Big Ten Team Preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

WNUR’s Jason Dorow (@jasondorow) previews the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and if they can use the new Big Ten West to jump ahead in the standings. WNUR’s staff poll suggests the Gophers are staying put at 5th in the conference, but just enough to make a bowl.

WNUR’s Prediction: 6-6 overall, 4-4 in conference, sneaking into one of the bowl games.

The big surprise in the Big Ten last year came from the land of 10,000 lakes. Minnesota won eight, including four conference matchups. The Gophers got big wins at home against Nebraska and Penn State and on the road in Evanston. After finishing fourth in the Big Ten legends division, Minnesota lost 21-17 to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.

Head coach Jerry Kill enters 2014 having vastly improved the Gophers during his time in Minnesota. From three-win Big Ten bottom feeder in 2011 to eight-win contender last year, the Gophers have changed in three seasons. Kill produces winners wherever he goes. He turned both Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois from mediocre programs to conference champions in less than a decade. The Gophers still haven’t won a bowl game since 2004, but the five-win jump Minnesota made in the last two seasons has created some optimism in the Twin Cities.

Offense: Minnesota’s success has come from old fashioned Big Ten football, grinding it out on the ground. The Gophers averaged just under 200 rushing yards per game last season, good for 37th in the nation. In 2014, they return their triple threat of backs in Rodrick Williams, Donnell Kirkwood and 1,000-yard rusher David Cobb. The entire starting offensive line returns, so the Gophers can continue to pound its way through opponents.

Leidner is poised to take the starting job now that Nelson has transferred

Leidner is poised to take the starting job now that Nelson has transferred

The Gophers’ former quarterback, Phillip Nelson, transferred to Rutgers in the offseason but was dismissed after he was charged with assault in May, so Redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner will start at quarterback after playing off-and-on in 2013 and passing for over 600 yards. Minnesota returns most of its top wide receivers, but none of them topped 25 catches last season. On the other hand, Leidner ran for over 400 yards in his infrequent freshman campaign, adding to the Gophers’ formidable rushing attack.

Defense: The Gophers ground game wasn’t winning any games on its own last year. The defense was the anchor that Minnesota relied on most in 2013, finishing 25th in the country in points allowed. The Gophers held Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan State and Wisconsin to a combined total of 67 points. They only won two of those games, but Minnesota’s defense almost always held its own last season.

Minnesota lost several of its defensive stars in the offseason. Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, perhaps the best Golden Gopher since Laurence Maroney, left for the NFL, as did safety Brock Vereen. The Gophers return six starters though, including leading tacklers safety Cedric Thompson and linebacker Damien Wilson. The secondary is deep, but the Gophers front seven is rather inexperienced. Minnesota thrived off winning the battle at the line of scrimmage last season, so it will be difficult for the defense to match their results from a year ago with new starters on the defensive line and in the linebacking corps.

Special Teams: There are few guys that can produce punting gifs like Peter Mortell does. The junior punter averaged 43.3 yards per punt last season, ranking third in the Big Ten. Kicker Chris Hawthorne is gone, leaving it to four freshmen to battle it out for the starting spot. And the very quick Marcus Jones will handle kick-returning duties. Minnesota will be great on special teams if they find a solid kicker.

Prediction: Historically, it’s not good to bet against a Jerry Kill team improving upon its prior season. Jerry Kill was never in a power conference before starting at Minnesota though. Losing Hageman, Vereen and other key pieces on defense is going to really hurt the Gophers. And despite the stellar running game, Minnesota only put up 25.7 points per game last season. It will be hard for Kill to get victories against Nebraska and Northwestern again. Minnesota should be able to go 4-0 through its non-conference play and defeat Purdue and Illinois, but they probably won’t pull more than an upset or two. Kill should be happy with a postseason appearance and the opportunity to end Minnesota’s decade-long bowl victory drought.

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