The Gophers opened the season with a rainy Thursday night 42-20 victory over the FCS 1-AA Eastern Illinois Fightin' Brad Childresses (fine this may not be their actual name).
NOT QUITE THE START WE WERE HOPING FOR FROM MITCH LEIDNER
His passing in the first half was awful, from decision making to accuracy to a complete lack of both, it was tough to watch. If he wasn't missing his target entirely he was throwing either right into coverage or it seemed right at an opposing player- at times it was hard to tell which. In the same half Donovahn Jones got behind the secondary and with plenty of time to step into his throw, all Mitch needed to do was get some air under it and let the 6'3 athletic freak go get it. Instead, he badly underthrew it to the point Jones had to come back and try to just break up an interception. Eerily reminiscent of the Michigan game last year (I think it was Michigan? I've tried to erase that game from my memory so) when Jones went deep and there wasn't a Wolverines defender within 10 yards of him, and Leidner underthrew that one horribly too to the point it was almost picked off. If the deep ball is going to be apart of this offense- and it should due to both a weapon like Jones and the opportunities that should be there on play-action thanks to the running game- his deep ball needs to get a lot better.
In the second half he didn't throw much but there was at least some encouraging signs. He threw a curl or sideline route to Jones with some purpose, and the throw down the sideline to Maxx was simply perfect- he could not have walked over and placed the ball in Maxx's hands any better. Those timing routes are going to be so important, and if he can gain more confidence in those, that's going to make his life so much easier. He looked a little more comfortable in the second half, but overall, I was hoping and frankly expecting better than what we got: only 52% passing for just 144 yards. Yes, he managed to avoid a pick but was VERY lucky to do so on a few of those throws.
The other two big issues with him last year also returned in this game- sacks and fumbles. He got sacked twice by a 1-AA defense and the fumble was on him, though if I remember right it looked like both sacks were blown assigments- one on David Cobb for not blocking a blitzing backer, and the other on TE Lincoln Plesk who wiffed on a block. Or was that a run assignment he missed? Lincoln had a night to forget. One or both sacks may not have been entirely Leidner's fault, but these were troubling issues last year that HAVE to be corrected in 2014 for the passing offense to be better.
Final thing on Mitch, and this is one where I'm actually not blaming him (at least I think): what route was Jones supposed to be running on his TD catch? Watching it in real time that looked like an AWFUL pass from Leidner that he was lucky the DB didn't house on him. Instead, the DB whiffed, Jones showed good concentration to follow it in, and then did the rest to score his first Gopher TD. But watching that on replay, I have no idea what Jones was supposed to be doing there- Mase in Your Face thought it was an in route, but all Jones did was turn to the middle and instead of making a decisive move he just seemed to turn and float for a step or two. I wonder if that pass looked bad because Leidner was committing to throwing there but was expecting him to run a route he didn't? It wasn't an in, it wasn't a slant, it wasn't a curl, it just a turn and float. For those that know more about this than me (if you're reading this, that would be you) or may have more insight into the play, I'd love to know.
SPEAKING OF JONES, THAT WAS AN ENCOURAGING START
He's an absolute freak and the QB-turned-receiver is still learning on the fly, but not just his numbers but how Limegrover TRIED to use him was very encouraging. They at least tried to go deep to him (with a guy like that they should be attempting a deep ball to him once per quarter), and were also looking for him on various routes and patterns. I know with Wolitarsky out he maybe got more of a focus than he normally would have, but that's not at all a bad thing. Wolitarsky should be a nice B1G receiver, but he lacks the big-play ability Jones possesses, which is something this offense is in desperate need of. We know Maxx is going to be awesome and a focal point of the passing offense all year (a 250 TE hurdling over a DB? Insane), but if they can establish Jones as a consistent big play/deep threat that is REALLY going to help the offense. Still a ways to go there, but certainly an encouraging start.
SPEAKING OF BIG PLAYS, HELLO BERKLEY EDWARDS!!!
Yes, his long TD run was in garbage time against a second string 1-AA defense, but I love that run nonetheless. He also showed good strength fighting off a face tackle at the goal line to score his first TD. Cobb and Nugget did exactly what we expected of them which was run hard and run well between the tackles as they wore down a smaller defense. That's not going to change this season as Minnesota's bread and butter, but if they can add Berkley's wheels to this, that's going to be a really fun offense to watch. While it didn't always work, I also like the Limey called some quick hitches and screens for him in the flats to try and get him the ball in space. That's what we were hoping to see, and while a work in progress again, at least they're trying.
PLENTY OF POSITIVES ON DEFENSE
Damien Wilson is a tackling monster and I'm glad he's our tackling monster. 10 total tackles and a half sack, #5 seemed to be everywhere. I wish we had two or three more years of him, but I will enjoy every play he's in on D this season. Also really liked what I saw from the D line as the game progressed, especially considering returning starter Michael Amaefula sat out due to injury. 3 sacks from the D with 2.5 coming from the D line and none from sack master Theiren Cockran? That's a good performance. Cam Botticelli had a nice push on his sack, and Alex Keith looked sweet not only because he's a DE wearing #9 (I'm a uniform/numbers nerd. LOVE it when front seven guys wear non-traditional numbers) but he looked pretty good getting a start in place of Amaefula. And how about the true frosh Stephen Richardson picking up three tackles and a half sack?
The one big area of improvement needed was QB contain. Jalen Whitlow just killed them on either QB option keepers, draws, or even undesigned runs. They're going to face some athletic QBs on the B1G slate, and they're going to need to contain a lot better than that.
Overall the D was pretty solid and while some might say "oh it's just a 1-AA offense" they had one QB who had 15 starts for Kentucky and the other who could really sling it. Plus they had that tempo which is a tough test in week 1. They did a lot of the "bend but don't break" that we saw from a year ago, but also forced turnovers which is VERY encouraging. The coaches will certainly have a lot of learning opportunities looking at the tape, but I have zero doubts Tracy Claeys and his guys will get things figured out. They need to as they get ready for the wide open passing attack they'll see in a few weeks vs TCU.
I HOPE WE ALL LEARNED A VALUABLE LESSON FROM EIU ON WHAT NOT TO DO ON FOURTH DOWN
On fourth down, either go for it or punt. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt what EIU tried to do: Lineup like you're going for it, then at the last second move your QB back two or three yards, then have your QB TRY A FREAKING POOCH PUNT!?!?!? It went maybe 3 yards. Maybe. It was horrible and hilarious and maybe the worst idea I've seen at TCF Bank Stadium. I'm just glad it worked in Minnesota's favor.
GLEN MASON DOESN'T NEED TO KNOW THE GOPHER QB DEPTH CHART
Doesn't know, doesn't care. Because he's Glen Mason and you're not. Talking (righfully I'll concede) about the fear of injury from running Mitch Leidner too much Mason said something to the effect of "it's a long drop to their #2 quarterback, and I don't even know who the third guy is!" Um, Mase? It's Conor Rhoda. It would have taken you 1.2 seconds during your prep this week to find that out. It's probably in the game notes and roster you were handed when you walked in the building. I would expect this from AggieVision, but from a BTN crew? It's the B1G's own network! These are things the color analyst should know.
He also had another beauty when Chris Streveler got into the game: "Here's my scouting report on Streveler- he's very athletic." I...yeah you get the idea. Fine, he had a few good points throughout the night and he obviously knows football, and maybe for me it's just that it's him talking and saying the things he says. Here's hoping we get no more Gopher games on BTN with Mase, who only lives here in town and works for the conference network but can't be bothered to learn anything about the team he used to coach. Thank god for Jerry Kill.
IN THE END A WIN IS A WIN
I will fully admit to being a glass-half-empty kind of person. Or a realist. Either/or. But let's finish with a positive that says Minnesota scored 42 points, 35 of those by the offense and while I still have serious reservations about their passing game and the bend-but-don't-break nature of the defense, they still had this game won handily by the fourth quarter. And on their way to bowl eligibility for a third straight season, this win will count the same as any of the others they will get the rest of the year. Now go out this weekend and feel good about a Gopher victory, and cheer hard for LSU and Northern Iowa.