Photo Credit: The Gazette
Photo Credit: The Gazette

Our Big Ten preview series is back.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll make our way through the Big Ten East and West from the bottom to the top. 

The countdown rolls along with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Our Grace Choi breaks down the Gophers’ potential for a fourth straight bowl appearance.

Team Capsule:

2014 Record: 8-4 overall, 5-3 B1G

2015 WNUR Projected Record: 7-5 overall, 5-3 B1G

Key Returning players: Mitch Leidner (QB), Briean Boddy-Calhoun (CB), Eric Murray (CB)

Key Departing Players: David Cobb (RB), Maxx Williams (TE), Damien Wilson (LB)

Under impressive coaching, the Minnesota Gophers came out with a great season last year. However, with five primetime players now in the NFL, head coach Jerry Kill will especially have to revamp his offensive game.

The Gophers are headed into the 2015 season in good hands – Kill was named the 2014 Big Ten Coach of the Year. He led the Gophers to a 5-3 Big Ten finish, an 8-4 season finish and also coached five All-Big Ten First Team players.

Though the Gophers have lost five players to the NFL, WNUR predicts the Gophers will finish up their 2015 season similarly to last: 7-5 overall and 5-3 in conference. Despite the offensive setback, it looks like the strong defense will help in winning low-scoring games.

Offensive Preview

After losing two key components in running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, fast-footed quarterback Mitch Leidner has to sharpen up his passes: Leidner ranked last in the Big Ten with only 51.5% pass completion last year. With goals to get the ball out of Leidner’s hands faster, Kill has worked on the team’s short passing game. If all goes to Kill’s plan and Leidner does improve his passing, we should expect to see fast and short passes from the Gophers this season.

Kill also tried something new during spring football that we could possibly see in-play this fall: a no-huddle offense. By implementing this, Leidner should keep a consistent rhythm especially in completing shorter routes and opponents will have less time to set up, catch their breath and sub in or out.

Even with this adjustment, the offense as a whole needs to step up to fill in the hole that Williams and Cobb left. If the Gophers want to see some big progress this year, several players will have to work hard to support the quarterback.

Defensive Preview

Minnesota’s defense is arguably one of the strongest in the conference. The suffocating defense allowed on average just 24.2 points and 365 yards last year. They will have seven of last year’s starting eleven returning, so the Gophers’ defense will be a more seasoned team this year.

We’re expecting to see a lot of big things coming from the two returning defensive backs, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. The dynamic duo, along with senior Damarius Travis and transfer, Ace Rogers, were able to almost completely shut down receivers during spring scrimmages. Minnesota’s secondary is looking particularly powerful this year.

Scott Epke, who had a season-ending injury in the opener last year, will be back this fall. Epke, who made nineteen tackles his sophomore year, will join his younger brother Hendrick Epke, also a defensive lineman (fourteen tackles, three for loss) in the front four.

Given the depth of the Gopher defense, we’re expecting many opponents to have a tough time penetrating the defensive line. It wouldn’t be surprising for Boddy-Calhoun and Murray to follow the recently drafted Cedric Thompson to the NFL after this season.

Special Teams Preview:

Hopefully the special teams unit hasn’t been keeping up with their practice schedule during the off-season. However, whatever workouts these kickers did, paid off last year. Peter Mortell will play his last season as a Gopher. The 6-foot-2 punter leads the program in career average with 44.3 yards. Mortell was awarded the Big Ten Punter of the Year in 2014 and is currently on the watch-list for the Ray Guy Award, which is given to the nation’s best punter.

Outlook:

The Wildcats should take advantage of playing the Gophers at Ryan Field because last season, Minnesota finished 6-1 at home in TCF Bank Stadium– their best since 1977. The Gophers will open up their season at home against last year’s Big 12 Co-Champion, TCU and matchup with last year’s national champion, Ohio State in its first conference game. This will be the second year that the Gophers will play the Horned Frogs: last year TCU defeated Minnesota on their home field 30-7.

Under Kill’s coaching, Minnesota looks to be under great leadership and is definitely a contender for the Big Ten title. If Leidner is able to take his game to the next level and improve his passing game with a supportive and tightly-tuned offense, the Gophers are looking at a great year.

Worst case scenario: Leidner isn’t able to improve his passing game, and the defense is never given enough support by the offense. Minnesota misses a bowl for the first time in four years due to a tough conference slate.

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