead. Like hopefully October 13 against Northwestern.
- The offensive line was beat up and injured most of last season, and a very young line is beat up and injured again this season. They weren't opening holes for Donnell and weren't able to do much to protect Max. Again, there will be better days. Getting LG Tommy Olson back will be a big boost, and another two weeks of practice before the next game is never a bad thing.
Injured senior QB MarQueis Gray doesn't solve all of these problems, but he should make the offense better. The hope is he's close to 100% and able to return for Northwestern, and his running threat (if that ankle is anywhere close to healthy) is something the opposition has to game plan for, hopefully giving the backs more room to run, and opening up the passing game on play-action. Defensively, I believe this is still a very tough defense against the pass, but I have my doubts it's going to get much better this year against power run teams. The problem is, with this being the Big Ten and all, we're far from done with power run teams. We said at the beginning of the year, and before Saturday, that the Gophers had an almost non-zero chance against Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State. Considering those three all run the football well, that opinion hasn't changed. Before the weekend the Wisconsin game looked winnable as the Badgers were really struggling, but after they played Nebraska tough and the Gophers got creamed, that game's looking very, very difficult once again. The Badgers
define the power run game had defined the power run game in the Big Ten before this season (despite Sconnie's struggles I still hate this matchup for Minnesota), and while the fact it's a rivalry game means anything could happen, that game in Madison could also end up looking much like the loss to Iowa.
So there's four likely losses on the slate. That leaves three more to find two more wins for bowl eligibility: Northwestern and Purdue at home, and Illinois on the road. Despite Northwestern's record and gawdy offensive stats, one thing the Wildcats aren't is a power run team. I think the Gophers match up well with NU on both sides of the ball and still like Minnesota's chances to pull the upset. Purdue has also put up some big numbers but again, like Northwestern, they're not a power run team, and I'm not afraid of their defense. This is another home game Minnesota has a very good chance of winning. Illinois will be on the road in the cold of November, but the Illini might be the worst team in the Big Ten (it's either them, Indiana...or us. Gulp). Nothing about Illinois concerns me but it's a road game and those are always tricky in the B1G.
For me, I can definitely see three more wins to get to seven, and I think at worst the Gophers find two more for bowl eligibility. A lot of that will depend upon the recovery of MarQueis, Tommy Olson and others, and the team's ability to bounce back after getting their asses kicked. I like Jerry Kill and staff's chances at motivating them to forget it and move on. The Iowa game certainly exposed some weaknesses, but I believe this is still a bowl team in 2012. What say you?