College football is a strange, strange land where nothing is ever quite what it seems. One week you're talking about how great your defense is and how much you need a quarterback change to spark your offense. The next week the defense looks like a MASH unit and your quarterback engineered a last second touchdown drive to save you from losing to a MAC team at home. I'm not going to pretend to understand it. College football is often beyond comprehension. I mentioned it last week in Cinematic Thoughts but when the performance of your team is dependent upon 18-24 year olds who are playing a massively violent game that makes every participant prone to injuries on every snap of every game, the level of predictability decreases dramatically.
In a word, college football is weird.
So that's where we find ourselves as Gopher fans as we hurtle towards the opening of the conference slate against a suddenly nationally relevant Northwestern squad. But before we get into the future, let's look back at the Ohio game.
While the defense gave up the most points it has all season, the short field created by a Craig James fumble on a punt return misrepresent the overall job done by Claeys' side of the ball. Ohio's offense averaged only 6.7 yards per pass attempt and 4.0 yards per rush. These aren't world-class numbers defensively but they definitely show Ohio had to work for every inch. Even with the Bobcats scoring 24 points, the defense did well to implement the bend-don't-break strategy that has become a Gopher staple. However, I saw two things that discouraged me. One, they were unable to force a turnover throughout the game's duration. Turnovers can often be fluke-ish in nature and it's a small sample size but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about the lack of forced turnovers in the last two games against MAC teams. Two, they allowed Ohio to convert on 50% of their 3rd downs (8-16). I haven't looked into each conversion individually, but that isn't a good number against an opponent of Ohio's caliber, even considering all the injuries.
Sadly, the first movie clip that comes to mind when I was watching the game was this gem, in reference to Craig James apparently trying to give the game away in the 4th quarter:
Honestly, I don't feel as if I'm piling on or being unreasonable when I say that James should be removed from his duties as punt returner. And that change probably should have occurred at halftime. I don't think this is being overly harsh. Your first priority as a punt returned is to ensure your team maintains possession. Everything else is secondary and should be treated as an added bonus. James has had me uneasy all year but this game took it to a whole different level. To quote a great American leader:
Sadly, it wasn't just James on special teams. The whole unit seemed strangely out of sync all afternoon. If the Gophers are to avoid a losing conference record, they will have to make this performance on special teams the exception as oppose to the rule. I believe this can happen and I'm glad one of their worst special teams' performances in recent memory didn't contribute to a loss but they just didn't appear to have it on this particular Saturday.
In a strange alternate universe of college football, the saving grace for the Gophers on the day was the offense. No, the Ohio Bobcats are not the 1970s Steelers but a promising performance from Mitch Leidner and a quality balance of attack does emit rays of hope on the future outlook of the offense for the rest of the season. When you average 8.0 yards per passing attempt and 5.7 yards per rush, you have to feel pretty good about the overall performance. The offense also wasn't responsible for the Gophers' only turnover on the day (see above). When taking into account injuries up and down the offensive line, you may get down right giddy about the offense.
I don't pretend to know the X's and O's like Derek Burns or be able to interpret the advanced football data like Matt H. but what it seems to me that we've learned so far this season is that we haven't learned anything. Luckily, for us conference play awaits and that's where teams can finally be measured against their Big Ten brethren on a common place of competition. Meanwhile, I contend that even with injuries and the first four games leaving a lot of Gopher Nation underwhelmed with the product on the field that we'll be competitive in just about every game on the conference slate, similar to what we experienced last year. Call it "playing to the level of your competition" but if the strengths of this Jerry Kill-led team hold true (special teams, bend don't break D, ball control), the stress levels for this season aren't going to get any lower any time soon. The Big Ten slate is going to have us like this:
Whether you want to be Mr. Green or Mrs. Peacock is up to you. I'm excited to see what the conference slate holds because as it stands now we're 3-1 with a loss to a top 5 (at least for now, geez TCU what happened to your defense?!?!?!) and close wins against inferior opponents. Have any of our future opponents looked spectacular in their non-conference performances? Maybe, on occasion. Are they healthier? Some of them are and some of them have had troubling injuries just like we have. Is anything guaranteed? Most certainly not. We could go 2-6 in conference play or we could pull a rabbit out of our hat and go 6-2. There are a lot of scenarios in play.
Just sit back, debate with each other respectfully, and enjoy the Gophers being competitive just about every time they take the field. Because we're heading for an interesting place: