Many times a person's biggest strength is also their biggest weakness. Pride becomes rigidity, kindness>naivety, and caution>inaction. The same can be said for our favorite college football team. Power running to 41 points can transform from a powerful weapon into an unimaginative and stagnant offense in a single week.
The power of identity
In the win over Purdue, the Gophers showed the lunch-pail toughness that Jerry Kill has touted since taking over the reigns of the program. The offense ran the ball 48 of 66 offensive plays (not including punts and field goal attempts). The defense intercepted three passes and was able to get off the field on 14 of 17 third downs. Jalen Myrick is now officially a fan favorite, and Steven Richardson? Swipe right.
Shannon Brooks also happened. As a quick aside, how was he only co-freshman of the week with Jabril Peppers? I understand Peppers has a lethal combination of #CrootCred and #Herrberr on his side, but a solid game from Peppers was easily trumped by Brooks and his game-changing runs. When is the last time an offensive player was as dominant with just 17 touches? Shannon was simply amazing last week.
It is not hyperbole to say that his year is shaping up to match the freshman year of one Laurence Maroney. I reviewed the 2003 box scores to make sure my eyes aren't lying to me. Maroney averaged 6.9 Yards per carry in 2003. In 2015, Brooks is averaging 7.9. Maroney had one non-conference game against Louisiana-Lafayette where he broke off for 132 yards on 16 carries. Then he was pretty quiet until a run of games beginning in the middle of October where he went 22 for 179, 18 for 164, and 15 for 135. Shannon's ability to break off long runs is especially impressive when you consider that Laurence had a long run of 47 yards his freshman season while Shannon already has a 71 yard TD run to his name. If Brooks' effort against Purdue turns out to be the beginning of a three game stretch like Maroney had in 2003, the Gophers will be in great shape and "Brooks was here" will catch on, it's just too fetch not to.
In some ways, the Purdue game was the Gophers' blueprint for success. Power run, solid defense and plus turnovers will have this team in the hunt for a victory every week.
The potential problem with identity
At the same time, can you imagine what this game would have been like without Brooks? Would the offense have been able to find the end zone twice? An undercurrent of that same question is just how is this offense going to move the ball against a team that can actually tackle and fill gaps? Mitch Leidner went 8/12 for 59 yards. Short passes to stretch defenses without taking risks downfield have their place in an offense, but 4.9 yards per attempt is awful. In fact, 4.9 YPA puts Mitch in company with prolific Old Dominion gunslinger Shuler Bentley for 124th (out of 125, poor Caleb Rowe) in that category nationally. The obvious reply cites the score of the game and the lack of need to go downfield, but it is important to remember that Minnesota was losing for the first 20 minutes of a 60 minute game. Also, when did a 7-yard pass become the equivalent to a manned mission to Mars? This team is going to need to throw "downfield" to an actual wide receiver and no one should feel good about that inevitability. The replays of Mitch's interception show at least one open option in the middle of the field that Mitch either missed or ignored in favor of his fullback. Which of those two possibilities is scarier?
There is also the issue of Purdue's first drive. Purdue converted a third and six, a third and nine, and a fourth and one. Timely third down stops have been a weakness this year for an otherwise exemplary defense. Also, injuries in the secondary showed when Antonio Shenault was beaten on a double move for an easy pass and catch for 41-yards. While Shenault recovered from that mistake to play a solid game with three tackles and a pass break-up, the symptom of a shaky secondary is still there for a more talented team than Purdue to take advantage of.
Enough with the negativity, what does all of this mean for this week against Nebraska?
Will Minnesota's identity be enough against Nebraska?
Nebraska and Minnesota seem to be pretty evenly matched. Nebraska's strong run defense will test Minnesota's run game well beyond the front Purdue was able to put together. Tyler Moore was fantastic in West Lafayette and will have ample opportunity in Minneapolis to further impress against some talented peers this week. He and his line mates will need to be in control this week. As nice as it would be to see Shannon put defenders on their backs every week, he will need to have some clean holes to make things happen at the second level on Saturday. The offensive gameplan and playcalling will also need to be varied enough to stretch the Huskers' front seven from sideline to sideline and vertically. The last time Nebraska came to Minneapolis, Matt Limegrover had his finest moments as a playcaller and he will need to duplicate that on Saturday.
Defensively, Minnesota will be challenged to minimize risk of big plays while not making things too easy for Tommy Armstrong. Pressure from the four down linemen always makes a big difference for this defense. More importantly, the Gophers cannot consistently allow third down conversions. Easy passes where the corners give up the inside slant and the linebackers bite on a playfake are frustrating to watch. Too many times this season has a Gopher made a tackle a yard or two beyond the first down marker after a simple slant from the slot receiver.
Of course, this is hardly groundbreaking analysis. Quality offensive line play and disciplined play from the defensive front seven has been a key to victory for most teams in the history of football. When you think of it, that is appropriate for this team. The Minnesota Golden Gophers are an average football team, mixed in with dozens of other programs who also feel like every week is a referendum on their team. The Gophers are in the mix in every game but, like the vast majority of all other programs, the Gophers need to be able to control the line of scrimmage to be successful. Luckily, our boys have been able to do this more often than not.
My heart is pining for a 27-24 victory, but my head is telling me the defense will need to score to keep the game close while our offense works out the kinks for the first half. Without that kind of help, I see Nebraska claiming the Chair 28-10.