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: JDMill from The Daily Gopher, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Minnesota.
BONUS: You can read my responses to questions from TDG right here.
1) It seems like the bye week came at a good time for Minnesota. They opened up league play well with wins over Michigan and Northwestern, but then looked a little shaky in their next two games -- a very narrow win over Purdue and then a shocking loss to Illinois. What happened in those games? What warning signs have you noticed -- and have the Gophers had a chance to fix them over the bye week?
JDMill: Purdue and Illinois were very different games in the "what happened" category in my opinion. Purdue is a young team that is improving and their speed on offense definitely caught us off guard. While the Purdue game was a bit surprising, it wasn't hugely disappointing as they were coming off of their first B1G win in 2 years and a very solid showing against Michigan State when they came to town. Plus, it was the first time that a Kill-coached Gopher team came back from a halftime deficit, so it was nice to get that monkey off our backs.
Illinois was a different story. The Gophers came out flat and uninspired on the road. I really hope they weren't looking past Illinois to the bye week, but that's about the only excuse I can come up with for how they played. In addition, I thought the gameplan from an offensive standpoint was awful. Suddenly the Gophers are a passing team that just lobs passes over the top of the defense? Look, I know we got behind early, but I truly believe if Matt Limegrover wouldn't have freaked out and instead stuck with the power run game, in the end we would have controlled the clock and worn down the Illini.
As far as fixing it over the bye week... lordy I hope so. Limegrover needs to stop over-thinking (like he did against Iowa last year when he came out with another horrible gameplan) and just stick to what the Gophers do best.
2) Minnesota ranks dead last in the Big Ten in passing and Mitch Leidner's stats are slightly worse in 2014 than they were in 2013. How much of a concern is that for Minnesota fans? What are the hopes for Leidner (and the passing game in general) the rest of the way?
JDMill: The extent to which Leidner's passing is a problem depends on who you ask. My opinion is that it is not a huge concern. Mitch isn't going to be asked to throw the ball 30 times/game on a consistent basis (unless of course we're playing Illinois, in which case, YEAH SURE WHY NOT LET'S HAVE HIM THROW IT 30 TIMES AIR-RAID IT'S HAPPENING TOMMY LIKE WINGY). In this offense Leidner should be a 15-20 attempts/game guy who completes 60% of his passes and throws slightly more TD's than INT's. His job is to complete enough passes to keep the defense honest. Nobody is looking for him to shoulder the load on offense and if Limegrover keeps things within Leidner's wheelhouse, then things click on offense and everything is fine.
During the three game stretch against Michigan, Northwestern & Purdue, all wins, Leidner averaged 18 attempts, 11 completions (61%), 162 yards, 1 TD and .3 INT per game. That's the Mitch this offense needs and expecting him to do anything more than that from a passing standpoint is a recipe for disaster.
Now, of course, in order for that Mitch to be available, the running game has to work, and that is where Matt Limegrover did a poor job against Illinois.
3) The Big Ten is absolutely loaded with good running backs this year, but David Cobb is very good. What should Iowa fans know about him?
JDMill: David Cobb isn't a burner. If he gets in a foot race, he's probably going to get caught. He isn't the most physical back in the conference either. He's not going to run many guys over.
But Cobb's vision and patience is what sets him apart. If there is an opening, Cobb will find it and he's quick to get there. He seems to have an ability to find holes that are just opening up, so he's early to get through, whereas other backs are sometimes late to hit a gap. Once he gets to the second level, it's the same thing. Look, find, hit the hole.
Whereas a back like Melvin Gordon gets huge chunks on multiple runs over 50 yards, Cobb is a bit more of a grinder. He'll generally break a big one every game, but the bulk of his yards typically come on runs of 5-10 yards.
I've always appreciated guys like Weisman who are just bruisers and run people over. It's obvious where their production comes from and he makes other teams just look physically inadequate. Then you've got guys who are just quicker and faster than everyone out there. But when the Gopher offensive line is in tune, and David Cobb is hitting holes, it's something different. He a bit of a tactician in how he approaches things. When it's working It is a lot of fun to watch as a Gopher fan.
4) What's the strength of the Gopher defense? They rank in the middle of the league against the pass and the run, but they're a solid defense overall. Who are a few key players on that side of the ball that Iowa fans should know about?
JDMill: The secondary the strength of the defense. Eric Murray is one of the better CB's in the B1G. Cedric Thompson had 2 INT's vs Purdue, and Brien Boddy-Calhoun and Damarius Travis have been good all year as well.
Overall, the Gopher defense, until the last two games, tends to be a group that gives up quite a few yards, but not a lot of points. There have been several games this season where the Gophers won the game, but lost the total yardage battle. The last two games... well, I'm not quite sure what has been going on but both Purdue and Illinois found ways to get points early and make things really difficult.
5) Peter Mortell has the second-best punting average in the Big Ten (45.1 ypg), which is some nice #PuntingIsWinning. If this game comes down to special teams, how big of an advantage does Minnesota have over Iowa?
JDMill: Special teams is an area where the Gophers really focus a lot of attention and it has paid off. As you mentioned, the punt game has been solid, as has the punt return defense. The kick return defense has also been really good and all of those things really help the overall mission of this team which is a lot about field position throughout the game.
When you look at the overall numbers, the Gophers tend to rank about middle of the pack in most categories, but they have had a tendency to make some big plays when it mattered.The Gophers are the only team in the B1G with a kick return for a TD, a 100 yarder by Jalen Myrick which was absolutely the difference in the win over Northwestern.
When you talk about a game coming down to special teams, typically you think of FG kicking, and that is an area that has been a little sporadic this season. Ryan Santoso is a BIG kid, like linebacker big at 6'6", 240 lbs. He's got a huge leg, but his accuracy is questionable. He's money inside of 40 yards so far this season going 5/5, but between 40-50 yards, he's 2/5. Having said that, when the game DID come down to special teams for the Gophers against Purdue, Santoso nailed a 52 yarder that won the game for the Gophers.
6) What's the feeling among Minnesota fans right now? Despite the disappointing loss to Illinois, Minnesota is right in the thick of the Big Ten West title race in November. They also have a brutal schedule this month: home games against Iowa and Ohio State, followed by road games with Nebraska and Wisconsin. Are Gopher fans nervous? Excited? Both? What's the expectation for how things play out?
JDMill: I think if you would have told Gopher fans coming into the season that we'd be 6-2 heading into the Iowa game, we would have been fairly satisfied with that. Unfortunately the loss to Illinois really puts a different spin on those two losses. I had predicted we'd be 6-2 right now, but I had us losing to Michigan (because really, who knew how bad that situation would be) and beating Illinois.
Everyone outside of Minnesota had been mentioning how the Gophers have had a good record, but that they hadn't beaten anybody good. I think we had some maroon colored glasses in that regard because of how good TCU has turned out to be. But the Illinois loss really brought us back down to earth. You'll hear a lot of "same old Gophers" and "Gophers gonna Gopher" even among Minnesota fans because we are fanbase full of jaded people that tend to turn tail as a defense mechanism.
For me, I still believe we can win any game left on our schedule if we play our game and don't make mistakes. We're past the part of our schedule where we can afford to play poorly in any facet and still overcome it and win. We have to play mistake free football to win from here on out.
I believe in our players. I think they have a chip on their shoulder about how they are viewed in the conference and I think they are absolutely embarrassed by what took place in Illinois.
Despite what I've said here about Matt Limegrover, he absolutely has the ability to dial up a creative gameplan that gives us the opportunity to beat more talented teams (see Nebraska last year and Michigan this year), and I think Tracy Claeys is the most underrated coordinator in the B1G. I believe in our coaching staff and I believe they have the ability to get this team focused and ready to play this stretch of games...
But I am scared as hell. This might be the most difficult stretch of 4 games that any team in the B1G has to play this season. The Gopher program has a history of meltdowns, and that fact is not lost on me. I just hope that Jerry Kill and his staff can exercise those demons.
Thanks for being a good sport, JDMill, although I still hope your team loses by 50 on Saturday. You can check out the TDG crew at The Daily Gopher. You can also follow JDMill on Twitter at @jdmill and The Daily Gopher at @TheDailyGopher. The Iowa-Minnesota game is in Minneapolis, MN on Saturday, November 8, and is scheduled to start at 11:00 am CT, with television coverage from ESPN2.