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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Story

Midway through the third quarter of the Insight Bowl, Minnesota led Texas Tech 38-7 and Glen Mason's job was safe. Winners of four straight to close out the year, the Gophers had turned a corner with Amir Pinni-- uh. What?

Or Minnesota somehow managed to blow the game, lose 44-41, set the record for the biggest bowl comeback allowed in the history of college football, and get Glen Mason got fired the next day. Go figure. (Ominous that the last game of new Big Ten Network commentator Glen Mason was exiled to a channel, the NFL Network, that no one gets.)

Into Mason's shoes steps Tim Brewster, whose multifaceted and impressive qualifications include being
  • a tight end at Illinois
  • tight ends coach at North Carolina
  • tight ends coach at Texas
  • tight ends coach with the San Diego Chargers
  • tight ends coach with the Denver Broncos.
So, like, f-in' A, dude. Minnesota tight ends are going to kick ass. The rest of the team? Who knows? Brewster has hired Everett Withers, the Titans' secondary coach, and Mike Dunbar, Cal's offensive coordinator, claiming that he has assembled "the best staff in the country" in the process. Anywhere Norm Chow is would like to disagree. This is only the first indication that Brewster, at the very least, has a wicked talent for hyperbole. He also claimed Minnesota's coming corporately-named stadium "will be the finest on-campus stadium in America today" and that he would take "the Gopher Nation" to the Rose Bowl. If you were to point out the analogue of Gopher Nation on a map, what would it be? Andorra?

The gift of gab is the key to Brewster's ascension. He's scandalously light on actual coaching accomplishments but has a reputation as a "monster recruiter." Assuming that he will raise the level of talent Minnesota brings in is a dubious proposition based on fine work he did under Mack Brown's tutelage. Recruiting Vince Young to Texas is an entirely different matter than recruiting him to Minnesota. The Gophers have made a serious misstep by bringing in a neophyte with a rep as a recruiter instead of someone who can spin straw into gold. Because Minnesota, recruiter or no, is going to see lots of straw.

As the Dude said, how are you gonna keep them on the farm once they've seen Karl Hungus? Minnesota may have more natural disadvantages than any other BCS program. The Gophers must compete with the Wild, Twins, Vikings, and Timberwolves in Minneapolis. Hockey-mad Minnesota provides scanty harvests of recruits and a forbidding, polar bear laden climate that hampers out of state efforts. (Minnesota is the only school with a I-A football program that plays second fiddle to hockey.) Since the Earth's poles reversed in the 60s and robbed Minnesota of whatever crazy leyline mojo (@ right) they were working when they were a national power, Gopher football has been one long string of unrelenting failure. Their last Big Ten title was 40 years ago, the longest drought in the conference.* And though they're finally getting their own stadium, for now they are stuck in the antiseptic Metrodome. Even the new place will feel minuscule compared to most other Big Ten stadia at only 50k, and "TCF Bank Stadium" does not exactly scream tradition. There will be a brief burst of interest when the place opens; if (when?) Minnesota's fortunes fail to improve attention will scatter to the multitudinous other options. In the 29 years between that last Big Ten title and the Mason era, the Gophers high water mark is seven wins, accomplished all of thrice and not since 1985. They should take the crappy bowl bids and occasional flicker of excitement provided by Mason and be happy. History indicates that this is as good as it gets for the Gophers.

Mason may not have brought the Gophers much other than a few of rinky-dink bowl wins, but few could have done better. The electron of Minnesota is already in an excited state. With Mason now scheduled to bore Big Ten Network audiences, it's only a matter of time before they emit a photon and return to their grim baseline. The half-life: October.

*(They're tied with Indiana, actually. The astute might notice that this means that in 1967 Minnesota and Indiana were Big Ten co-champions. Yeah, right. New theory: nationwide acid trip.)


Last Year

Virtually irrelevant, as Mason's grinding power game has been discarded for the rapidly-approaching-passe spread. Past results are not indicative of future performance.


Rating: 1. Three-year starter Brian Cupito never received the credit his statistics suggest he deserved. After a rough sophomore year, Cupito blossomed, finishing 21st and 30th in passer efficiency his final two years in a Gopher uniform. Hell, pick the Cupito:

QB A59.67.9228
QB B61.87.6229

Cupito is A; Chad Henne is B. If you are marshaling an argument about Minnesota's run-slanted playcalling making pass plays more effective, please remember that Mike Hart was worn to a nub last year.

Slight difference: Henne still has eligibility. Thus a major reason for what success Minnesota managed the last couple years is out the door. Whoever the replacement is will likely be shaky. Junior Tony Mortenson has three years of practice reps in a different offense and as many career completions as interceptions: two. The other two options are freshmen Adam Weber, a three star '06 recruit whose offer list of Wisconsin, Miami, and Michigan would have been impressive if the Miami wasn't Ohio and the Michigan wasn't Western, and Clint Brewster, the coach's son.

Speculating here is useless. Brewster might actually have the most relevant experience after running a spread at Denver Mullen the last few years as Mortenson and Weber toiled in Mason's grinding offense, but he's also a three-star true freshman. Everyone's starting from scratch. At best this works out like Northwestern's situation last year, in which unrelenting pain the first half of the season gives way to the hope of competence.

Tailback & Fullback

Rating: 3. It is a testament to the Mason system that Amir Pinnix's (@ right) 1215 yards last year (in ten games, basically -- Alex Daniels started Minnesota's first two games before moving to, um, defensive end(!)) was regarded as something of a disappointment. He was no Laurence Maroney, that's for sure. Nor was he Gary Russel, who looked on his way to similar stardom before an inability to attend classes shunted him into limbo and, eventually, NFL practice squads.

But he was far from bad. His 20 carries for 91 yards against the vicious Michigan run defense was by far the best output of any Wolverine opponent save for Ohio State's anomalous spread-and-shred job. Against Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State -- all top 15 defenses last year -- he averaged a more than respectable 3.9 yards per carry. He lacked the breakaway speed of Maroney or the thunderous pop of Marion Barber but was a still a nice package of skills.

How will he do from the spread is anyone's guess. Running backs are the most plug-and-play of any position in football, so the transition should be smooth enough unless something about the new, as of yet veiled, scheme plays to a particular weakness. This seems unlikely. Pinnix will be fine, though safeties breathing down his neck may make that hard to perceive.

Wide Receiver & Tight Ends

Rating: 3. Surprisingly effective (and pale!) Logan Payne is gone along with Matt Spaeth, the original brobdingnagian tight end. Left behind are a few guys with potential. Ernest Wheelwright is a good start, but the enormous Ohioan is the sort of disappointing player invariably tagged "enigmatic" by sportswriters of all stripes, including me. ("Enigmatic" is a cool word.) He looks like he should be dominating fools; he ended last season with 26 catches. As a true junior there's still hope for a leap into the stratosphere, but it's rapidly slipping away. The quarterback transition is unlikely to help.

There's some relatively proven depth. Sophomores Eric Decker and Mike Chambers combined for 45 receptions as freshmen. Junior tight end Jack Simmons, largely stuck behind Spaeth, reeled in seven catches for 134 yards and a touchdown in the bowl game. If you subscribe to the above-proffered "Gopher TEs to rule" theory, he is a good bet to fill in ably for Spaeth.

That leaves Minnesota two or three guys short of enough wideout depth to run a spread, but criticizing the fifth option seems silly. Decker and Chambers weren't world beaters as freshman but showed decent ability, Decker in particular, and should have fine careers. Without a real star and with only a fading hope of one this unit probably won't be more than average, but average it shall be.

Offensive Line

Rating: 3. Minnesota's offensive line was a point of strength throughout the Mason era and was at least decent last year. Witness the Pinnix numbers above. Minnesota was also sack averse, giving up fewer than 1.4 per game and finishing 19th in the country. Skeptics will point out that Minnesota is no Texas Tech, but the Gophers weren't that run-heavy last year. They threw on 44% of available downs and ended up with 373 pass attempts. The sack numbers are at least somewhat legitimate.

Three starters return: senior center Tony Brinkhaus, sophomore right guard and Big Ten name of the year candidate Nedward (Nedward!) Tavale, and senior right tackle Steve Shidell. The new left guard is redshirt sophomore Ryan Ruckdashel, about whom no one really knows anything. But he did win the job free and clear as soon as it became available, so that's a good sign. Four of five spots on the line are secure.

But... um... left tackle? Two inexperienced players battle; I am skeptical of the ability of junior Matt DeGeest if he can't beat out a 6'3" redshirt freshman (Dom Alford). Tackle is a position that demands guys somewhere between 6'5" and 6'8"; Alford getting mentioned as a potential starter is either error on the part of Blue Ribbon or trouble.


Last Year

Pass Eff
Minnesota's defense under Mason was as constant as its run game, except awful. Despite numbers inflated by Minnesota's annual romp through the daisies of Lousiana-Lafayette and the like, Minnesota's defense was a near constant eyesore. Even the 10-3 2003 team that finished 34th in total defense -- Mason's high water mark -- managed to give up 38 to Michigan (the infamous Navarre Water Buffalo Stampede game), 44 to Michigan State, 34 to Wisconsin, 40 to Iowa, and 30 to Oregon. This is where the recruiting deficiencies Minnesota has long endured can't be overcome with a clever scheme or the perfect execution of a center pull. Without competitive athletes at defensive tackle or in the secondary, defenses fail.

Failure happened lots in 2006, which was a bad year even by Minnesota standards. You can see the results of the last two years at right if you're willing to brave Raiders of the Lost Ark style ugliness. Things will probably get better just because it's hard to be that bad two years in a row, but not by much.

Defensive Line

Rating: 2. Willie VanDeSteeg is the closest thing Minnesota has to a returning star: ten of his 40 tackles last year were those sack things so greatly treasured by everyone. Michigan fans may remember VanDeSteeg from the year's most alert bit of commentary. When Mike Hart opened the Minnesota game by ripping off major yardage outside on three consecutive plays, Todd Blackledge immediately pointed out that VanDeSteeg was getting hooked over and over by Mike Massey, and it was so. Finishing 92nd in rush defense is a team effort, but VanDeSteeg was as liability against the run and isn't among the top ends in the conference despite the sack numbers. I wish the official Minnesota athletics site had game-by-game defensive statistics so I could break VanDeSteeg (and 4.5 non-sack TFLs) down by opponent competence. I do remember some impressive instances of pass rush from him in the Michigan game, but I still doubt he's all he's cracked up to be.

With Steve Davis making an (odd) move to outside linebacker, the position opposite VanDeSteeg will be battled over by sophomores Willie Dyson and Ray Henderson, a Tennessee transfer, and junior Alex Daniels, who you may remember as a hilariously oversized tailback in Minnesota's first couple games last year. [If Daniels rejoins the team, which seems doubtful. -ed]

Minnesota's managed to find a respectable defensive tackle when Anthony Montgomery scraped through the NCAA Clearinghouse a few years ago, but when he departed after the 2005 season there was no one to fill his spot. Though tackles and sacks often fail to adequately portray the contribution of DTs, when a team finishes 92nd against the run and the starting defensive tackles have one non-sack TFL between them it is an obvious indicator said defensive tackles were really, really bad. Neel Allen did have 37 tackles -- respectable for his position -- but Todd Maisel managed just 18. Neither provided much pass rush, either: Allen had three sacks, Maisel two. Both are seniors. Neither will be any good.


Rating: 2. As mentioned, Minnesota coaches have elected to drop junior defensive end Steve Davis, who you may remember terrorizing Rueben Riley in Michigan's 2005 loss to the Gophers, to outside linebacker. At the end of that year Davis had ten starts, six sacks and a place on Freshman All-American teams across the country. His sophomore campaign was a small letdown compared to the hype, but he still managed 48 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Always undersized, Davis may be a better fit as a linebacker; with VanDeSteeg's emergence as a capable pass rusher they can get away with the move. Davis will probably move down on third and long.

Middle linebacker Mike Sherels returns; many will ogle his triple-digit tackle totals and proclaim an upswing in run defense on the way, but he's just the latest in a long line of men in the middle of overmatched defenses who make a lot of tackles eight yards downfield and get preseason hype as lone bright spots. Remember Kyle Killion? Exactly. Sherels' numbers are due to extreme exposure more than anything else.

Senior John Shevlin will be the other starter; repeat the Sherels paragraph here.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 1. Notre Dame without the hope provided by highly-rated youth here: many returners, all of them proven awful at their assigned tasks. Minnesota was 117th of 119 in pass yardage allowed and little better (99th) in efficiency terms.

Ah, the eternal question: is it good to have returning starters when they have been burnt crispy-like? In general, the answer given in this space has been "no" when the failure has been so vast, especially when the toastees in question can't play the youthful exuberance card. This is the case here. The Gopher safeties are seniors, as are three of the four top cornerbacks. Diminutive Dominic Jones, listed at 5'8", is a junior. (He is also being held without bail on a sexual assault charge. Obviously, his availability is in serious doubt.) So there were no freshmen being blooded and doing understandable things like blowing coverage on 80 yard touchdowns. Experience reigns already in the Gopher secondary; expect minimal improvement and another miserable year.

Special Teams

Rating: 3. Jason Giannini was okay as a freshman, going 13 for 19, but had a rougher sophomore year. He hit only 7 of his 12 attempts and had a long of 41 yards. All of his misses were from 40+, though three were exactly 40 yards. He's not a disaster. He's also not a positive.
Punter Justin Kucek is decent, averaging 40.3 yards a kick, when not gifting games to hated rival Wisconsin.

Gopher return units would be an exciting positive if Jones hadn't been, you know, arrested. If he plays bump this group up to a four.


Turnover Margin

The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.

2006Int + Fumb +Sacks +Int -Fumb -Sacks -
1.38 (1st)17151.92 (72nd)11
1.38 (19th)

Yesssssssss. This is a perfect storm for this heuristic. Minnesota, a team virtually without a defense, managed a whopping 32 takeaways last year and lost an incredibly low three fumbles. Luck was a lady to the Gophers last year and they were still fortunate to finish 6-7. Now the Gophers are installing a spread offense, deploying a quarterback with no experience whatsoever, and continuing to deploy a defense that will not be good at football. This stat will collapse, and with it Minnesota's fortunes.

Position Switch Starters

Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.

Possibly Alex Daniels, but he is still fighting for playing time. Definitely Steve Davis, who slides back from his place as an effective defensive end to try his hand at outside linebacker. More broadly, you could say Amir Pinnix, every offensive lineman, and the quarterback as the Gophers switch to an entirely new offensive scheme. The boding... unwell!

Dumbest Thing In CFN Preview

Just because.
Offensively, don’t expect a big overall change from the Mason era. Brewster wants to be physical and run the ball, but he’ll do it with a spread offense that might take a while to get rolling. (link)
Don't expect the exact opposite sort of offense to be much of a change.

Flickr Says...

An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt

Best Case

I have a hard time seeing any cause for optimism. Since the nonconference slate is full of delicious creampuff, they could sweep it. Then it's a matter of finding two league victories -- Northwestern and, um, Indiana? -- to scrape into the Motor City Bowl at 6-6.

Worst Case

Hey, they play a I-AA team... that outgained them by 130 yards last year. 0-12.

Final Verdict

Sunday Morning Quarterback and Paging Jim Samardzija are skeptical about all the Gopher skepticism. SMQB sums up:
But against the bottom - last year, that was 3-5 Indiana, 1-7 Michigan State and 2-6 Iowa, the Gophers' three late-season victims - they were still golden, as they certainly still expect to be when Illinois and Northwestern rotate back onto the schedule in place of Penn State and Michigan State. I don't know if that amounts to a defense of Minnesota's prized mediocrity, exactly, or if that needs defending, but depending on all the new variables - the coaches, the quarterback, the scheme - it stands to reason the persistently mediocre is still due some benefit of the doubt over the persistently bad.
Ah, if only Minnesota had actually been mediocre last year. They were not. They were outgained by their opponents by 50 yards a game, and the true Lovecraftian depths their defense descended to were masked by an outpouring of opponent generosity that will not repeat. The three best player's on last year's offense are gone. There are no suitable replacements at quarterback, and the run game that has long been the rock Minnesota planted its flag upon has been discarded.

Meanwhile, Brewer has never coached a football team before. Everett Withers hasn't been a defensive coordinator since 1997. Mike Dunbar's terms as offensive coordinator have been under gurus Jeff Tedford and Randy Walker, who functioned mostly as their own coordinators. The offense is radically changing to a scheme no one is surprised by anymore. The defense has like 2.5 players on it.

There is one conclusion here: disaster. Minnesota blows one of its non-conference games, scrapes a win in conference, and ends up 4-7.

9/1Bowling Green
9/8Miami (Ohio)
9/15@ FAU
Probable win
10/20North Dakota State
Probable win(?)
Probable loss
9/29Ohio State
10/6@ Indiana
Probable loss
10/13@ Northwestern
10/27@ Michigan
Probable loss
11/10@ Iowa
Probable loss
Absent:Penn State, Michigan State

Bonus prediction: their recruiting class is no better than a typical Mason effort and Brewster is bounced after four years of Wacker ball. But, hey, at least they'll get two shots at eviscerating a youthful Michigan hockey team this year.