What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Mark from The Daily Gopher, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Minnesota.
1) So, the Claeys-sance is upon Gopher football. How are you guys feeling about that? Excited? Thankful for the continuity to the Kill Era? Did you want the Gophers to dip their toes into the wider coaching search waters this off-season? Do you think Claeys will still be in charge three years from now?
MARK: Whoa, that's a lot of questions for one question. We feel good about it. Yes, we're excited. Yes, we're glad there will be a great deal of continuity. No, we did not want to try to go up against the likes of USC (the real one), USC (the fake one), and a variety of other schools that could be viewed as more appealing to "up-and-coming" coordinators.
The last questions is the one I find most interesting and will thus expand upon my answer to it. I believe Coach Claeys will still be at Minnesota in three years. Minnesota has won 8 games in back to back seasons. This season has been a step backwards in the win-loss column but the incoming recruiting class is packed with in-state talent and a few out-of-staters that have a ton of buzz and excitement surrounding the program. Combine this with the schedules getting a little easier in the coming years due to cross-overs besides Ohio State and Michigan and there could be a massive amount of success to be had in 2016, 2017, and 2018 for Claeys.The new athletics facilities being built will definitely help as it will be a great selling point to recruits for 2017 and beyond. If most of the staff is retained in the off-season, the forward momentum from the last three years in a variety of aspects seems likely to continue. This momentum, in my opinion, will lead to enough on-field success for Tracy Claeys to retain the head coaching position at Minnesota for as long as he desires.
2) The Gophers are 4-5, but outside of the strange home wipeout against Nebraska, those losses have come against teams that are a combined 31-5. The Gophers were very competitive in their losses against Michigan and Ohio State, too. Has there been a common thread in their losses against quality opponents? What stands out to you most about those performances?
MARK: First off, I would say it's safe to assume that the Nebraska game is an outlier for this defense because two of their starting linebackers, De'Vondre Campbell and Cody Poock, hardly played for various reasons and that completely changed the effectiveness of the entire defense. The common thread in their losses against quality competition was probably a lack of consistency on offense. In the case of the lose against TCU, the Gophers turned the ball over at inopportune times and the offense couldn't compensate for it. Against Northwestern, the offense laid an absolute turd on the field which tired out the defense and made it impossible for them to keep it close. Against Michigan, well, we should have won that game but unfortunately there was a coaching gaff and it didn't work out the way it should have but the offense showed signs of improvement and the defense played relatively well. Against Ohio State, the defense was spectacular for the first 20 minutes of the game but a reversed targeting call changed the fortunes of the game and by the time that inconsistent offense awakened in the second half, it was too late for a comeback.
The thing that stands out the most is how good the defense has been despite injuries. Sure, they're ranked 26th in S&P+ defensive rating but when you realize how many injuries Minnesota has suffered (both starting DTs didn't play against the Buckeyes for example) and how often the Gopher offense goes three-and-out, it's amazing they held the Buckeyes to 21 points (one touchdown was a defensive score). The defense has cast aside injuries to about 60% of the defensive two-deep on opening night to put up quality efforts against ranked teams.
3) Minnesota's losing more games than they did a year ago, but they're not getting blown out (again, aside from the Nebraska debacle), and their scoring defense is posting similar results to what they've posted over the last four years (2015: 24.3 ppg, 2014: 24.2 ppg, 2013: 22.2 ppg, 2012: 24.7 ppg). On the other hand, their scoring offense has bottomed out: they're averaging 20.3 ppg, worst in the Big Ten. What's been the source of Minnesota's problems scoring the ball? And considering that they've ranked in the bottom four of the Big Ten in scoring offense in 4 of the last 5 years, is Matt Limegrover on the hot seat?
MARK: Many people over at The Daily Gopher believe Limegrover should indeed be on the hot seat or even replaced in the off-season when Claeys reviews his staff. However, there has been marked improvement from the offense after the Northwestern fiasco. Since then, it has averaged 387.25 yards per game including hanging 461 total yards on S&P+'s #1 rated defense in Michigan. Quarterback Mitch Leidner has shown more consistency in his throws and is finding receivers downfield with more frequency. Strangely, the running portion of the offense has staggered in recent weeks but it appears both freshman running backs, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, were slowed by injuries which may lead to the reemergence of Rodney "Nugget" Williams at running back. This could be useful against a physical team like Iowa because Williams is more of a bruising runner capable of pounding the ball between the tackles.
The overall biggest problem that has held back the offense has been a combination of an offensive line that hasn't gained cohesion due to the constant shuffling of the positions due to injury and lack of production and Leidner's inconsistency. Since Leidner has improved his play, the offense has become more respectable. However, the offensive line continues to be a problem, as the Gophers have had to use 6 or 7 (I can't remember which one) different starting combinations through 9 games this season.
4) It's not a surprised that Minnesota has missed David Cobb's presence in the run game this year, but have you been surprised at how much they've missed Cobb? Minnesota is a team that wants to be built around running the dang ball, but they're second from bottom in the league in rushing offense. Who should Iowa fans be aware of in Minnesota's offense? Maxxxxxxx Williams doesn't have any more eligibility, right? RIGHT?
MARK: Well, honestly, I think more of it has to do with what I stated above about the offensive line with a small portion being because we have played several high quality defenses than it does about the difference between David Cobb and the Smith/Brooks combination. I loved David Cobb. His ability to make 4 yards out of nothing was fun to watch. But he was also able to rack up the massive stats he had because of the sheer quantity of carries available. He carried the ball a ton his junior and senior years. Smith and Brooks have a ton of ability and have shown it at times during the season. I firmly believe the biggest difference is the lack of consistency on the offensive line and their inability to get any consistent cohesion due to too many different alignments and a few injuries.
Iowa fans should be on the look out for senior wide receiver KJ Maye, who has become a huge plus in recent weeks and appears to get better with every passing week. He had 10 receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown against the second ranked pass defense in Ohio State (S&P+) last weekend in Columbus. He and Leidner are definitely at peak levels of understanding. Also keep an eye on freshman wide receiver Rashad Still, who appears to have some big play ability thanks to his massive frame, and tight end Brandon Lingen, who is doing his best to emulate Maxx Williams the last few weeks (minus the ability to hurdle defenders in a single bound).
5) For Minnesota to beat Iowa on Saturday night, what are two or three things that the Gophers need to do?
MARK: 1. They need score early in order to gain confidence on the offensive side of the ball and give the defense something to work with besides a big old 0 next to the MN on the scoreboard.
2. They need to force a turnover or two to change field position and the game's momentum at some point in time, preferably when it appears the Hawkeyes are about to get the Kinnick crowd into a frenzy.
3. They need to improve their punting game, which has gone strangely south the last few weeks, even though senior punter Peter Mortell is a god among men. If he can regain his consistency, it should allow Minnesota to pin Iowa further back in their own territory and let them play the field position game for as long as possible. If they can wait out the time it usually takes for the offense to get its legs and keep the game close, anything is possible.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
MARK: Listen, it would be foolish for me to go through this whole Q&A without saying how much I hate Iowa. I really do hate Iowa. It pains me to see you guys having such a great season. And the last few games, I've actually secretly been hoping you guys would win so that we could have a chance to spoil the #SpecialSeason. And at long last, the opportunity has presented itself. But there have been a few strange twists and turns. In the span of a few weeks, we've lost a head coach and gained a new one. Iowa has proven itself capable of winning on the road, as well as at home. Minnesota has fought valiantly against two of the better teams in the conference, only to fall short. The records really should be thrown out the window for this one, especially when the most wonderful of all the trophies, Floyd of Rosedale, is on the line.
Is it possible Iowa blows the doors off a physically beat up and mentally exhausted Gopher squad? Sure, it's possible. Is it likely? In my humble opinion, I don't believe so. I've been able to correctly predict the results of every Gopher game (sans Nebraska) so far this year. With such great power comes great responsibility. While I would love to see the maroon and gold go into Kinnick at night and silence 70,000 drunken fools, it just doesn't seem like it's in the cards this year. I'll take Iowa winning by the skin of their teeth, 20-17 in a slobber-knocker of a game.....
Heck, who am I kidding? Gophers win and silence the Hawkeye faithful 20-17 on Ryan Santoso 50 yard field goal as time expires! WHO HATES IOWA?!?!?!?!?!?!
Thanks for being a good sport, Mark, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped tomorrow. You can check out the TDG crew at The Daily Gopher. You can also follow TDG at @TheDailyGopher. The Iowa-Minnesota game is in Iowa City, IA on Saturday, November 14, and is scheduled to start at approximately 7:00 pm CT, with TV coverage from BTN.