The off-season is a long and tiresome trudge, so how can we best get through it? By looking ahead to next year, of course. So, in the spirit of forward thinking, we present a team-by-team look at Iowa's 2010 football opponents (with looks at Illinois and (maybe) Purdue thrown in for good measure so our Big Televen brethren don't feel ignored). Next up: FIGHT TRY FAIL.
(Yes, we're deviating from the chronological order we've used for most of the rest of the series, but time is running low and we want to get the Gopher installment done by Thursday. It's not as if anything in the Ohio State preview is going to be altered by the events of the Marshall game on Thursday.)
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS (Minneapolis, MN; November 27, 2010)
Where the devil do they play? Why, at lovely new Kinnick North 2.0, better known among the locals as "TCF Bank Stadium," or "The Bank." To be fair, it is a lovely new edifice and a big step up from the sterile confines of the
Metrodome Mall of America Field.
What did they do last year? Another 6-6 regular season, another trip to the Insight Bowl, another loss to a mediocre Big XII team -- the song remains the same. Mind you, last year's Insight Bowl cock-up was even more enjoyable than the one the year before since it was a Schadenfreude Bowl against Iowa State; no matter who lost, we won. In 2009, Brewster and the Gophers didn't even bother to tease their fans with false hope the way they did in 2008, when they opened the season 7-1 and reached the absurd heights of #17 in the polls (before a gut-wrenching last-second loss to just Northwestern sent them on a five-loss tailspin to end the season). Minnesota lost the third game of the season (a home game with Cal) after narrow escapes against Syracuse on the road and Air Force at home, then spent the remainder of the season largely alternating wins and losses. They never lost more than two games in a row in that stretch-- but they never won at least two in a row, either.
After opening the season with a two-game winning streak (their longest of the season), Minny dropped that home game to Cal, rebounded with a road win over Northwestern, lost yet another rivalry game to Wisconsin, rebounded again with a home win over Purdue, got crushed in back-to-back road games against Ohio State and Penn State, blitzed Michigan State with an incomprehensible aerial explosion from Adam Weber, lost an equally incomprehensible game to Illinois, narrowly escaped with a win against South Dakota State (damn those pesky Jackrabbits), then finished up the season by losing to both Iowa and Iowa State. Whew. A charitable reading of the Gophers' season might point out that five of their seven defeats came to teams ranked in the top twenty either when they played Minnesota (Cal, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa) or in the final season rankings (Wisconsin). And three of their wins came over teams that went bowling (Air Force, Northwestern, Michigan State), so they had that going for them.
A less charitable reading of the season might point out that they failed to build on any momentum from their wins and were woefully uncompetitive in their games against the cream of the Big Ten crop (they lost to Ohio State, Penn State, and Iowa by a combined score of 70-7 and those seven points came against Ohio State's second-team defense). The optimism and good vibes that marked the beginning of the Brewster Era (and particularly the first half of the 2008 season) have all but evaporated in the Twin Cities and among Gopher fandom. They may have taken slightly different roads to get there, but if Tim Brewster is ultimately just bringing Minnesota to the same promised land of mediocrity that got Glen Mason fired, the justifications for keeping him start seeming awfully flimsy. Sadly, being a Twitter superstar and honorary FOTP probably doesn't quite cut the mustard.
So do they have, like, history with Iowa? Yes. We hates them and they hates us (so much so they even announce their hate at wholly unrelated sporting events). There's no other Big Ten team that we've played as often as our urine-colored rodent-loving neighbors to the north (42-59-2), which is both good and bad. The good: there's only one Big Ten team that we've beaten more times than Minnesota (just Northwestern, who we've toppled 46 times). The bad: there's no Big Ten team that we've lost to more times than Minnesota, either (even Ohio State and Michigan have only defeated us 45 and 40 times, respectively). Minnesota was the dominant force in the rivalry prior to 1980; there were only two decades in that span in which Iowa had a winning record against the Gophers (they went 6-4 in the '20s and 7-2-1 in the '50s). The 1900s were particularly grim: Minnesota 6-0 and defeated Iowa by a combined margin of 216-0.
Since the 1980s, though, Iowa's fortunes in the series have swung considerably; they've gone 20-10 in that span, including wins in eight of the last nine seasons. In fact, that success may be the source of the rivalry's slight deflation in recent times; at this point, well over a generation of Iowa fans has grown up with Minnesota not being a source of angst or torment, but a fairly regular punching bag, which is probably why people seem so willing to let the Iowa-Minnesota rivalry fade into the background a bit to make way for the impending Iowa-Nebraska tilts. Meanwhile, Minnesota fans seem willing to do the same and swear up and down that Wisconsin is their real biggest rival (although not all of them); we wonder if they'd still feel that way if they'd won more than one-third of their games against Iowa over the past thirty years. (Then again, maybe not: they have the same 10-20 record against Wisconsin since 1980.) Personally, while we're chomping at the bit for the arrival of Nebraska and their charming fans, we're not totally ready to push the Minnesota rivalry aside, either. There's something to be said for the oodles of history that the series has seen, from the Gophers' deplorably racist treatment of Ozzie Simmons to the best damn rivalry trophy in the sport (all arguments to the contrary are henceforth declared invalid and stupid) to goalpost theft and closing out the Metrodome in style. The Iowa-Minnesota rivalry is also pleasing because it's a battle of contrasts: rural vs. urban, rolling farmland vs. "the land of ten thousand lakes*," humility vs. arrogance, etc. Nebraska is just Iowa with fewer people, flatter terrain, and worse P.R.
*-- For the sake of argument, we'll ignore the notion that Minnesota looks remarkably similar to Iowa if you go even twenty miles south of the Twin Cities. Leave your facts at the door, naysayer; like Stephen Colbert we subscribe to a policy of truthiness 'round these parts.
What's the one thing you should know about Minnesota? Oh, just re-read what The Artist Formerly Known As Hawkeye State wrote on Off-Tackle Empire earlier this summer; that's all you need to know about Minnesota:
Goldy hasn't always been this likable. Once, Minnesota was a football powerhouse, running roughshod over the Big Ten, obliterating all teams in their path. And then World War II ended, and then some other stuff happened, and then Minnesota hired Glen Mason, and the rest is history. Mason owns the highest winning percentage of any Minnesota coach since FDR was in office with an uninspiring .535 mark against some of the worst schedules in the history of the world. Murray Warmath, for whom the Gophers named their legendary locker room, barely broke .500. The Gophers haven't won a share of the Big Ten title in 43 years. They haven't played a January game in 48. The numbers don't lie. Minnesota is no longer a rival to their claimed foes Iowa and Wisconsin. No, Minnesota is a joke.We love you, Goldy. Never change.
How many of these fools were around you? Nine starters on offense, two on defense, and a kicker.
What should we expect when Minnesota has the ball? Not too goddamn much, if the last two years are any indication. During those two years, Minnesota has accumulated a grand total of 19 first downs, 335 yards of offense, six turnovers, and OH YEAH ZERO POINTS. Minnesota hasn't scored a single point against Iowa since 2007. Or to put it another way, Minnesota hasn't scored on Iowa during the Obama Administration. Minnesota hasn't scored on Iowa in 121 minutes and 38 seconds of game time. Minnesota hasn't scored on Iowa in 1025 days (and it will be 1112 days by the time they play on November 27th). Of course, Iowa still has a ways to go to top MInnesota holding Iowa to zero points for the entire nineteen-aughts, but that's okay: everyone needs a goal.
From one perspective, the fact that Minnesota returns nine starters on offense, including the entire offensive line and backfield and most of the receivers, is cause for celebration; surely that much experience can't get shutout again, right? That's certainly one possibility. Another possibility is that Iowa returns a defense nearly as experienced and very well-versed at shutting down those same Minnesota players; they know Adam Weber's tics as well as anyone suiting up in maroon and gold and guys like Adrian Clayborn, Jeremiha Hunter, Tyler Sash, and Christian Ballard are likely lodged so deep in the minds of the Gopher players that they should pay rent. But enough about the Iowa-Minensota match-up; technically that's the domain of part two of this preview. How's the Gopher offense going to do when they aren't being tormented by Iowa?
Statistically, the Gopher offense was pretty miserable a year ago. They had the seventh-worst scoring average in conference games (22.4), the worst total yardage average (295), the worst rushing average (97), the worst yards per carry average (2.8), the eighth-worst passing average (198), the worst completion percentage (48.4), and the most sacks allowed (29). So, really, they've got nowhere to go but up, right? Well, maybe; per Phil Steele, they have the third-best QB unit in the Big Ten and the fifth-best OL unit... but only the tenth-best WR/TE unit and the ninth-best RB unit. So that's kind of troubling. In the interest of full disclosure, Iowa ranked just above Minnesota in most of those aforementioned conference offensive categories. So why are we confident in the Iowa offense's ability to rebound to, if not particularly great heights, at least more respectable heights? The new faces on the offensive line are concerning, but we also don't have a quarterback who's regressed in each successive season and who seems increasingly broken down by the revolving door of coordinators he's had (not to mention the steady stream of losses) and we have skill position players who are proven threats.
Speaking of quarterbacks, what of Adam Weber? For the fourth straight season, he's expected to be the starter, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a four-year starter at quarterback who generates less fear among opposing fanbases than Weber. Of course, there are some mighty fine reasons for that: he's thrown for fewer yards and touchdowns while eating more sacks (including a brutal 69 in the last two years) in each successive season. There have been reasons for his struggles -- four offensive coordinators in four years (as well as some radical scheme changes) and some awfully porous offensive lines at times -- but really that level of (un)production speaks for itself. Like another recent Big Ten quarterback who was a four-year starter who peaked early but struggled to hold onto his starting job as a senior (for the sake of anonymity, let's just call him "Beverage"), Adam Weber could be fighting off a handful of challengers while his coach struggles to find someone who can play well enough to scrape together a few wins to save his job. Of course, it might help the Gophers if they had anyone who looked like a halfway decent option waiting in the wings. MarQueis Gray was brought in to be Minnesota's quarterback of the future back when they wanted to have a spread offense; he's made a predictably fitful transition to a more pro-style offense (6/15, 62 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) and will be at least splitting time (if not moving outright) at wide receiver this year. If Gray isn't the man, redshirt freshman Moses Aliparte could be; he was a reasonably decorated recruit (3* Rivals/Scout, 81 ESPN) and he's a 6-6" pocket passer, which is probably a better fit for their pro-style offense. And if Brewster gets truly desperate, there's always the two incoming freshmen, Tom Parish (3* Rivals/3* Scout, 73 ESPN) and J.D. Pride (2* Rivals/Scout, 71 ESPN).
How about the other half of the backfield; surely there's some better news there, right? Um. They do return two of last year's leading rushers, Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. The bad news is that those two are not exactly the second coming of the Laurence Maroney/Marion Barber III backfield that ran wild over Big Ten defenses back in the Aughts. Bennett ran for 376 yards and six touchdowns on 98 carries in 2009, while Eskridge ran for 294 yards and three touchdowns on 74 carries. For a team that wants to run the ball more, those are not exactly confidence-inducing stats. If those two can't get the job done, Brewster may turn over the keys to true freshman Donnell Kirkwood (3* Rivals, 2* Scout, 77 ESPN), currently third on the depth chart. Although at 5'9", 190 lbs., he may not be well-suited to being an every-down back in the Big Ten.
There's gotta be good news at receiver, right? Um, about that... They lost last year's leading receiver, Eric Decker, who caught 50 passes for 758 yards and five touchdowns, despite not playing at all in the season's final four games and being limited in many of the games prior to that. Oh, and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett, their second leading receiver in catches (37), yards (505), and touchdowns (3)? Yeah, he's gone too. Among receivers actually still around in 2010, Troy Stoudemire, Jr. (26-306-2) had the best year in 2009. Da'Jon McKnight (17-311-0), Brandon Green (21-293-1), and Bryant Allen (5-45-0) are also back; they're high on potential, but low on actual production at this stage in their careers. Will this be the year they take that leap forward? The Gophers certainly hope so; we're more skeptical. It's pretty damning that despite Decker being essentially a non-factor for the entire second half of the season, no Minnesota got more than half as many receptions as Decker did in basically five games. There were plenty of opportunities for Minnesota's receivers to answer the call last fall and they came up miserably short.
OK, the offensive line -- that has to be the source of some good news, right? Right? Well, yes and no. Yes, it's good that they return all five starters in tackles Dominic Alford and Jeff Wills, guards Chris Bunders and Matt Carufel and center D.J. Burris, as well as a whopping 110 combined starts. But it's troubling that these same guys, paving the way for largely the same skill players, produced the miserable offensive stats cited at the beginning of this section. By way of comparison, the 2002 Iowa offense also returned all five starters and a staggering number of combined starts -- and they led the way for the Big Ten's best offense that year. The difference? Well, aside from the fact that those Iowa offensive players were just plain better, Iowa had a pretty potent offense in 2001, too: they scored 40+ five times and were held under 20 points in just three games. So the 2002 Iowa offense was starting from a pretty good platform; conversely, the 2010 Minnesota offense is starting from a pile of crap. It's hard to believe they could be any worse with so much experience, but expecting anything beyond a jump to "moderately respectable" for the Minnesota offense is likely a mistake.
NEXT: Oh, that defense.