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Monday, May 30, 2005

The Story
Over Glen Mason's nine years in Minneapolis he has lifted the Gophers from laughingstock to respectability, but hasn't managed to get Minnesota over the hump and seriously threaten for the Big Ten title.

Many will tell you this is due to some sort of Spartanesque post-Michigan collapse. After all, over the past three years Minnesota is 18-2 before playing the Wolverines and 7-7 after. Unfortunately for lazy broadcasters, this disparity is the frontrunner for phoniest stat of the 2005 season. Most of those 18 victories have come against Minnesota's perennial slate of nonconference loozer schools. Minnesota's Big Ten wins over that timespan came over Northwestern (three times), Penn State (twice), and Illinois (once). Any slightly-above-average team would have had the same record before and after Michigan, because the teams that came before Michigan were bad and the teams that came after were not.

The truth is that Minnesota's failures have nothing whatsoever to do with some sort of mental malaise that sets in after yet another heartbreaking loss to the perpetual Brown Jug holders and everything to do with the fact that Mason has only put together half a team. Minnesota's offense has been a running juggernaut the envy of every old-school six-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Big Ten traditionalist but their defense has been horrible, terrible, unwatchable, repulsive... pick up a thesaurus, start at "sucktastic," and point. You'll find something that's probably a little too nice.

This does not look to change this year. Other than a couple of solid players at defensive tackle the defense has almost nothing in the way of proven talent. It's possible that they could turn into a respectable unit, but it's possible in the same sense that Barry Sanders will suit up for the Lions again. The good news is if the Gophers' run game can adjust to not having a back with a roman numeral after his name, it will be lights out again. Laurence Maroney is a legitimate Heisman candidate and the fierce, experienced, and mobile line in front of him--led by Rimington favorite Greg Eslinger--should pave the way for a monster year.

So, more of the same? Perhaps. Minnesota has an X-factor this year in the form of 6'5" wide receiver Ernest Wheelwright, who has all the physical tools you could possibly imagine and a nasty habit of dropping extremely important catches. If he can morph from a deep threat into an everywhere threat and catch what he gets his hands on, Minnesota's offense could overcome their defense.

Unit by Unit
Rating: 3. Brian Cupito's role in his first year as a starter was mostly to hand it off to Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney. Occasionally he would be called upon to toss a bomb downfield or hit tight end Matt Spaeth on play action, which he did well enough despite statistical appearances to the contrary--a 47% completion percentage. That's an ugly number, but it isn't nearly as bad as it looks, since he led the Big Ten in yards per attempt with 8.0. He demolished the competition by averaging 17.1 yards per completion. He did this with a receiving corps that dropped a large number of catchable balls, too (more on that later). Cupito's first year as a starter was actually a rather good one.

Cupito has yet to show that he can be an accurate passer on the outs, digs, and slants that most teams use as the basis of their passing game, but that isn't his fault. He hasn't been given much of an opportunity to do so. Mason deliberately kept him away from danger to prevent interceptions. The caution worked, as Cupito threw 14 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions. The cost, though, was more predictability than a truly great offense can afford to have. Mason will open up the playbook a little more this year. Cupito will have to show that he's capable of handling it.

Running Back

Rating: 5. Minnesota lost half of its two-headed monster at running back when Marion Barber III declared for the NFL draft but the Gophers return the better half of the duo in the explosive Laurence Maroney. If Maroney, finally the clear-cut starter, maintains his spectacular 6.2 yards-per-carry average and leads Minnesota into a race for the Big Ten title he will be a legitimate Heisman candidate. He will certainly have the horses in front of him to do so. mgoblog predicts Maroney cracks 2,000 yards this year and gets to New York.

Backups Gary Russell and Amir Pinnix both showed well in the spring game and will get their share of time spelling Maroney. The Gophers are excited about both young backs' potential and given the line they'll have in front of them, an injury to Maroney would be harmful but not devastating.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Rating: 4.Though Minnesota returns senior Jared Ellerson, its leading receiver from last year, this position is the Ernest Wheelwright show. Wheelwright is a 6'5" monster with deep speed and the ever-coveted big play capability. He burst on to the scene as a freshman, averaging 21.8 yards a catch and making several spectacular downfield plays. It wasn't all strawberries and cream, however, as Wheelwright dropped a number of catchable balls over the course of the year, including one that would have put Michigan away for good.

Ellerson's good, but Wheelwright has the potential to make defenses choose between leaving Maroney up against a seven-man front or chancing Wheelwright loping downfield, diminutive cornerback in tow. Neither of those is appealing in the slightest--if Wheelwright makes the Sports-Guy-Approved "Leap."

Tight end Matt Spaeth is 6'6", 270 and plays like an offensive lineman with soft hands. He's excellent blocking for Maroney and when he finds himself open will come down with the ball but isn't overly athletic for a tight end and sometimes has trouble getting open. Another good year and he will start getting All Big Ten consideration.

Offensive Line
Rating: 5. The Gopher line has been paving the way for Maroney and company for a few years now. Center Greg Eslinger has been an All-American almost from the moment he set foot on the not-so-hallowed turf of the Hubert H. Humphery Metrodome. Left guard Mark Setterstrom and left tackle Joe Ainsile aren't far behind.

The right side of the line is less proven. Mike Nicholson, the projected starter at right guard, is a senior with eight starts over the past two years. The right tackle is sophomore Tony Brinkhaus, who is entering his first season seeing serious playing time.

Ultimately, though, the performance of the right side of the line will determine whether Minnesota has a great offensive line or merely a very, very good one. No team in the league can match the 1-2-3 combo of Eslinger, Setterstrom, and Ainsile, and Brinkhaus seems ready to fill in capably at the RT position. There's a reason Minnesota's been rolling backs off the assembly line like the Denver Broncos over the past few years, and it rests entirely on these players.

Defensive Line
Rating: 2. DT Anthony Montgomery is a legitimate anchor in the middle and Mark Losli is a decent running mate for him. The Gophers were okay against the run last year despite having a weak set of linebackers largely because of the two defensive tackles holding their ground so well. I say "okay" instead of "good" because even though Minnesota finished 36th in the country in terms of raw yardage, that ranking was inflated by Minnesota's non-conference schedule and awful pass defense. When Big Ten teams tried to rush against Minnesota, they averaged 3.8 yards a carry--that placed Minnesota 7th in the conference. Montgomery and Losli are solid, but they aren't the kind of guys who are going to blow up many plays by themselves (13.5 tackles for loss between them last year). If the run defense is going to improve, it'll be more on the shoulders of the linebackers than the defensive tackles.

The defensive ends will be a major problem area. Last year 230 pound linebacker Mario Reese drew six starts opposite Darrell Reid, the line's only consistent pass rusher (7.5 sacks). Reid has graduated; redshirt junior Eric Clark--the man splitting starts with Reese last year--is slated to step into Reid's shoes, but how productive can he be? Clark's two sacks last year came against Illinois and Illinois State. Against good opponents he did very little. The other starting end will probably be fifth-year senior Keith Lipka, who has been so anonymous thus far in his collegiate career that Minnesota's 2005 season prospectus doesn't even mention him.

Rating: 2. This position group is a mess of moved players, inexperience, and questionable athleticism. The only returning starter, Kyle McKenzie, has been shifted from middle linebacker to the outside. The new man in the middle is walk-on Mike Sherels, who has very little experience. The same can be said for strongside linebacker John Shevlin. Minnesota fans will be relying on addition by subtraction here, hoping that the shuffling (new strong safety Brandon Owens, a linebacker last year, is a part of it) is a sign of the defensive coaches finding the correct places for these players instead of the alternative, blind panic.

Perhaps one of the three will emerge as a steady contributor who can occasionally make a big play, but asking it of all three is a significant stretch. Minnesota's going to be going into the season hoping to answer a lot of questions here, but it's doubtful this unit will be anything special.

Defensive Backs
Rating: 1. Minnesota's pass-yardage defense was one of the worst in the country, giving up 266 yards a game enroute to finishing 109th in Division I-A. On the surface the pass efficiency numbers aren't quite as grim--Minnesota ended up 67th--but a deeper look shows that Minnesota's opponents included some of the most aerially inept teams to be found: Wisconsin(99th in passing efficiency), Northwestern(95th), Penn State(110th), Illinois(82nd), and Illinois State(85th... in I-AA!). Gopher fans should take little solace in the passing efficiency numbers.

One of these years Minnesota will put together a decent secondary, but this one doesn't look like it, especially given that the line is devoid of pass rushers. Redshirt junior Trumaine Banks has started the past two years and steps into the departed Ukee Dozier's shoes at Minnesota's closest thing to a #1 corner. Banks was targeted early and often by opposing quarterbacks last year and made a fair share of plays (9 PBUs and two interceptions) but more often than not was beaten for completions. Sophomore Jamal Harris appears to be the leading candidate to start at the other cornerback spot.

John Pawielski returns at free safety while Brandon Owens returns to strong safety after playing linebacker a year ago. Pawielski is limited athletically and it remains to be seen whether Owens has the range to be a safety. They'll both rack up a lot of tackles but unfortunately for Minnesota, they'll usually be eight to ten yards downfield.

Return Game
Rating: 2.Maroney split time at KR with Barber last year and Mason has shown that he's willing to risk his best players on returns if he believes them to be the best available. That may change now that the Gophers are relying heavily on Maroney as the number one running back, but frankly it doesn't appear to matter much. Despite deploying Barber and Maroney last year, Minnesota finished 89th in punt returns and 91st in kick returns.

Either it's problems with the blocking schemes or Barber just wasn't much of a returner (he returned all but one punt and more kicks than anyone else), but Minnesota didn't get any big plays out of the return game all year.

Rating: N/A. The departed Rhys Lloyd handled both the kicking and punting duties last year, and several redshirt freshmen are battling for one spot or the other. It's mgoblog policy not to wildly speculate on kickers, who you just don't know about until they step on the field.

Minnesota starts off with a couple of cupcakes in Tulsa (though that game, bizarrely, is at Tulsa) and Florida Atlantic but sandwiched between them is a Colorado State team that is usually half decent. Minnesota handled the Rams last year and will probably do so again this year but there's at least a chance that one will be competitive.

Minnesota got the short end of the stick this year in the Big Ten , missing Northwestern and Illinois. While the Boilermakers are laughing and preparing their New Year's Day bowl plans, Minnesota faces a Bataan deathmarch of a Big Ten Schedule with only Indiana and possibly Wisconsin looking like breathers, and Minnesota lost to both of those teams last year. The Gophers must travel to Michigan and Iowa, though they do get Ohio State at home.

Keys to the Season
Find a pass rush. It doesn't matter if it comes from blitzing three guys every play. As noted, Minnesota's defense will probably be very bad, and the best way for a bad defense to get off the field is by making a big play and forcing the opponent into a situation where he only has one option. A highly aggressive Minnesota defense might give up some big plays, but if they lay back there's a good chance the opponent will march down the field anyway. Minnesota should rely on the offense to cover up mistakes and pin those cute Gopher ears back.

Diversify the passing game. Minnesota's offense is going to be good, but if the Gophers find themselves in a game where Maroney is getting stuffed, they won't be able to sustain drives by tossing it 30 yards downfield. Cupito needs to read coverages and make throws ten or fifteen yards downfield to make the Gopher offense capable of putting up points against great defenses.

Find some kickers. Minnesota is going to need all the points they can get this year and at least one game will hinge on the leg an as-yet-undetermined redshirt freshman. It would be good if he was, uh, good.

Worst Case: Cupito doesn't improve much. Neither does the defense. Minnesota still detonates against teams with flimsy defenses but can't hang with teams that feature one good unit and one decent one and ends up going 3-5 in the Big Ten to finish 6-5.

Best Case: Cupito's second year as a starter is marked by increased consistency and Mason lets him throw over the middle more, which he is surprisingly effective at. Wheelwright sheds his case of the dropsies and becomes a combination of Mike Williams and Braylon Edwards. The Gopher offense goes nuclear, but the defense still manages to blow a couple games. Minnesota finally beats Michigan and rides into the Citrus Bowl, praying that Maroney returns for a senior year and a Rose Bowl run.

mgoblog says... Swap Minnesota's and Purdue's schedules and I'd be slotting the Gophers in a BCS bowl, but both Michigan and Ohio State look capable of throttling the Gopher run game and scoring enough points on the other side of the ball to beat them. Against Michigan the Gophers had one 80 yard touchdown run by Maroney--and 109 yards the other 38 times they tried to run. That was largely because of Gabe Watson and Lamar Woodley, both of whom return for Michigan. Minnesota didn't play Ohio State last year but the card says that anyone attempting to run against the Buckeyes this year will be going uphill.

The Iowa, Michigan State, and Purdue games will be dogfights. Their outcomes will depend largely on the effectiveness of the Cupito-Wheelwright connection and how much the defense improves, if at all. I think Cupito and Wheelwright will both take big leaps forward this year but the defense will not. That should still be enough to make it to 5-3 in the Big Ten. mgoblog predicts that Minnesota beats MSU and one of Iowa, Purdue, or Ohio State but loses to Michigan and the other two BCS threats. 8-3(5-3), 4th Big Ten.