Maize n Brew's 2006 Season Preview Part V or XIII: The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers
An Error Prone & Excessively Verbose Overview of:
The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers
University of Michigan v. University of Minnesota
Location: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Date: September 30, 2006
Game Time: 7:00pm CST
Game #: 5
TV: TBA (likely ESPN)
Radio: WOMC-FM and CKLW-AM
University: University of Minnesota
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Team Name: The Golden Gophers
Team Mascot: Goldy Gopher
Facility: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (Cap. 63,669)
Conference: Big Ten
Number of Conference Championships: 17 (1900, 1903, 1904, 1906, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1915, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1940, 1941, 1960, 1967)
Number of National Championships: 6 (1934, 1935, 1936, 1940, 1941, 1960)
First Season of Football: 1882 (1-1-0)
Last Season: 2005 (7-5)
All Time Record: 620-432-44
Head Coach: Glen Mason (9th year)
Versus Michigan All-Time: 24-67-3 (Michigan leads)
Last Meeting Versus Michigan: 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, beat Michigan 23-20.
A Brief History of The University of Minnesota:
The third largest University system in the United States, The (da) "U" as locals call it, was founded in 1851 as a preparatory school in Minneapolis before Minnesota was even a state. Closing down during the civil war, Minneapolis entrepreneur John Sargent Pillsbury reopened the U in1867 through the Morrill Land-Grant Act, designating it as Minnesota's land-grant university. Today, the U is located on both sides of the Mississippi River and has grown into one of the countries premier public institutions. The heart of the system is the University's Twin Cities campus which contains a large undergraduate population and the medical, law and other graduate programs.
Americans like Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, Walter Mondale, and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger all call the U their alma mater. As does my grandfather, who was a long time economics Ph.d. student there. So, as you can tell, the U has a special place in my heart.
Athletically the Gophers excel at winter sports. The Men's and Women's ice hockey teams recently have captured back-to-back national championships (Men 2002, 2003; Women 2004, 2005). The Wrestling team took back-to-back national championships in 2001 and 2002 as well. Finally, the men's and women's basketball teams are routinely some of the best in the Big Ten, though the men's program has recently fallen on hard times.
In case you didn't notice, Minnesota has 6 National Championships (1934, 1935, 1936, 1940, 1941, 1960) under its belt. In fact between 1934 and 1936 the Gophers only lost one game. During their back-to-back National Championships in the 40's, Minnesota went 16-0 over two seasons.
However, since 1967 when the Gophers captured a share of the Big Ten crown, its been all down hill. From 1970-1999 the Gophers managed just 10 winning seasons. Since Glen Mason took over the program in 1997 the Gophers have had only 3 losing seasons. They've also managed to go to a bowl 6 of the last 7 years.
Unfortunately for both the fans and the coaching staff, none of those bowls have been New Year's Bowls.
Last Year: 2005 (7-5)
Minnesota opened with four straight wins, including a victory over Purdue, before getting pummeled by PSU. Then they beat Michigan. Toads fell from the sky, the seas boiled, the moon turned as blood. Lost on cloud nine Minnesota proceeded to drop close ones to Wisconsin and Ohio State before righting the ship against Indiana. Amir Pinnix ran wild over a depleted MSU squad and the Gophers prepared for their year end showdown with Iowa. They got absolutely destroyed (52-28). Despite this, the Gophers went to the Music City Bowl where they dropped a heartbreaker to Virginia by 3 points.
What Went Right:
They beat Michigan for the first time in 13 tries. That's big. They also managed to get to a bowl for the fourth straight year. Minnesota also became one of the few schools to feature two 1,000 yard running backs as Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell both topped the 1,000 yard mark.
Bryan Cupito emerged from the running game's shadow and had a solid year for the Gophers. Another positive was the All-American performance of junior TE Matt Spaet.
What Went Wrong:
This was not a good defense. In fact it was horrible. Giving up 29 points a game does not earn you praise.
In addition, the Gophers dropped too many games they had a chance to win. With the exception of the gift Michigan win the Gophers were in a position to win games against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Virginia, but did not.
Oh yeah. Maroney bolted for the NFL and Russell forgot that there was a grade requirement to play football. Both are gone.
What To Look For This Year:
Overhyped expectations. This is not a great football team. At best it is average. The team's strengths lie in its Offensive Line, QB and Receivers. Because of the loss of its feature backs, Minnesota will lean heavily on the passing game this year for success. While the new RBs will be serviceable, there's no way they replace the production that left.
With changes in offensive philosophy, a shaky defense, and a QB taking over a system as his own for the first time, it could be a rough year in Minneapolis.
Returning Starters Offense: 6
Returning Starters Defense: 6
Glen Mason has led the Gophers to 6 bowl games in the last 7 years. Even so, the Gophers have never played in a New Year's Day Bowl under his tenure. While Minnesota has always had some talent on the offensive side of the ball the defense tends to leave something to be desired. When I was in Minnesota last year before the season, people as far north as Ely were beginning to call for his head because the Gophers had yet to return to prominence. When your team has six national championships in its trophy case, but the last time you won even a Big Ten title was 1967, the natives get restless.
Mason is a good offensive coach but hasn't figured out how to put together a decent defense or coach a team to a victory it shouldn't win. (Anyone pointing to the Michigan game should realize that Minnesota's victory was more the function of Michigan's total inneptitude rather than good coaching. Minnesota tried to give that game away too. Michigan just wanted to give it away more.) Nice guy. One of the longest tenured coaches in the Big Ten. But if wins don't start piling up and a new years day bowl isn't in the picture, Mason's gone in two years.
Last year's starter Bryan Cupito is back for his senior season. Cupito has started at QB for da Gophers in 2004, donchaknow. Since starting the season as a sophomore, Cupito has only relinquished the starting job once, due to an injury versus Michigan last year. While that should mean its because he's awesome, sadly it does not. Cupito is both good and bad in the same sentence. In 2004 Cupito was marginal at best. In 2005 he was much better. Cupito passed for over 2,500 yards, 19 TDs and 9 INTs in 2005. He actually finished 5th overall in the Big Ten passing stats.
Despite seemingly solid numbers, the numbers are a tad deceiving. While Cupito does have strong arm, over the last few years Cupito has benefited from Minnesota's seemingly endless supply of 1,000 plus running backs. Last year Minnesota had two backs break the 1,000 yard mark. The offense is geared specifically for the running game. When called upon to throw the ball, Cupito has never managed to pull out the big game against good teams despite the fact that eight man fronts are stacked at the line. Cupito did have big games last year against Ohio State (396) and Iowa (315), but Minnesota dropped both games, getting blown out against Iowa.
This year without a star studded running game the weight of the offense rests entirely on his shoulders. How he does when teams are stacked up to stop him is a question that will quickly be answered this fall. Cupito's okay, however he does have some very talented wideouts to throw to. Expect his TD and INT numbers to rise, but for him to have a solid season. Maybe sneak into the draft as a late, late pick.
Sophomore Tony Mortensen will back up Cupito this year and likely take over the starting job next year. Mortensen's claim to fame is he handed the ball off to Gary Russell on that 3rd and long against Michigan that induced a string of expletives from Michigan fans that hasn't finished reverberating around the planet. Mortensen is game tested, getting the start against Wisconsin (a game da Gophers won) and plenty of mop up time. If Cupito goes down Mortensen has the tools to be a solid backup. He won't supplant Cupito, but he's not an inexperienced, wet-behind the ears kid who's only held a clip board. He can play at a decent level.
This year, for the first time in several years, the running game won't be the star in Minneapolis. Here's why: Russell was supposed to be back but grades got in the way. He had 1,100+ yards last year. Maroney was supposed to be back but money got in the way. He had 1,500+ yards last year.
Who's left? Shifty Junior Amir Pinnix will be the workhorse this year. He tallied over 450 yards last year without catching a pass as the number three back in a two back rotation. Unlike the bludgeoning power that Maroney and Russell brought to the table Pinnix is small, quick, and shifty as a mouse in a caffeine study. When given the ball he can do some special things. Ask MSU. Pinnix' one start last year was against the Spartans, he responded by rushing 32 times for 206 yards. He's not the biggest back in the world so keeping him healthy may be the Gopher's biggest question mark at RB.
Backing up Pinnix will be juco transfer junior Brylee Callender. More in the mold of a speedy power back, Callender will bring the between the tackles pop for Minnesota. The 2003 Mr. Football in Minnesota, Callender can move and will see plenty of playing time. Paving the way for Pinnix and Challender will be fullback Justin Valentine. Built like a Hummer, Valentine could see some goalline carries if Challender doesn't grab that job outright. Valentine is a solid blocker and has good hands out of the backfield. With a single running back on the field at any time, Valentine should see some carries and be more involved in the offense this year.
After Pinnix and Callender there isn't a lot of depth. With Maroney and Russell clogging up the depth chart hot RB prospects have (pardon the pun) run away from Minnesota. Next year help could be on the way, but an injury to either of them would be bad, bad news for the Gopher offense. Expect 1,000+ out of Pinnix
UPDATE: More bad news for Minnesota. Callender has been suspended for violating team rules. This makes an already thin group thinner and seriously hurts Minnesota's chances of successfully running the ball should Pinnix get hurt or tired. Bad, bad news.
There is some skill here. Seriously. If Cupito can match his passing yards this year his TD numbers should skyrocket. The starting talent is excellent. After them there is a significant fall off.
Looking at the numbers, none of the returning wideouts had a breakthrough year. However, they're back, a year older, and hopefully better. 6'5" junior Ernie Wheelwright is Minnesota's biggest threat. His size combined with truly surprising speed will make him a coverage nightmare this year. Even though he ony managed 37 catches for 568 yards and 5 TDs last year, the offense was not designed to exploit his talents. This year it'll be a different story. Expect Minnesota to go with jump balls and long bombs early and often when Wheelwright is in single coverage.
Opposite Wheelwright will be Senior Logan Payne. Payne took over the No. 2 receiver slot mid way through last year. While not the fastest guy in the world, his hands are made of glue. Good body position and good routes will make him a possession target for Cupito as the year goes on.
Filling out the starting receiving group will be First Team All Big Ten TE, Senior Matt Spaeth. Gigantic at 6'7", 270. A premier run/pass blocker on the ends and exceedingly good hands off the line. Forgotten early in the year when the focus was on Minnesota's twin terrors, Spaeth caught the majority of his passes during the Big Ten season. He picked up 4 TD's last year, a number that could double this year. Will make lots of money at season's end.
After the starters, Minnesota's in trouble. Piles of redshirt, 2* freshman await in the wings. Minnesota's only other burner is redshirt frosh Mike Chambers, but he's certainly not going to beat (Michigan DB) Morgan Trent in a footrace. The passing game will be key to Minnesota's success this year. To be successful one of the redshirts will have to step up and be that tweener receiver that has good enough hands to play tight and enough speed to make the safeties lay back. I like what this group can do without one, but a tweener will make this a dangerous offense to play against. They'll be good. Not great.
If a day comes when Minnesota doesn't have a mountain moving offensive line, well, I don't want to be around to see that day. There must be something in the wild rice, lakes and corn that grows Minnesota boys into either 1) Volkwagen sized linemen or 2) or hockey players no one likes. Last year Minnesota gave up three sacks. Three. They also paved the way for over 2,500 yards passing and 3,200 yards rushing. Despite the fact that Minnesota lost two of its best linemen to graduation/NFL, this group looks to be as strong and dominant as ever.
Starting at Left Tackle will be massive Junior Steve Shidell. Shidell started every game at left tackle and was outstanding. Opposite him will be Joe Ainsile, the line's Senior leader and reigning behemoth. Ainsile got hurt early last year when he was supposed to start at left tackle. As a result of the injury he didn't play much. In response, Shidell slid over into the left tackle spot and made it his own. Now healthy, Ainsile is back. Shidell's emergence will enable the staff to use Ainsile as a battering ram on the right side. At 6'7", 310, Ainsile will envelop defensive ends and tiny linebackers. Don't be fooled by his size, Ainsile is quick on his feet and should be a decent pro prospect by year's end. After the big two at Tackle, the remaining Tackles are a little undersized in the 270-280 range and short on experience. But a few months of eating in the Minnesota cafeteria and hitting the weights should help to fix that issue. Still, there is a lack of size/talent problem should either go down.
The Line's interior will be strong again this year, but will also have a question mark. First the question mark. One of the guard spots will be up for grabs between two redshirt freshmen. Otis Hudson seems to be getting the nod over fellow frosh Ryan Ruckdashel. Hudson definitely has the size advantage, checking in at 290 (down from 315). However, Ruckdashel is the quicker, faster of the two. It will be a battle all fall to see who gets the nod for playing time. Whoever gets that nod will get plenty of help from the rest of the interior line. The center slot will be handled by Junior Tony Brinkhaus. Another maroon elephant at 6'4" 300, Brinkhaus can play either guard slot and took over the center position this spring with positive results. Next to him will be another prospective center in Guard Tyson Swaggert. Swaggert is a senior who saw playing time in every game last year. With the line's departures he now steps into the starting slot.
The line should be solid as usual for Minnesota. While I seriously doubt they'll be as dominant as last year's group, they will pave the way for another 1,000 yard back and should give Cupito plenty of time to throw the ball. On the other hand this will be the first year in a while that Defenses can pin their ears back and bum rush the QB knowing someone like Maroney isn't going to blow past them if they do. With Cupito the focal point of the offense it'll be up to the line to keep him upright. Expect more sacks, lower yardage, and an interior mistake or two. But also expect these guys to be very, very good.
They're small. They're undersized. But they go all out every play and they're quick. Big offensive lines crushed this group last year and will do so again this year. Still, there are some glimmers of hope. Just not enough for this unit to propell the Gophers to anything more than a December Bowl.
The DL's interior averages 265. Most of that weight is heart. Defensive Tackles Todd Meisel (Jr.) and Eric Clark (Sr.) will man the middle. Giving up between 30 and 40 pounds to Big Ten Offensive Lines is going to play hell with them this year. Clark is a career backup who will finally have a shot at starting this year. He's a motor-never-stops kinda player who will make teams pay for taking him lightly. Maisel has the tools to be an excellent DT, just not the size. Both players will get penetration but shouldn't be counted on to stop good running teams. I expect by mid season one of them will have lost their starting job to larger Neel Allen who at 290 will bring desperately needed size and run stopping to the defense. 290 lbs Sophomore Nhemie Theodore will also see plenty of time in the rotation.
On the outside there is some hope for the Gophers. Sophomore Steve Davis is a pass rushing fool. At 6'2" 230 he racked up 37 tackles, 9 TFL, and 6 sacks as a true freshman. With a full year under his belt and a little more growing time Davis is poised to become an outside force over the next two years. What Davis lacks in size he makes up for in pure speed and quickness. The only catch this year is that teams will be ready for him and he'll see a lot of double teams if he starts causing trouble. At the other DE slot will be Willie VanDeSteeg. VanDeSteeg is another sophomore who had some starting time last year and wowed the coaches with his motor. A little bigger than Davis but a little lower on the skill level, VanDeSteeg will not quit on a play. That will either bring him accolades or wear him out in his first season as a starter. The Gopher's defense won't hinge on his ability to get to the quarterback, the hinge is on the inside line, but it will certainly make them a more viable unit if he has some success. After the starters, there's not a lot of depth. Several redshirt or true freshman make up the backup list.
Again, mostly no-so-good news mixed with a glimmer or two of hope.
It doesn't say much when you return your entire LB rotation and you're not expected to be much better than last year. The best of the group, in terms of numbers, is Junior John Shevlin. Shevlin played well last year notching over 70 tackles, including 9 for loss and adding an INT. Shevlin appears best suited on the outside which allows him to run free and take advantage of his speed. In the middle will likely be Junior Mike Sherels or Sophomore Alex Daniels. Sherels was consistently average. Not the best athlete in the world, but played hard and made the plays he was supposed to. A "smart" player with little speed. This has left the door open for Alex Daniels to claim the MLB position. Daniels saw some time last year and will see plenty of action come kickoff. One of the LB corps' better athletes, he's still young and learning the MLB position so don't expect much till mid-season.
The other OLB will likely be converted DE Senior Mario Reese. Reese loves finding his way into the backfield and is a natural at smashing people. He notched 48 tackles last year, but with his athleticism should have done much better. The glimmers of hope I refer to comes in the form of freshman Tommy Becker and converted TE UMass transfer James Tindall. Becker won't start, but with the lack of depth at LB its safe to assume he'll see some playing time barring a redshirt.
The LB's won't get a lot of help from their DL this year and are likely to see a lot of very large men coming at them at high speed. If last year's numbers are indicative of what to expect from the LBs this year, things are going to be tough for the Gophers. Unfortunately, I don't see enough talent or coaching that can turn an average group of athletes into something more.
Further illustrating the frustration at LB is the fact that the Gopher secondary makes of 3 of the top 4 returning tacklers. Minnesota's defensive backfield can hit and tackle, but they are lacking shut down speed.
Both starting safeties from last year return. Sophomore Dominic Jones spent most of last year trying to kill people with his shoulders. Jones returns as the Gopher's starting SS, and simply loves to put a hurt on. The problem. He's 5'9, 180. While he can play CB and FS, he'll spend his time covering the run and marking territory mid field for hits. At FS Senior Trumaine Banks is likely to get the nod. Last year Banks broke up 13 passes and notched 57 tackles. Banks played corner the last three years, but his range makes him valuable at FS. Battling Banks will be Junior Dominique Barber, who at 6'1" 200 has excellent wheels and a penchant for big hits. However, he is a former RB/special teamer with limited experience at safety.
At corner Minnesota has high hopes for redshirt freshman Keith Massey. Massey is another 6'1" 200 pounder with some wheels. He's a former wideout with little to no experience at corner. Minnesota's pass defense will hinge on the play of Junior CB Jamal Harris. Harris was third on the team in tackles last year and was Minnesota's top cover corner. His weakness is speed. While he's physical enough to pound you at the line or over the middle, burners can give him problems. Over the course of the season, depending on Barber's play, you'll likely see Banks move back to CB until Massey grows into the position. Also offering some assistance will be redshirt freshman Desi Steib. Steib is big, but slow (corner back slow). Look for him in nickle packages.
This group will be decent, but not great. If the line is as bad as I think it is, they're going to see a lot of work this fall.
The FG and PK duties will be decided in a kick-off between sophomores Jason Giannini and Joel Monroe. Monroe probably has the better leg, but Giannini got the nod last year and went 13-19 with one miss coming from over 50 yards out. Monroe added 9 extra points, so its up in the air who gets the nod. Punting will be sophomore Justin Kucek. What can you really say about him, other than he's a decent punter who needs to up his kick height and length.
The return duties will be handled by Dominic Jones on kick offs and Logan Payne punts. They'll be decent.
8/31 at Kent State
9/9 at California
9/23 at Purdue
10/7 Penn State
10/14 at Wisconsin
10/21 North Dakota State
10/28 at Ohio State
11/11 at Michigan State
Best Case Scenario: 9-3
9 wins. Minnesota should walk away with 7 wins based on its schedule. The gimmies are Kent State, Temple, and D1-AA North Dakota State. Indiana should be a win. That's four. Where are the other five coming from? That will depend on the development of the Defense. If the defensive line can stop the run and get some pressure on the QB it will give their linebackers a lot more room to breath and develop. If the LBs can show some athleticism and make some tackles they didn't make last year, Minnesota could surprise. I honestly think the DB's will play well this year.
On offense Pinnix turns out to be an everydown back and shows promise no only to the outside but between the tackles. If that's the case wins over Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State aren't out of the question. If Iowa falls apart that's 8 wins. The 9th win would have to come from Penn State. Penn State would also have to be bitten by the same injury bug that bit Michigan last year, and even then its questionable. There's not a chance in hell of it happening, but Minnesota's got a better shot against PSU than Cal, OSU or Michigan. Again this is a best case, and I don't see it happening.
Worst Case Scenario: 4-8
4 wins. The wheels come off. Cupito implodes. The Defense is worse than expected and Minnesota's only Big Ten win comes against Indiana.
I'll pick them to win against Kent State, Temple, and D1-AA North Dakota State, Indiana, and toss up between Purdue and MSU.