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Minnesota Football: Non-Conference Schedule Recap & Review

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The Golden Gophers wrapped up their non-conference schedule with a nail-biting Homecoming win over the Ohio Bobcats. Let's take a look at how each of their four non-con games stack up now that we're a few weeks into the season.

Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1: 17-23 Loss vs TCU Horned Frogs

The Good: For the second consecutive season, the Gophers' defense limited the Horned Frogs' offense to their lowest point total of the year. Since scoring 23 against Minnesota, TCU has gone on to score 70, 56, and 55 points against Stephen F. Austin, SMU, and Texas Tech, respectively. Trevone Boykin, in particular, has benefited from not having to play the Gophers, throwing for an average of 408 yards and 4 touchdowns in his last three games after throwing for 246 yards and 1 touchdown at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers' bright spot on offense was the debut of redshirt freshman Rodney Smith, who ran for 88 yards on 16 carries with 1 touchdown in the first game of his career.

The Bad: Turnovers. With Josh Campion out at left tackle with a concussion, a hobbled Ben Lauer struggled in his place, allowing a sack and strip of Mitch Leidner that led to a Horned Frogs touchdown and a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. The Gophers were able to reach the red zone late in the first quarter before Rodrick Williams fumbled into the end zone and allowed TCU to take over possession on a touchback. The offense struggled against the Horned Frogs' defense -- one that has proved to be far from elite as the season has progressed -- recording six three-and-outs and failing to score until the second half. Until a touchdown drive in the final minutes in which Leidner was 5-for-5, the passing game was not much of a factor for most of the game.

How It Looks: Not bad for a loss. TCU is undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the Coaches Poll and No. 4 in the Associated Press Poll. The Gophers' performance on defense continues to look more and more impressive each week as Boykin and crew scorch opposing defenses and light up the scoreboard. SMU and Texas Tech both had much more success on offense against the TCU defense, which has been ravaged by injuries in the weeks following their season opener. The Gophers' struggles on offense have been well documented, and their less than stellar performance against TCU has been on par with the rest of the non-conference schedule.

Week 2: 23-20 OT Win at Colorado State Rams

The Good: For the second week in a row, the Gophers' defense held their opponent below their season scoring average. The Rams would score 63, 24, and 33 against Savannah State, Colorado, and Texas San Antonio, respectively, compared to their 20 points against Minnesota. The Gophers were the lone team on the Rams' non-conference schedule to make life difficult for quarterback Nick Stevens. Stevens was ineffective against the Gophers' defense -- 8-for-19 with 51 yards and two interceptions -- and later pulled in favor of freshman back-up Coleman Key, who was able to spark the Rams with a late touchdown pass. Stevens averaged 264 passing yards and totaled 7 touchdowns through the air against their other three opponents this season. Rodney Smith also followed up his strong debut against TCU with another good performance, racking up 108 yards on 21 carries, include all five of the Gophers' rushing attempts in overtime.

The Bad: To call it a "slow start" on offense for the Gophers would be generous. Minnesota did not record a single first down until back-to-back field goal drives at the end of the first half. The stretch prior to that included five three-and-outs, 28 total yards of offense, and a fumbled snap on a failed fourth down conversion after Steven Richardson recovered a fumble near the red zone. The Gophers' defense forced three turnovers in regulation and the offense squandered each of them, failing to score on the ensuing drives. Aside from the first and last drives of the second half, the Minnesota offense was MIA for much of the game. If not for another game-saving performance from Two Minute Mitch and a huge overtime turnover courtesy of Cody Poock, the Gophers would have left Fort Collins with a loss and a lot to think about on the flight home.

How It Looks: Not too well at this point in the season. Colorado State is now 2-2 with home losses to Minnesota and Colorado, a team that was 2-10 a season ago and lost at Hawaii to open the season. The Rams' wins have both been against lesser opponents, including a close victory over an 0-4 Texas San Antonio team in a game in which Colorado State needed to rally late to edge the winless Roadrunners. Nevertheless, it was a road win in a tough environment, and the Gophers showed poise in rallying late and pulling out the win in overtime. Colorado State does not quite appear to be the caliber of opponent we were hoping they'd be, but the Gophers won and that is all that matters.

Week 3: 10-7 Win vs Kent State Golden Flashes

The Good: The Gophers' defense was unreal. Noticing a trend here? This was a defensive performance for the ages. Kent State was smothered on the offensive side of the ball, passing for 63 yards and rushing for 79. The Golden Flashes were also 3-for-17 on third down, 1-for-3 on fourth down, and ran all of 3 plays on the Gophers' side of the 50-yard-line. The Gophers' defense also forced a shutout, with Kent State's lone touchdown coming on a fumble return for a touchdown. I can't recall a more dominant defensive performance from Minnesota. The one area where the Gophers' defense was lacking: Turnovers. Had the defense been able to force more turnovers, the Gophers might have been able to tack on another touchdown or two, but with how bad the offense looked all game long, a short field would have been no guarantee of success.

The Bad: It was a tale of two units for the Gophers, as the defense played lights out while the offense struggled to even find the light switch. Minnesota had a promising first drive to start the game capped by a field goal, but after that, the offense went into a deep sleep. Leidner attempted to take two deep shots down the field on back-to-back drives after that opening drive but both were underthrown, resulting in interceptions. Minnesota punted on their next two drives before putting together a touchdown drive in the final minutes of the first half. The second half was a whole lot of nothing, as the Golden Flashes stacked the box and the Gophers continued to run up the middle, with no success. Minnesota was held scoreless the rest of the game and came close to wasting their dominant defense after Kent State defensive back Demetrius Monday scooped and scored on a fumble by Rashad Still. Leidner, the offensive line, Jery Kill, and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover would spend the next week dealing with intense criticism from all sides after this abysmal offensive performance.

How It Looks: Not great. Illinois, a Big Ten team that fired their head coach a few days prior to their season opener, unloaded on Kent State to the tune of a 52-3 blowout back in Week 1. Coming into this season, most Gopher fans assumed that the 2015 edition of the Fighting Illini would be inferior to Minnesota, so the huge disparity between games against the same MAC opponent is troubling, to say the least. Kent State is also now 1-3 on the season after falling in overtime at home to the Marshall Thundering Herd last Saturday. This was as ugly as it gets. But as Derek Burns speculated on Twitter last week, the final score also could be indicative of a staff that realized Kent State wasn't going to move the ball against this defense and settled for an uninspiring game plan on offense after halftime to avoid turning the ball over again.

Week 4: 27-24 Win vs Ohio Bobcats

The Good: That trend I mentioned through the first three games? It did not continue against Ohio. The offensive line rebounded from their worst game of the season to open up running holes for freshmen running backs Shannon Brooks (10 carries for 82 yards and two touchdowns) and Rodney Smith (16 carries for 94 yards). Not to mention the much improved passing game, where Leidner was 22-for-32 with 264 passing yards and zero touchdowns but no interceptions. The young receiving corps also stepped up their game, with Isaiah Gentry, Eric Carter, and Rashad Still all hauling in huge catches at different points in the game. KJ Maye and Drew Wolitarsky both had their moments, as well. Five different receivers all had at least one pass of more than 20 yards, which is also indicative of how well Leidner's targets were able to find yards after the catch. This was without a doubt the best we've seen the offense look so far this season.

The Bad: The defense was not bad. Two breakdowns in the defensive backfield allowed the Bobcats to score on their second drive and the lack of a strong pass rush allowed Ohio quarterback Darrius Vick to pick apart the Gopher defense in the first half. Mistakes were made, but the defense played well enough to win, especially considering all of the injuries on that side of the ball. Special teams, on the other hand, was bad. Uncharacteristically bad. Craig James, in particular, muffed three punts, including one late in the game that Ohio used to set up a quick touchdown and take the lead. Brooks also had a freshman gaffe on a kickoff return before the final drive, attempting to catch a ball that was headed out of bounds. After taking the lead with a last-minute touchdown, the Gophers almost coughed up the game on the ensuing kickoff return, allowing a 56-yard return that set up Ohio at the Minnesota 42-yard line.

How It Looks: Too soon to tell, but the Gophers won't get much credit for this one in the court of public opinion. Ohio is 3-1 and a better team than Kent State, so I'm inclined to believe that the latter was a much-needed wake-up call for this offense and we won't see as atrocious a performance on offense like that again this season -- fingers crossed. The Mid-American Conference has been a tougher challenge than expected for the Big Ten, with Bowling Green beating both Maryland and Purdue, and Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, and Ball State giving Ohio State, Michigan State, and Northwestern, respectively, all they could handle. This is a good win, but a more comfortable margin of victory would have quieted a lot of critics. I expect Ohio to be a contender in the MAC. It remains to be seen if Minnesota will be a contender in the Big Ten.

Conclusions:

  1. The offense continues to be a work in progress. Through the first three games, the offense has been the problem. Bad throws, dropped passes, and poor run blocking and pass protection have plagued the Gophers' offense and prevented them from getting into a rhythm, especially early in the game. If not for a strong performance against Ohio, I'd be more concerned about the offense. There is much improvement to be made, but I like how this team responded after being embarrassed against Kent State. All the pieces to be successful are there. If the Gophers can put it all together, look out. I do know one thing: The Gophers are set at running back for the foreseeable future with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. 

  2. Mitch Leidner is at his best when the game is on the line. The Gophers' polarizing starting quarterback has been inconsistent to start the season, but that doesn't mean he hasn't improved from last season. His deep passes -- once thought to be one of his strengths -- have been off the mark all season long, but his decision-making is much better and it is clear the coaches placed an emphasis on reducing his fumbles and interceptions in the offseason. Where Leidner has thrived is in the final minutes of the game. Down 13-17 at Colorado State, Leidner led his team 80 yards down the field and threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to KJ Maye to take the lead with :55 left on the clock. In a similar situation against Ohio, Leidner orchestrated a 78-yard drive that allowed the Gophers to take the lead on a Shannon Brooks touchdown run with :30 left in the game. You can't argue with that kind of clutch performance.

  3. The Gophers' depth will determine their fate in the Big Ten West. The defense was lights out through the first three games, but injuries are beginning to take their toll on what could be an elite unit, as we saw on Saturday against Ohio. Damarius Travis and Ace Rogers had both been out since TCU, until Rogers returned to action against Ohio. Kunlye Ayinde, the player expected to step up in place of Travis and Rogers, was banged up against Kent State. This past Saturday, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Antonio Johnson, and Cody Poock were all treated for injuries at some point in the game, with none seeing the field late in the game. Injuries are piling up, and Minnesota will need to weather the storm in order to contend again in the Big Ten West. Miscues on defense and special teams like the ones we saw against Ohio will be much more difficult to overcome against conference opponents.

  4. We'll find out how good this team is over the next month. The non-conference schedule has never been a reliable predictor for the rest of the season, at least under Jerry Kill. The Gophers were 4-0 in 2012, including a win over Syracuse, before going 2-6 in the Big Ten. Then in 2013, Minnesota struggled against Western Illinois of the FCS, but were 4-0 before losing to Iowa and Michigan in back-to-back weeks and rebounding with a four-game win streak. Last year, the Gophers got run out of the stadium against TCU and were the butt of jokes everywhere after completing one pass in a tight win against San Jose State, but went on to contend in the Big Ten West with a record of 5-3. How will the rest of this season go? Your guess is as good as mine. Minnesota isn't the only team with question marks.
How are you feeling about the Golden Gophers as the conference schedule begins?