THIS IS A DIFFERENT GOPHER TEAM
I'm stealing this from Frothy Gopher (follow him @FrothyGopher on the Twitter), but he's so right I can't not say it- Saturday was a game Minnesota usually lost in the past. As a Gopher fan, I kept waiting for it to happen, almost an inevitability that they would blow this game only because it had happened so many times before. When they had to settle for a field goal inside the 10 at the start of the fourth quarter which only put them up 17-10 instead of a 20-10 cushion, I had already started playing out the scenario in my mind. Northwestern will tie it up at 17, and win 24-17 in the most excruciating way possible. Something like, oh I don't know, a pick-six to lose right at the end of the game. Not like that had ever happened before. jNW even set us up for the let-down by fumbling the ensuing kickoff out of bounds at their own three. Then came the 13 play scoring drive with the overturned third down incompletion that became a completion and then the worst call of the day with the phantom RTP penalty, followed by a nuclear meltdown from Kill.
And that was it. 17-17, all the momentum and good vibes with the Wildcats, a heart-breaking loss now all but inevitable and worst of all, we'd have to listen to those f***ing jNW fans gloat all week about how right they were (more on them in a minute). Instead, Jalen Myrick gets some great blocking, finds the seam, and houses the kickoff 100 yards for the go-ahead score. The defense went back into shut down mode (the Gopher offense may have also gone into shut down mode a little early) and Minnesota pulled off the victory.
That just wouldn't have happened to previous teams, but as we seem to be finding, this Gopher team is not like the others. Far from perfect and plenty to improve upon but they're 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten and what's more, they've proven they're tough and resilient and don't wilt when things go against them. Kind of like their head coach.
THE DEFENSE WAS THE DIFFERENCE-AGAIN
We're "picking nits" at this point with the defense. You do realize that, right? Who cares if the Gopher corners gave up some back shoulder throws to jNW? The Gophers scheme, which Matt has detailed before, trusts Murray and BBC- and especially Murray- to play man on the outside, and it would appear in Claeys man-to-man schemes the DBs are taught to faceguard the receivers (because it's legal in college ball but not in the pros) as a better way of defending just about every type of route except one- the back-shoulder throw. Why? Because it's not only one of the most difficult throws to make in the sport, it's one that when thrown correctly vs man defense is almost impossible to stop. In the NFL pro defenses are as good as it gets yet when a Brees or Manning or Rodgers puts it perfectly on his receiver's back shoulder, it's an indefensible play. In college, and especially in the B1G, you're going to play one or two QB's a year who can make that throw even remotely consistently. TCU was one with Boykins who did pretty well with it, and Siemien did it on a few throws for jNW. That's one of the top offenses in the entire country in TCU and a team in Northwestern who you beat and held to just 17 points. With all the other things using your DB's like that in man coverage allows Claeys to do, you take that trade-off everytime.
It's not to say this defense is without fault or at a Michigan State or elite-SEC level of defense (the third down convergence rate needs work, for instance) but let's just appreciate this for what it is: a really good defense. Yes, their performance in the first half made vs Northwestern me nervous but Claeys made his usual half time adjustments, and things got better. I was so sure jNW had run all over the Gopher defense yet in the end finished with just 124 yards at 3.6 per carry, which is almost exactly their average for the season. And for as much as Northwestern moved the ball and outgained Minnesota, there are only two numbers that matter: 7 and 54. Seven is the amount of points the Wildcats scored in the second half. 54 is the number of plays they ran to do it! In total they ran 84 plays compared to Minnesota's 54, with 32 of the 84 coming in the fourth quarter alone. The Gophers shut them down completely in the third as Northwestern had the ball three times in the third quarter and punted three times.
In the fourth quarter...yeah the fourth is where things got a little nuts. The 13 play, 97 yard TD drive started the quarter, and as Nate Sandell points out, it was the first time all season an opponent had scored when they started inside of Minnesota's 20. Turns out it mattered not as Myrick housed the kick off. After that, the Gophers went back to shutting down the Wildcats, and held on to win the game.
This is what this defense does, and has done the entire season. Another great stat per Sandell:
The Gophers have come up with stops on 83.8% of drives (57-of-68) in which an opponent has started in its own territory, which ranks second in the Big Ten behind Penn State (85.8%, 53-of-62).
The Gophers have allowed just two scores (a pair of touchdowns) when an opponent starts behind its own 25-yard line (33-of-35, 94.2% - best mark in the Big Ten).
Minnesota has the best middle linebacker in the B1G in Damien Wilson, the best corner in Eric Murray, a guy who is not too far behind in BBC, a trio of good safeties, two very productive LB's flanking Wilson, and an evolving D-line. The next two games they'll get a chance to dominate and we'll see if they're up for the task. After that, we learn how good the D really is as the Gophers will face four of the best run-heavy offenses in the conference to close the season. The defense isn't perfect yet, but let's appreciate how good they have been.
HELLO PASSING GAME!
Last year, the Gophers were in the ditch after their first two B1G games, 0-2 after getting thumped by Iowa and Michigan with a listless offense. Two games into the 2014 B1G slate and the Gophers are cruising in the fast lane, and QB Mitch Leidner has been a big reason why, completing 64% of his passes for an average of 160 yards. After taking three sacks in the Michigan game (long an achilles heel of Moose's), he only took one in the win over Northwestern, and while he has only thrown one TD in two games, he's only thrown one interception too. Sure, it was a bad throw and bad decision into double coverage, but he has made strides as a passer the last two weeks. That confidence we saw last year as a freshman that vanished the first three games is back, and he made some incredible throws on Saturday. The 20 yard sideline route to Isaac Fruechte with pace on time was a thing of beauty, and is a pass he simply doesn't complete last year, let alone probably even attempts. He had a few others too on a post corner and timing routes to the edges where he looked really, really good.
This is the Mitch we hoped to get when the season began, and whatever happened the first three games I hope is gone for good. This Mitch can win games for Minnesota not just "not lose" them as a care-taker QB. We're never going to see a pass-heavy system here, but Leidner has shown sides of definite progress the past two games, and if he can continue to complete over 60% of his passes for 150+ yards per game while limiting his turnovers and sacks, the Gophers will have a chance to win every game the rest of the season.
ISSAC FRUECHTE, YOU CAN HAVE ALL OF MY APOLOGIES
Whether he decides to accept them the way he did three Leidner passes on Saturday I will leave up to the guy JD Mill affectionately calls "The Caledonia Clipper." To steal yet another poignant thought from yet another writer at Still Got Hope (seriously, if you're a Gopher fan not reading that blog I don't even know what to tell you anymore. You're missing out on so many good things you can learn/steal), Trevor (@TREtanic) said "Fruechte was making the catches I expected Drew Wolitarksy to make." All I could think of in response was "I KNOW, RIGHT?" I've been hard on Fruechte the past couple of seasons as this offense has been dying for an upper classmen receiver to step up and take some pressure off the really young receivers and QBs, and despite every opportunity Fruechte has been underwhelming to say the least.
Saturday he led the way with three catches for 46 yards, with all three coming in the second half. Two of them were for 20 yards and vital first downs to keep the chains moving. The first one to the visitor's sideline was a great throw and also a great catch as Fruechte didn't have mucht time or room to bring it in and get a foot down. For the first time in a very long time he looked like a legit B1G receiver, and for a guy who said he wouldn't contribute this year, I couldn't have been more wrong. And I hope he continues to prove me wrong the rest of the way. He's never going to be a deep threat but he doesn't have to be to be effective- those short and intermediate routes are vitally important to the offense and if he can become a trusted target for Moose along with Maxxxxxxxxx, Jones and Cobb out of the backfield, the passing game is that much better. As Tre said, these were routes and catches I expected to go to Wolitarksy, but credit Fruechte for not just running the routes but finally making the plays.
COBB CONTIUNES TO BE THE ENGINE THAT DRIVES THE OFFENSE
Because of the ridiculous numbers being posted by fellow B1G backs Tevin Coleman, Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, Cobb will likely be overshadowed all season. While he won't get his due as a first team All-B1G back, he remains the team MVP thus far. In the win over Northwestern his 97 yards rushing at just 3.2 per carry might not look like he much, but he kept the offense going despite a revolving door on the interior line due to injuries and that jNW knew he was getting the ball for almost the entire fourth quarter. He's the dictionary definiton of a work-horse running back, and while he might go unnoticed nationally compared to Coleman, Gordon or Abdullah, it'd be hard to argue those guys are any more valuable to their teams than Cobb is to his. His 921 total yards (819 rushing) account for a whopping 46.3% of Minnesota's TOTAL offensive yards. Mitch Leidner as the quarterback accounts for less than that at only 759 combined passing/running, though we've already mentioned the signs the past two weeks this may be changing.
And I think for everyone involved that might be a good change. If Leidner can continue to play at the level he has a a passer, and that toe and knee continue to heal so he for his running, that should help to take some of the burden off of Cobb. He'll continue to be the workhorse, but I worry about even somebody as tough as him wearing down before the end of the season, so finding ways to ease off the 30+ carry games like last week would be a good idea. The team continues to try (and mostly fail) to get Berkley Edwards more involved, but here's hoping they keep trying. And maybe these next two weeks would be the time to dust off Donnell "Kirkland" Kirkwood and Roderick "Nugget" Williams and see if those two big bruising backs can help shoulder the load a little. I love Cobb, I just want to see him in good shape as we hit November for that tough four game finish.
ARE THE GOPHERS UNDISCIPLINED OR IS THIS JUST THE MOST BIZARRE RUN OF PENALTIES IN THE HISTORY OF EVER?
You have probably seen the stat already, but in the past three games- all wins vs SJSU, Michigan and Northwestern- the Gophers have committed 23 penalties while their opponents have committed just 8. And two of those three games were at home! This is one I don't have an answer for, or even a rational point to start with- we're in Year Four of Jerrysota, with his deepest and most talented team. Jerry Kill teams are not undisciplined and yet the penalties these past three games have been incredibly lopsided. I don't buy any conspiracy theory that says the refs are out to get Coach Kill considering he's one of the most respected coaches in the country. The penalties vs San Jose State were 10-0 but the score was so lopsided and they were playing so many backups it kind of made sense. The win at Michigan can be chalked up to playing on the road in the Big House (I mean, all those Michigan fans clinking their wine glasses in disgust can be very intimidating). But yesterday? The penalties were actually even at six apiece as was the yardage, as Minnesota only had six more penalty yards at 47 than Northwestern.
But the kind of calls that were made against the Gophers were, to say the least, baffling. Or bizarre. Or...I don't even know. Everyone is talking about the roughing-the-passer penalty that wasn't that kept jNW's drive alive for the tying TD at 17. At the stadium they barely showed a replay, but watching it on the interwebs when I got home, like everyone else I have no idea what they saw there other than Myrick coming down near Siemien's head and him falling like he'd just been hit by a cannon. Great acting Trevor, your Oscar is in the mail.
Listening to Ray Hitchcock on the post-game show on the way home though, it was the other penalties that left him scratching his head. To hear him tell it, both of the unsportsmanlike penatlies on Minnesota's bench are something that is never called- and never should be. Per sideline reporter Justin Gaard, Kill never swore in his tirade at the refs about the phantom roughing-the-passer call and apparently drew the flag when he threw his headset. Um, what? This isn't baseball- unless he hit the ref or threw it AT HIM how is throwing a headset in legitimate anger a penalty in college football? The one for the Gopher sideline for celebration was even worse- what were they doing ON THEIR OWN FREAKING SIDELINE that was so illegal?
I actually didn't even mind the call on Kill. After the bogus call gave jNW 1st and goal you just knew they were going to punch it in, and perhaps Kill getting as fired up as he did rallied the troops and got them refocused. After all, Myrick's kickoff TD return came right after that. The other two calls Hitchcock openly questioned were the two "illegal man downfield" calls on Minnesota- one he thought was legit, the other not so much, but he said this is something that is just generally never called. In his weekly Punt, Pass and Pork column SI.com's Andy Staples (Staples is one of my favorite college football writers, and his love of tailgating food only enhances that. If you're not already, he's a good follow on Twitter @andystaples) reaffirms what Hitchcock was saying. Talking about that to really sell a run-fake these days you need to pull a guard (I don't watch closely enough, but I do wonder if Minnesota does this?)...
...Want to sell a run fake? Then have the offensive linemen move exactly as they would on a run play. This is especially easy in the college game, in which linemen can drift three yards past the line of scrimmage before they’re called for being illegally downfield on a forward pass. (In practice, they can drift even farther; officials rarely call it.)
Emphasis there is mine, but you see the point- like an infielder in baseball getting close to but not touching the bag at second when turning a double-play or NBA refs not calling travelling unless the guy takes like 12 steps before shooting (Clyde Drexler and Patrick Ewing are my two favorite examples of this), the "illegal man downfield" call is one that refs usually just don't make. So it's all the more bizarre that Minnesota had it called on them twice so close together was baffling to say the least. Per Hitchcock the first was legit, while the second was not, yet the fact they were calling this so closely just made no sense to him. And in fairness, Northwestern had that same penalty called against them at least once, which further makes me think this ref crew either just had an awful day, or they are awful.
SOME BIG THINGS ARE ON THE TABLE IN THESE FINAL SIX B1G GAMES
So here we are, six regular season games down, six to go. The Gophers are 5-1, and 2-0 in the B1G with two games they will be favored to win in Purdue and Illinois the next two weeks. After that a bye, and then it's the November Death March vs Ohio State and our other three Quadrangle of Hate members with the B1G West division on the line. Honestly, what more could you ask for? It would be fun if every season the division came down to the Gophers, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa (honestly, f**k Northwestern. After what we saw from their fan base last week leading up to the game they are starting to approach Iowa levels of hate for me. They've at least moved into a clear third behind Iowa and Sconnie), and if the Gophers go about the business of winning two games they should win, that's what we're set up for in November.
With six games left the Gophers need just one win to get bowl eligible, and just two to equal last year's 4-4 B1G record. I thought I'd have to go way back to find the last time Minnesota won at least four B1G games in back-to-back seasons, but it's actually happened a lot more than I thought post-1967. Mason only did it once and was the last to do it in 1999 and 2000, but would you believe it's actually happened five other times between Warmath and Mase? True story.
If the Gophers can win at least three of their final six, then we're getting into rare territory: it would be only the second time since the early Sixties that Minnesota won eight regular season games in back-to-back seasons. Yes, Mason did it once in 2002 and 2003, though he was only at or above .500 in the B1G in one of those two years. If the Gophers win four...well I'm not sure I'm quite ready to go there just yet.
Nothing is guaranteed these final six games, but the chance to prove this team is different and better than previous Gopher squads is there for the taking. Minnesota controls their own destiny for a chance to win the conference or at worst, match last season's win totals. Now we find out if the Gophers are up to the task, and it starts with Purdue on Saturday.