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Better Know An Iowa Football Opponent 2010: Minnesota Golden Gophers (Part Two)

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.

In case you missed it... PART ONE

MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS (Minneapolis, MN; November 27, 2010)

So what should we expect when Minnesota doesn't have the ball?  Not much.  They were a below-average unit a year ago and now they return only two starters from that squad (and none for the opener, since safety Kim Royston is still rehabbing a broken leg and safety Kyle Theret is suspended) this year.  Our good buddy Phil Steele ranks their defensive line the worst in the league (11th) and their linebackers tied for worst in the league (10th with Indiana).  On the bright side, he rates their secondary as the fifth-best in the league, although that likely presumes playing time for Royston and Theret; you can probably drop their ranking accordingly with them not playing.  The defense is led by second-year defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, who was the defensive coordinator on Wisconsin's Rose Bowl squads in the '90s.  More recently, he was also the defensive coordinator on the Nebraska teams that couldn't tackle a group of quadriplegics, gave up 60+ to Kansas and Colorado, and lost the infamous "Blackshirts" moniker because they were so fucking pathetic that they were disgracing former Nebraska defenses. Let's just say it's a mixed bag with Cosgrove in charge.

As noted, the strength of the Gopher defense is expected to be their secondary, which is supposed to feature a pair of returning starters at safety (Royston and Theret) and a pair of slightly experienced cornerbacks (Michael Carter and Ryan Collado).  Royston had 86 tackles (1.5 TFL), one sack, one interception, and seven passes defended in '09, while Theret had 73 tackles (2 TFL), three interceptions, and seven passes defensed.  Collado had 34 tackles (4 TFL) and two sacks a year ago; Carter had 11 tackles (1 TFL) and one sack in limited action.  With Royston and Theret out, James Manuel and Christyn Lewis are slated to step into the starting safety spots.  Neither man has any experience at this level; Manuel is a true freshman and Lewis is a JUCO transfer expected to compete for a starting spot at CB.  Expect teams to pick on the middle of the field against Minnesota if Royston and Theret aren't back very soon. 



And just how "special" are their special teams?  Pretty special; in fact, they might be the best part of the entire Gopher team.  Eric Ellestad is back as the placekicker; he went 13-17 a year ago, but three of his four misses came from 40+ yards.  He doesn't have much range, but he was accurate inside 40 yards (13/14).  Punter Dan Orseske was supposed to be the main guy last year, but then he came down with mono and had to take a medical redshirt. He averaged 44.6 yards per punt in limited action, though, and booted three punts inside the 20-yard line.  That's good, because if the Gopher offense struggles yet again, he could be a very busy man.  Bryant Allen was a capable punt returner in '09, averaging 12.2 yards per return -- albeit on just six returns.  Troy Stoudemire was even better at kick returner, averaging 24.6 yards per return and amassing over 1000 kick return yards.  If the defense is as porous as we expect, he could have the opportunity to return a lot of kicks this fall.

Alright, brainiac, what's gonna happen?  Let's keep this simple.  In part one, we touched on the staggering length of time it's been since Minnesota scored a point on Iowa in football.  And we know that outside of maybe a few offensive linemen, there isn't a single Minnesota player that we'd take over his corresponding starter on Iowa. Recent history, the series results under Ferentz, the overall talent levels of the two teams... all of these favor Iowa pretty handily.  So let's focus on the one reason this game is a little scary: timing.

The game falls two days after Thanksgiving (usually a rest week at Iowa) and a week after the massive clash with Ohio State, a game that figures to take a massive physical and emotional toll on Iowa, win or lose.  Minnesota, meanwhile, comes into the  Battle for Floyd of Rosedale off a bye week and with two weeks to prepare for Iowa. Granted, Brewster will no doubt lose interest about halfway through those preparations and have his team out selling knives door-to-door to GO FIGHT RONCO BUILDS CHARACTER.  But still: Minnesota has a considerable advantage in terms of scheduling and preparation time for this game.  So with all that said are we going to call for the unthinkable and a Gopher upset?  Fuck no.  But they may - may - actually score a few points on Iowa this year.

So how's the rest of their season gonna play out?  If you were a struggling coach seated atop the proverbial hot seat and you knew you probably needed to win 7-8 games and get to a halfway decent bowl in order to ensure your job security, you'd probably take the 2010 Minnesota football schedule... and do just about the exact opposite.  Let us break down the many ways in which their schedule is a crushing anchor on Gopher hopes to make it to a third-straight Insight Bowl (third time's the charm, if by charm you mean "yet another crushing defeat to a middling Big 12 squad").

1) The non-conference schedule.  On the surface, it looks fairly ho-hum for a Big Ten squad: three home games, one road game; one game against a BCS squad, two against MACrificial lambs, one against a I-AA speed bag. Yawn.  Except the road game is the season opener and it's not even a high profile match-up against another BCS squad or Notre Dame; it's a trip to Murfreesboro, TN.  And the BCS squad is USC -- the California one, not the Smelley Cock (interwebs tip: don't google "smelly cock") one.  And the two MACrificial lambs aren't quite so sacrificial; Northern Illinois is the odds-on favorite to win the MAC West and Middle Tennessee State is the consensus pick to take the Sun Belt.  At least they got it right with the I-AA squad; South Dakota is by far the lesser of the two schools from The Mount Rushmore State.  Clearly, the Gophers learned their lesson after their close call with the Jackrabbits last year.  

Granted, Minnesota's still a Big Ten team and NIU and MTSU are not exactly the cream of the non-BCS crop (and in the case of MTSU this is especially so when they're going to be without all-conference QB Dwight Dasher for the Gopher game); we're not talking Boise State or TCU-level foes.  But they also aren't the sort of bottom-of-the-barrel non-BCS squads that you typically find Big Ten squads feasting on (especially if they want to make a bowl game). And USC may be suspended from postseason play and living under the cloud of serious scholarship reductions, but good ol' Uncle Pete left a fair amount of talent for this year at least.

2) That conference home schedule.  There's a school of thought that says that there are basically two types of schedules for BCS schools: "make a bowl game" schedules and "vie for a championship" schedules (non-BCS schools add a third variation: "make enough scratch to stay afloat").  If the former type is your aim, you want your toughest games on the road, since you aren't likely to win those games anyway and you want to give yourself the best option to get maximum wins from the home slate.  If the latter type is your goal, you want your toughest games at home, since you expect to beat the "lesser" squads no matter where the game is played and you want to give yourself the best option to win as many of the tough games as possible.  It's safe to say that Minnesota is a type one team at this point; Brewster can talk all he wants about taking the Gophers to Pasadena -- they're only going there if Brewster buys them all tickets.  So given those parameters, the fact that they draw Ohio State, Penn State,and Iowa at The Bank this fall is, uh, not good news.  Even their other conference home game is no gimme -- it's against just Northwestern, one of those teams from the Big Ten's nougat-y midsection that has legitimate dark horse credentials this year.  Savor that (presumptive) win over NIU on 9/25, Gopher fans; there's a good chance it could be the last home win you see until 2011.

3) That conference road schedule.  In fairness, this slate isn't nearly as daunting as the home slate (it couldn't be, really, since the home portion features three of the top four consensus squads in the league), but it's by no means easy.  It opens with a trip to Madison, where Minnesota hasn't won since 1994.  It's also worth repeating (just because it's so goddamn funny) that Brewster is 0-for-everything in rivalry games at Minnesota.  He has a pair of matching 0-3 records against Iowa and Wisconsin, and an 0-2 mark against Michigan and an 0-1 mark against Penn State; hey, they do play them for trophies, which is pretty rival-y.  In fact, if you include his pair of trips to the Insight Bowl in the mix, Brewster is 0-11 in games where a trophy is on the line.  Needless to say, there hasn't been much need to clean the football wing of the Gopher football case lately.  To be fair, the Battles for Paul Bunyan's Axe haven't been as lopsided as the Gophers' efforts in other trophy games; all three losses to the Badgers have been by a touchdown or less and they've score 28 or more in each game (compared to the 33 points total in their six games under Brewster against Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State).  So hoping for a positive result in that game is reasonable, if unlikely given the crushing match-up disadvantages the Gophers face.

The other three road games aren't as daunting as the Wisconsin trip, but none are cakewalks, either.  After Wisconsin, Minnesota takes a trip to Iowa's new most-hated rival, Purdue. Purdue was one of Minnesota's three league wins a year ago and, in fact, Purdue is the lone Big Ten squad that Tim Brewster has a winning record against (2-1).  But Purdue is, like jNWU and Michigan State, one of the favorite picks to make a run from the Big Ten's nougat-y middle class and they have the benefit of playing Minnesota when the Gophers could be dealing with the emotional hangover of the Wisconsin game (or not; they turned around and beat Purdue a week after losing to Wisconsin last year).  November brings back-to-back road trips to Champbana and East Lansing.  Those aren't two of the most fearsome road destinations in the Big Ten and Minnesota did win on their last trip to Champaign (in 2008) and did beat Michigan State a year ago (when Adam Weber's plea to be a real boy quarterback was answered by the pagan gods that rule Halloween)... but Minnesota did lose to an Illinois team run by a 3rd-string QB last year and barely escaped Michigan State despite getting the best passing game Adam Weber will ever have in his entire life (including his time spent playing video games).  November is also typically the time of year when Gopher football seasons curl up into the fetal position and wait for the sweet embrace of death (or the Insight Bowl); under Brewster, Minnesota is 1-10 in November games and the lone win was against South Dakota State last year.

So: can Minnesota cobble together another 6-6 season and a spend another hoppin' New Year's Eve at the Insight Bowl in 2010?  Anything more than a 3-1 record from the non-conference slate seems like paint thinner-assisted fantasizing, which means they need to find three conference games to steal.  That's possible, but the Gophers may not be favored in a single conference game this year.  FIGHT TRY WIN figures to get replaced by SUBMIT QUIT LOSE in the Gopher lexicon this year; anything more than a 4-8 record will be pretty goddamn surprising in our book.

Of course, compared to the defensive line and linebacking corps, the secondary is overflowing with experience. The defensive line features a sophomore and a redshirt freshman at defensive end, D.L. Wilhite and Matt Garin, respectively.  Wilhite had four tackles, three sacks, and two fumble recoveries a year ago, so he did make stuff happen in his limited minutes.  Juniors Brandon Kirksey and Jewhan Edwards are the projected starters at defensive tackle; despite being around for a few years, neither guy has much experience yet.  Kirksey had 16 tackles (3 TFL) a year ago, while Edwards has a grand total of 16 tackles through two years of action thus far.  Not gonna lie, though: kinda want to see Jewhan Edwards tackle Paki O'Meara.

The situation in the linebacking corps is also pretty rough, with Mike Rallis, Gary Tinsley , and Keanon Cooper expected to start.  Rallis is coming off a season-ending broken leg a year ago and he was a safety the year before that, so he's still fairly new to this linebacker business.  Tinsley had 12 tackles (2.5 TFL) and a sack a year ago. Cooper has been the most productive of the bunch -- he had 43 tackles (2.5 TFL) and two blocked punts a year ago. If anyone emerges as a playmaker among the motley crew of souls that is the Gopher front seven, it's likely to be Cooper, who has tremendous athletic ability and parlayed that into some quality results a year ago.  It just doesn't look as though he'll be getting too much help from the players around him.