Saturday, October 31, 2009

Gopher Puckster Leddy Out Six Weeks

The Gopher hockey team lost defenseman Nick Leddy to a broken jaw suffered in Friday's win over Alaska-Anchorage. The freshman was hit shortly after he delivered a shot in the first period by UAA forward Jade Portwood in a shoulder-to-jaw hit. Leddy will be sidelined at least six weeks.
Leddy had started slowly for the Gophers this season, posting no points in five games. The first round draft pick of the Wild this past summer and is the reigning "Mr. Hockey" as the state's top high school player out of state champion Eden Prairie.

The loss will hurt the adjustment to the college game for Leddy, but it will likely mean consistent ice time for both Kevin Wehrs and Sam Lofquist. The two had been alternating games early on, but now both will likely see regular shifts in the Gopher top six.

The Gophers go for the weekend sweep over UAA Sunday afternoon at 4pm.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

The Minnesota Gopher hockey team needed a victory badly entering this weekend's series against Alaska-Anchorage. They desperately needed a fast start to Friday's game in order to combat a 0-3-1 start which saw the team shut out in all three losses. When the team started Friday's game sluggishly and fell behind 1-0, the crowd began to rumble a bit and sensed a real problem.

After UAA's Nick Haddad scored on the power play eight minutes into the game, the Gophers stepped up their play and scored the game's final five goals to gain a much-needed win over the Seawolves in the opener 5-1.

Although the Gophers' power play continued to struggle (0-5), Friday's game featured two short-handed goals by senior co-captain Tony Lucia. Aaron Ness picked up his first goal of the season, and Kevin Wehrs and Zach Budish each scored their first goals in a Gopher uniform. For all four of those, it was their first points of the season. Also breaking through in the scoring department for the first time this season were Jordan Schroeder and Cade Fairchild.

Alex Kangas was solid in the nets on Friday, stopping 22 UAA shots, including 11 in the third period.

Not all was fun and games Friday. Freshman defenseman Nick Leddy had his bell rung after he was hit high after delivering a shot in the first period. Friday's game was chippy throughout with 78 minutes in penalties, including two scrums in the game's final minute when UAA took exception to Minny putting its top power play line on the ice with a four-goal lead. The Gophers answered the bell after their star - Schroeder - was jumped. When Anchorage defenseman Jared Tuton tried to goad Lucia into a fight, the senior skated away. After UAA's Chris Crowell decided to run anyone who got in his way in the final 30 seconds, Minnesota's big freshman Seth Helgeson dropped him to the ice.

The Gophers played with an intensity Friday night not seen all season long. Saturday is a day off because of a scheduling conflict with the Gopher football team, so the teams will hook up again Sunday afternoon. Let's hope the team can respond with similar intensity.
Elsewhere in the WCHA Friday Night:

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Crucial Series in Late October?

Those who know me will agree that I am not an alarmist when it comes to sports. I do not believe the Gopher football team should have a George Steinbrenner-like hook when it comes to football coaches like some of my faithful readers (for that, I get compared to the senior columnist for the Star Tribune - talk about unfair!). I am also not in the camp of those willing to push a panic button on the Gopher hockey team's slow start to the 2009-10 season. However, if the Gophers get shut out on back-to-back occasions by this weekend's opponent, I may change my tune.

The facts are indisputable:

  • The Gophers are 0-3-1 in the season's first four games
  • They have been shut out in all three losses
  • The team was shut out at home last weekend by Denver's Marc Cheverie, and were shut out for an entire series for the first time since 1930
  • The team has scored just three goals all season long
  • Players who have suited-up for all four games and are yet to score a point include Jordan Schroeder, Mike Carman, Tony Lucia, Nico Sacchetti, Nick Leddy, Zach Budish, Cade Fairchild, and Aaron Ness
  • The Gophers were left out of the and USA Today rankings altogether this week

The Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves come to town this weekend for a two-game set, and you had better believe that the Gophers will feel that this is almost a must-win series.

Now look, it's only the third weekend of conference play and the season is very young, but the Gophers are undoubtedly feeling pressure internally and externally. The team is quite aware that they have had plenty of scoring issues on the young season. This is also a team which, on paper, looked to be as talented as any Don Lucia has put on the ice in his tenure at Minnesota, stretching back to 1999.

However, goals have been hard to come by. The team generated 30 shots on goal in each of the two games of the Denver series, but could not find the back of the net. Plenty of shots were fired squarely into the crest of Cheverie, but the goaltender needs to get his fair share of credit as well. As hard as it may be for some impatient fans to understand, opponents are capable of making good plays from time to time.

There is no reason to panic right now. The opening weeks of the season were going to be tough no matter what. Losing to North Dakota and Denver is not something of which to be ashamed, although it would have been nice to score some goals. In fact, some are calling this year's Denver team the best George Gwozdecky-coached team, and this is a guy who won national championships in 2004 and 2005. Still, if the scoring issues persist after this weekend, then we may have a crisis of confidence on our hands.

Anchorage will be no pushover. They have perhaps the most experienced goaltending duo in the WCHA with senior Jon Olthuis and junior Bryce Christianson sharing the duties. Christianson is fresh off a tremendous performance in the Seawolves' 2-1 upset victory over North Dakota last Saturday night, turning aside 22 UND shots. The Seawolves are 3-3 on the young season, with victories over North Dakota, Mercyhurst, and RPI. They are balanced in the scoring department, with upperclassmen Kevin Clark (4-2-6), Tommy Grant (2-4-6), and Josh Lunden (2-2-4) leading the way. They'll play hard for 60 minutes each night and will not be intimidated by the Gophers.

Still, this is a series the Gophers should win. If nothing else, the team needs a big scoring night just to get some of the swagger back. It doesn't get much easier for the Maroon and Gold, as they must travel to Wisconsin next weekend, followed by home series against ranked teams Bemidji State and UMD before the College Hockey Showcase games at Michigan and Michigan State to close out the month of November. There are no easy games in that mix.

That's why this weekend's series is important. The Gophers may have some guys out of the lineup due to illness, but they'll be ready for UAA. They'd better be, if they don't want the season to get too far away early on.

Prediction: A much-needed Gopher sweep.

Back at Home for Gopher Football Team

After two losses in consecutive weeks to national powers Penn State and Ohio State, the Gopher football team finally returns to TCF Bank Stadium this weekend.

It seems like an eternity since the Gophers dropped a third quarter hammer on Purdue 35-20 on October 10. Of course, after the Gophers were held scoreless in the fourth quarter of the Purdue game, it seemed like an eternity before the team scored its next point.

The offense was held scoreless for eight full quarters until it finally broke through for a touchdown on its final possession in the fourth quarter of the Ohio State game. Nearing nine consecutive scoreless quarters, coach Tim Brewster's offense received the wrath of Gopher fans all week.

Of course, the loss of WR Eric Decker for the remainder of the regular season certainly will not make matters easier. Decker suffered a sprained foot in the first quarter loss at Ohio State and was ruled out by team medical staff. For an already anemic offense, losing the team's leading receiver (50 catches, 758 yards, 5 TD) will make it difficult for the season's final four games.

Beginning this weekend against Michigan State, the Gophers will feature a new-look offense out of pure necessity. With Decker out, WRs Da'Jon McKnight, Troy Stoudermire, and Brandon Green will get more looks in the offense. That trio has combined for 32 catches and 335 yards this season.

QB Adam Weber has struggled mightily during the past three weeks, and many fans (including me) have called for a change at the position in favor of freshman MarQueis Gray. However, Brewster has said he will continue with Weber leading the offense and look for more ways to get Gray involved. To his credit, Brewster worked Gray into the rotation much more often at Ohio State last week, and he allowed him to do more than just hand off. Gray led the team in rushing with 11 carries for 81 yards, and was 5-6 for 51 yards and a TD passing, including a perfect 5-5 on the final drive. Look for more of Gray in third down packages to change things up for the opposing defenses - something I've been advocating for a few weeks.

On defense, it's hard to say after a team gave up just about 500 yards of total offense in each of the past two weeks, but they played reasonably well at Penn State and Ohio State. However, they were out on the field for far too long in each of the past two weeks and suffered from fatigue. They continue to be victimized by their own inability to stop teams on third down - something which needs to change now.

Michigan State comes into TCF Bank Stadium on the heels of a heart-breaking last-second loss to Iowa. The Spartans led 13-9 with a few ticks left, but Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi found Marvin McNutt in the end zone as time expired to secure the victory.

Sparty comes into town with an identical 4-4 record as the Gophers, but have been up-and-down all season. After starting with a season-opening victory against Montana State, MSU lost three games in a row to Central Michigan (huh?), Notre Dame, and Wisconsin. They then embarked on a three-game winning streak against Michigan, Illinois, and Northwestern before last week's game.

The Spartans are led by sophomore QB Kirk Cousins, who has connected on 115 of 188 passes for 1,508 yards, 10 TDs, and 4 interceptions. Cousins's favorite target is senior WR Blair White (48 catches, 730 yards, 7 TD).

The Spartans have spread the ball around on the ground this season, with five different backs accumulating over 100 yards on the season. The leading rusher is Larry Caper (88 carries, 366 yards, 6 TD).

Michigan State has struggled for consistency all season long and the Gophers have an opportunity to make a statement on Saturday night. The crowd will be raucous on Halloween night, and it's supposed to be quite cold by kickoff (highs are expected in the low-30s during the day). The key will be for the Gopher offense to hold the ball long enough to keep the defense off the field. That seems elementary, but look at how much time the defense was on the field the past two weeks.

Starting Saturday night, the Gophers have three consecutive home games: Michigan State, Illinois, and South Dakota State. All three are winnable, and the Gophers could put themselves in a position to duplicate last year's win total of seven heading into the season-ending game at Iowa City. It starts Saturday against Michigan State if the Gophers are to silence at least some of their critics.

Prediction: Minnesota 28, Michigan State 17

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Defense of Tim Brewster

The Gophers were defeated by Ohio State in football this past Saturday. That should not be newsworthy in itself. The Gophers have won only seven times in the history between these two schools. They have won twice in Columbus since World War II. The Gophers were 16.5 point underdogs going into the game against the #19 Buckeyes. On paper, and on the field, the game was a mismatch.

Still, Gopher Nation was rife with discontent after the game. In looking at the comments section of the main story from the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Kent Youngblood, the following is a selection of the comments from the intelligentsia:

  • "1 TD in 8 quarters? They were never in the game for goodness sake. The people of the state of Minnesota deserve better. We need to demand excellence out of this once national power of a program. How can Iowa and Sconni have solid teams and the U of M has been average to horrible for the past 40 years? START GRAY NOW. Get rid of Weber and Brewster. Clearly none are good at their job.s (sic)." - "Big Sting"
  • "Note to Joel Maturi: Resign immediately, but not before you fire your brilliant TE coach." - "Farmboy 7"
  • "This is one big stinkin' football program. It gets worse every year. Add two more decks to that U. Stadium, put a roof on it, and give it to the Vikings....The Gophers certainly don't deserve a new stadium." - "Clel"
  • "Please, please, PLEASE! Everyone e-mail Joel Maturi and tell him Brewster has to go. The fact that we were down by over 30 and Weber was still playing shows Brewster has a screw loose. Gray is the future and there was no reason he shouldn't have been in there more. Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy are viable options at head coach. If Gray doesn't start next week it could get ugly." - "Gophernate"
  • "I wouldn't be surprised if the Gophers lose every remaining game....including South Dakota State." - "Hahahaha99"

And that's just a sampling.

Gopher coach Tim Brewster has been under considerable heat for the past few weeks. When the Gophers played in Happy Valley against Penn State (the Big Ten's leading defense) two weeks ago, Minny was shut out and held the ball on offense a mere 18 minutes. This past weekend, the Gophers played the league's second-ranked defense and were close for the first half, only to be steamrolled in the second half, mostly because Ohio State scored 24 points off of four Minnesota turnovers after the break. For this, according to many Gopher fans, Brewster needs to be fired.

Remember, Minnesota fired a coach in Glen Mason on New Year's Eve 2006 after an embarrassing Insight Bowl loss to Texas Tech after blowing a huge lead. The Gophers finished 6-7 that season with a very young football team. Still, Athletics Director Joel Maturi had seen enough. The fan base had increasingly grown weary of Mason. The knock was that he didn't win enough in the Big Ten (32-48) and couldn't consistently beat Wisconsin and Iowa. Also, the Gophers never finished with more than five conference wins in Mason's ten seasons, and never finished higher than fourth. Mason was viewed as perfect for turning around moribund programs, but could not adjust to game situations on Saturdays. He couldn't (or wouldn't) recruit Minnesota's top football talents, and was thought to be arrogant with the public and the media. His act had grown tired to many people, and Maturi clearly bowed to public pressure in dismissing Mason.

Maturi had dismissed basketball coach Dan Monson a few weeks prior and needed to hit a home run with the two new coaches. After a national search was conducted, and the names Lane Kiffin, David Gibbs, Gary Patterson, and others were thrown around, Maturi settled on Denver Broncos' assistant Tim Brewster as the new coach, and handed him a five-year deal. He had a reputation as a recruiting dynamo from his days at North Carolina and Texas under Mack Brown. Brewster was introduced to the public and wowed the student section at a Gopher basketball that night with the announcement that his staff was going to recruit the state hard and everywhere else for talent. It was also clear that Maturi wanted to change everything in the football program. There was no immediate reason to rebuild the program. The team had won six games the season prior and had plenty of talent returning to the team for 2007. A strong recruiting class secured by Mason was expected, headlined by some local talent (including Armstrong's David Gilreath, who ended up pulling his commitment after Mason's firing and signed with Wisconsin instead), and the team had an easier schedule for which to look forward. Still, Maturi clearly wanted to dismantle the way things had been done under Mason and build a new program in his - and Brewster's - image.

That meant the running-dominant offensive system would be replaced by a spread offense commanded by spread dynamo Mike Dunbar. The defense would be coordinated by Everett Withers, whom Brewster lauded as one of the game's up-and-coming coaching prospects, and would be "simplified" from the previous season's version. As spring practice rolled along, it was clear the 2007 team was going to be bad. Only a triple-OT victory over Miami (OH) saved the program from the indignity of a winless season, and the 1-11 squad allowed a whopping 440 points! Still, one cannot rebuild unless one tears down first!

The 2008 season was much-improved, thanks to a strong recruiting class and a maturing core. Withers was replaced by Ted Roof as DC, and the team allowed far fewer points. The Gophers started 7-1, and rumors of Brewster-to-the-NFL and other plum collegiate jobs abounded. There was plenty of talk among Gopher Nation to extend him now. Maturi resisted, and the team lost its final five games to finish 7-6. The schedule was going to be tougher in 2009, the team would replace Dunbar as OC with young Jedd Fisch, and Roof resigned for the DC job at Auburn and was replaced by Kevin Cosgrove, but expectations were high for the first year in their own stadium.

The 2009 recruiting class was one of the best and most athletic ever to come to Minnesota. Brewster has acquitted himself quite well on the recruiting trail and Minnesota high school coaches say Brewster and his staff have made strong inroads with the coaches in the effort to keep the top players home. Not all of them stay here. Cretin WR Michael Floyd, for example, opted for Notre Dame before the 2008 season. Still, Brewster was there in the end, which was not a place the Gophers typically found themselves in the past.

So, fans are looking to make another coaching change after only two recruiting classes from Brewster? That is beyond absurd reasoning. Unlike the NFL, where the draft, free agency, and salary cap can make the rebuilding process faster, the collegiate ranks clearly take time. New regimes mean new systems, styles, and recruiting efforts, not to mention working with 18-22-year-old kids along the way. Brewster deserves the opportunity to serve out the length of his contract to see if his recruits can cut the mustard at the collegiate ranks or at least at the U. The jury is still out whether or not Brewster is a good technical coach, but he has shown an ability to recruit well.

Another reason for him to return is that this program hasn't exactly been stellar in the past. The Gophers won 10 games in 2003, and that was the first time since 1905 that this had been accomplished. The fans in the comments section point to the "once national powerhouse" tradition at the U, but that was in the 40's and early 60's. Sophomore players on the last national championship squad of 1960 would be almost 70 years old today. Coach Murray Warmath is often viewed as a deity in these parts today, but fans forget that he was run out of town by an angry fan base after a combined 11-18-2 mark in his final three seasons at the U, concluding in 1971. The successors since Warmath's "resignation" after 18 seasons, two Rose Bowls, and a 87-78-7 (65-57-4 in the conference) record have not exactly been stellar (Big Ten Records in parentheses):

  • Cal Stoll, 1972-1978 = 39-39 (27-29)
  • Joe Salem, 1979-1983 = 19-35-1 (12-32-1)
  • Lou Holtz, 1984-1985 = 10-12 (7-10)
  • John Gutekunst, 1985-1991 = 29-37-2 (18-28-2)
  • Jim Wacker, 1992-1996 = 16-39 (8-32)
  • Glen Mason, 1997-2006 = 64-57 (32-48)
  • Tim Brewster, 2007-Present = 12-19 (5-14)

So, there you have it, Gopher Nation....In 38 seasons of football, the Gophers have not had a coach post a career conference record over the .500 mark. Only Mason has managed to breach the .50 mark, and his critics are quick to point out that was courtesy of a cake non-conference schedule. Where the heck are the "Glory Days" everyone speaks about? What tradition are we looking to recapture?

I've heard a lot of comparisons of Brewster to Wacker, but to compare the football situations of both men is ridiculous. Yes, they both have outgoing personalities compared to Mason's somewhat dour persona, but Brewster has proven to be a far superior recruiter and the talent on this year's team far surpasses anything on any of the Wacker teams.

The bottom line is that this program has absolutely sucked for a very long time, period. That the public has created unrealistic expectations on its football team to try to restore some sort of winning tradition that was last present when the current crop of 65-year-olds was in high school is laughable. Look, nobody wants a winning football program more than I. However, the public and administration has to be willing to be patient with a coaching staff and give it time before clamoring to make wholesale changes in search of a quick fix.

I remain a huge Mason supporter, and I believe if he were still the Gophers' coach, the team would be in far better shape than the current lot. If someone with the recruiting ability of Brewster (or even Brewster himself) would have come on to Mason's staff, the team would be among the top teams in the Big Ten and would at least compete with Wisconsin and Iowa. However, the public wanted "Mase" gone and Maturi obliged and hired Brewster to change everything. He needs more than three years to work his magic, and the public needs to get off his back.

Don't waste your time arguing with me about taxpayer-financed stadiums and the like. I always maintained that a football stadium would never solve the U's football problems overnight, and that winning was the best cure. However, the sparkling new stadium will only serve to level the playing field on the recruiting trail against the likes of Iowa and Wisconsin. If the Gophers can build a winning tradition in their new digs, complete with a hostile atmosphere from the fans, the recruits will notice. Brewster can lay it on thick in recruits' living rooms, so no doubt this is being done repeatedly.

The Gophers need more time with this regime in order to get better. If Maturi bows to public pressure and cans Brewster after this season or next, the clock will start all over with someone else, and the road to respectability will get longer.

Post-Script: By the way, Tony Dungy is not coming here to coach. I repeat, Tony Dungy is not coming here to coach, so get it out of your heads. Even if he did, how is a guy who hasn't coached at the collegiate level going to be the answer? How will the U pay him? Forget it - it's not happening.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Team Devoid of Goal Scoring (but Relax, Gopher Fans!)

The Minnesota Gopher hockey team was shut out in consecutive games 3-0 by the University of Denver and their excellent goaltender Marc Cheverie. The junior netminder has recorded shutouts in his past three games and his scoreless streak now stands at over 203 minutes, trailing the school record set by Peter Mannino by just about five minutes.

The Gophers have been shut out three times in their first four games this season - twice by Cheverie and once by North Dakota's Brad Eidsness. Three goals in four games is not acceptable, nor is the 0-3-1 record to open the season.

However, Gopher Hockey Nation needs to get a grip.

If one uses the comments section of online newspapers or the message boards as barometers of public opinion, it is clear that the Gophers are highly unpopular. Bearing the brunt of the fans' frustration is head coach Don Lucia. Calls for his immediate dismissal are rampant in the viral universe. Many say the program has fallen far and is slipping into mediocrity. There is too much talent to play the way they have to date, the learned ones say. Most baseless are the attacks on the coach's son and co-captain Tony Lucia. The criticism for the younger Lucia has been stark, as if the coach pushed to have his son - one of only six seniors on the team - named captain. The message-boarders also state that Tony Lucia is not a good player, which is laughable, given that he is night-in, night-out, one of the Gophers' better players and certainly one for whom effort is never a concern.

We are only four games into a long season, and already Gopher Nation is calling this season a lost cause. The calls to have the faithful take a deep breath are few, but this post will do just that.

Take the following analysis of the Gophers' records through the season's first two months (October and November) in the Lucia era, followed by the team's final record in parentheticals:
  • 1999-00: 5-8-1 (20-19-2)
  • 2000-01: 9-3-2 (27-13-2)
  • 2001-02: 11-1-2 (32-8-4) - WON NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
  • 2002-03: 7-3-4 (28-8-9) - WON NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
  • 2003-04: 6-7-1 (27-14-3)
  • 2004-05: 10-3-0 (28-15-1)
  • 2005-06: 7-3-4 (27-9-5)
  • 2006-07: 12-1-2 (31-10-3)
  • 2007-08: 7-7-1 (19-17-9)
  • 2008-09: 7-2-5 (17-13-7)
  • 2009-10: 0-3-1 (??)

Note the two national titles there in the mix under Lucia. The Gophers hadn't won a title since 1979 until Lucia arrived on campus in 1999.

The point of the listing was that the strongest starts did not always equate to strong finishes. Last year's team looked great out of the gate but looked like they were skating in sand in January and February. It's important to get off to good starts, especially in league play, but as North Dakota can attest, it's how a team finishes which determines success.

The Gophers have a ton of talent on this year's squad and will get the goal-scoring ability back. To get shut out in three of four games is tough to swallow, but nobody has been scoring on Eidsness or Cheverie all season long. The Gophers have had their chances, firing 30 shots on Cheverie each night, but nothing found the back of the twine. No sensible hockey observer believes Jordan Schroeder will be scoreless all season long. Also among the scoreless are Cade Fairchild, Lucia, Aaron Ness, Mike Carman, Nick Leddy, and Zach Budish. Eventually, that will turn around.

The fan base needs to let off Lucia a bit. Four games have been played and there is plenty of action to go. Alaska-Anchorage comes to town this coming weekend. If Jon Olthuis or Bryce Christianson shut the Gophers out on consecutive games next weekend, maybe the fans will have something to their argument. For now, however, it's just pure emotion and animalistic instinct fueling the anti-Gopher and anti-Lucia fire.

Let's give the 2009-10 season a bit more time before we make determinations on whether this team is a bust or not.

Note: Check out my WCHA Examiner home page for a weekend recap to appear Monday morning.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

U-G-L-Y Second Half in Columbus for Gridders

The Minnesota Gopher football team's defense played reasonably well during the first half against Ohio State on Saturday. The team gave up a lot of yards, but managed to hold OSU to just seven points, thanks to a defensive secondary mix-up, and forced a key interception deep in their own territory to preserve the 7-0 deficit at halftime.

In the second half, the Gophers received the Ohio State kick, and return man Troy Stoudermire fumbled the pooch-kick. The Buckeyes recovered and began an avalanche of points as the Gophers were embarrassed in the second half in a 38-7 Ohio State victory.

Although the officiating was awful throughout (case in point, an OSU defender pushed a Minnesota receiver down and intercepted the ball in the same motion, right in front of an official) and the Gophers were often on the short end of these calls. Still, one cannot escape a review of the facts:
  • 509 yards allowed to the Big Ten's 10th-ranked offense
  • The Gophers were 1-10 on third down offensive chances; defensively, the Gophers allowed OSU to convert on 7-14
  • Ohio State rushed for 270 yards with two freshmen runners carrying the load in the second half
  • Eric Decker sprained an ankle in the first quarter and spent the second half on crutches
  • Adam Weber was awful again: 10-23 with 2 INTs
  • Five passes were dropped by the Gophers in the first half alone
  • In the first half, the Gophers had almost 60 yards in penalties
  • Minnesota turned the ball over four times (twice inside their own 20), which resulted in 24 Ohio State points
  • The Gophers have won only twice at Ohio State since World War II.

The Gophers were the perfect elixir for Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor's pains. The maligned sophomore rushed for a game-high 104 yards and a TD on 15 carries, and also was 13-25 for 239 yards passing the ball. He hit on two TDs against one interception, one week after throwing two INTs and losing two fumbles in a loss to Purdue.

Weber's struggles continued against the Buckeyes. His 10-23 performance for only 112 yards continues a string of three-consecutive sub-par games for the three-year starter. Yes, the Gopher receivers dropped five balls and Decker was not a factor due to injury. Yes, the offensive line protection was not great, again. However, the guy simply cannot make plays, as evidenced by the team's pathetic 1-10 third down conversion stats. The offense looked completely out of sync again on Saturday - against a great OSU defense, mind you.

MarQueis Gray did get more action in this game than any other previous one. The talented freshman rushed 11 times for 81 yards, and engineered the team's lone score at the end of the game, thanks in part to a 5-6, 51 yard performance throwing the ball. His 11-yard pass to Stoudermire was the team's first score in almost nine quarters and was the only protracted drive all day (7 plays, 78 yards).

This sets up an interesting decision for coach Tim Brewster. Clearly, the game was out of reach on the final drive, but the offense did move under Gray. The QB showed play-making ability most of the day and gave OSU a different look. Will Brewster finally bite the bullet and make the QB switch before next weekend's contest against Michigan State at TCF Bank Stadium? Or, will the Gophers continue to sink in quicksand with Weber?

Stay tuned.....

Coming up this week....Defending Tim Brewster. Get ready for this one - most likely up on Monday or Tuesday!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Two Weeks, Two Tough Tests for Gopher Six

National powerhouse Denver will invade Mariucci Arena this weekend for the second weekend of WCHA action for the Gophers, and they'll be in search of a little history.

With a sweep, DU coach George Gwozdecky will hit the 350-win mark at Denver,as well as the overall 500-win mark in his brilliant coaching career spanning 24 seasons at Wisconsin-River Falls, Miami (OH) and Denver.

More importantly, the Pioneers are anxious to enter WCHA play after two tough non-conference tests. DU opened the season at home against Vermont, which pushed eventual NCAA Champion Boston University to the brink in the East Regional last spring. After a split with the Catamounts, DU headed to Columbus to take on fellow 2009 NCAA Tournament team Ohio State. Following two splits in successive weekends, the Pioneers are 2-2-0 heading into Minneapolis.

Denver was a consensus favorite to win the WCHA based on many polls (including yours truly) and has a roster loaded with talent. Junior goaltender Marc Cheverie looks to build upon his brilliant sophomore season which saw the Nova Scotia native start all 40 games, pick up four shutouts, and be named to the WCHA All-Star second team. A consensus pre-season pick for WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, Cheverie has started two games this season and picked up wins both times, including a 39-save shutout of Ohio State last Thursday.

Senior forwards Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegesgger return to provide leadership up front and both are off to strong starts in 2009-10. Rakhshani has posted 1-4-5, while Ruegsegger has compiled 2-2-4 to lead the Pioneers in scoring on the young season. Both were prolific scorers for last year's WCHA regular season runners-up, with Rakhshani notching 15-22-37 and Ruegsegger chipping-in with 11-11-22. In all, ten Pioneers topped the 20-point mark in scoring last season, and eight return to this year's team.

Among the returnees, sophomore defenseman Patrick Wiercioch looks to build upon a brilliant freshman season in which he notched 12-23-35 on the DU blueline. Fellow sophomores Joe Colborne (10-21-31) and Luke Salazar (15-10-25) also had strong freshman seasons and are poised for fine follow-ups. Colborne is doubtful this weekend with a broken left index finger. Add in this year's strong freshman class, highlighted by NHL draftees Drew Shore, Matt Donovan and William Wrenn, and the Pioneers are loaded and balanced.

The Gophers are coming off a weekend in which they played one very poor game and one very good game, and came away with one point. North Dakota dominated Friday night 4-0 and the teams played to a 3-3 tie on Saturday. The goaltending duo of Alex Kangas and Kent Patterson split the starts last weekend, and it remains to be seen whether or not coach Don Lucia keeps this rotation going further into the regular season.

Last season, the two teams met only twice, with the Gophers winning 5-2 in the series opener before the Pioneers took the second game 4-0.

Look for the Gophers to play better at home this weekend against Denver than they did on the road last weekend in Grand Forks. They can ill-afford to make mistakes against the Pioneers. The DU power play was one of the nation's best last season, and with all the talent up front, they'll be gunning for the net again this season. As with any George Gwozdecky team, they'll be well-coached, meaning they will limit their mistakes.

The Gophers had their share of mistakes last weekend in the Forks. Lucia juggled lines and alternated goaltenders, and the team responded with a much better effort on Saturday. Still, if this team is to live up to its potential this season, they have to put two nights together each weekend. This weekend will be a good test for this squad and will be a sign of whether or not this team will compete for the top spot this season.

Prediction: Split

Is Ohio State Capable of Two Losses in a Row?

The Minnesota Gophers are not the only ones coming off their worst performance of the 2009 season. The host Ohio State Buckeyes are coming off an embarrassing 26-18 loss at Purdue one week ago. That same Purdue team was fresh off being dismantled 35-20 by the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium the week prior and had lost five in a row. Yet, the Boilermakers controlled last Saturday's game. They won the total yardage matchup (361-287), held the ball for over 12 minutes longer, and won the penalty game handily over the usually-disciplined Buckeyes (1 penalty for five yards for Purdue; nine penalties for 65 yards for Ohio State). Simply put, the Bucks got waxed in West Lafayette.
That may or may not be good news for the Gophers. After Minnesota's 20-0 loss at Penn State, it was thought not much could get worse for the Gophers. Yet, a trip to Columbus, and a place where they have won just once since 1949 (in 2000), is not a good remedy on the surface.

One has to believe Ohio State will be quite upset after losing to Purdue. They had previously lost this season to USC, but had rattled off five straight wins to move back up to a #7 ranking in the national polls. Last week's loss effectively ends any title aspirations for the scarlet and gray, and they have remaining games with Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan the rest of the way. The road ahead is tough.

The Bucks are led by the erratic Terrelle Pryor at QB. He has completed 56% of his passes this season and has thrown for 10 TDs. Yet, all of Buckeye Nation is talking about his eight interceptions, after throwing just four during his freshman season one year ago. Either way you look at it, OSU's passing attack is the worst in the Big Ten. On the plus side, Pryor has also run for 367 yards and 4 TDs on the season.

Coach Jim Tressel has had to answer questions all week about his use of Pryor, and whether or not the 6-6 sophomore should continue to hold the starting job. In a big week for OSU, the last thing the coaching staff likely needs is a distraction like this, yet Tressel committed to Pryor during the week. It's not like OSU has any other similar options at this time.

OSU has plenty of other options in the offense as well. Junior RB Brandon Saine leads Pryor by a few yards to carry the team's rushing lead with 70 carries for 381 yards, and sophomore Daniel Herron has shown a nose for the end zone this season with five rushing touchdowns. Sophomore wideout DeVier Posey has hauled in 30 passes for 355 yards and four TDs this season, and has found the end zone in each of the last three games. Junior WR Dane Sanzenhacher has demonstrated big-play ability with 326 receiving yards on just 16 catches (20.4 yards per catch) and has also scored four TDs.

The punishing OSU defense has also been tough this season, allowing just 98 points for the 5-2 Buckeyes.

Whatever you think of Pryor as a college QB, the guy is big and has dynamic playmaking abilities. At 6-6, he can punish blockers yet has the elusiveness of a much smaller runner. He is lightning-quick and has shown more passing promise than probably initially thought. The Gophers are going to have their hands full.

Ohio State faces a must-win game this week. With the three tough tests down the road, the Buckeyes are at the tipping point of a season which could end well or very poorly. If they have designs on the BCS, they need to beat the Gophers on Saturday. If the Gophers win, OSU's season is effectively over.

The Gophers absolutely need to try to rush the ball against Ohio State this weekend, and it won't be easy against the big OSU front seven. However, the team cannot abandon the run. If nothing else, it keeps the defense off the field - something the Gophers were not able to do in Happy Valley last weekend, with PSU holding the ball for over 42 minutes. The Gopher defense did not play that poorly against Penn State (they stunk on third down, but were otherwise fine). Weber must play better than he did last week, and it wouldn't kill the Gophers to work MarQueis Gray into the mix a bit to change things up on offense. Purdue took advantage of four OSU turnovers last weekend in the victory, and the Gopher defense has shown an ability to force them - last week excluded.

OSU is beatable, as Purdue displayed last week. However, the Gophers must be opportunistic on turnovers and diversified on offense in order to have any chance on Saturday.

One thing is certain - the Buckeyes will be in a foul mood Saturday after their embarrassment at Purdue. That does not bode well for the Gophers.

Prediction: Ohio State 24, Minnesota 20

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Gopher QB Situation Needs a Change

The title of this post should be "Free MarQueis Gray!"

When the Gophers landed the 6-4, 222 lb. QB out of Indianapolis in 2008, it was thought the M&G had one of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks coming out of high school. ranked Gray as the third-ranked dual-option QB in the 2008 class and the #1 player in the state of Indiana the same year. He signed with Minny in 2008 but was a partial-qualifier because of academic concerns. However, he has been a member of the 2009 team in good standing.

Despite claims from coach Tim Brewster that the offense would find ways to work Gray into the rotation, the Gophers have largely used the dual-threat QB as a decoy split out wide as a receiver or handing off to a running back most of the time. Through the season's first seven games, Gray has attempted one pass (0-1) and rushed the ball 10 times for 55 yards. He has caught a TD pass, which was his only reception and covered seven yards. There appears to be little effort to get Gray involved in the offense at all.

Meanwhile, three-year starting QB Adam Weber appears to be regressing. The junior is 106-190 for 1,325 yards, 6 TD, and 9 interceptions. 47 completions and 731 yards (and 5 TDs) have gone to WR Eric Decker. That leaves 594 yards to have been distributed to the other receivers in the Minnesota offense. Weber threw for almost 3,000 yards and 24 TDs as a freshman on a 1-11 Gopher team, and was improved as a sophomore last season (15 TD, 8 INT). However, he has looked lost at times in 2009.

Despite claims of a dynamic and complicated offense under first-year coordinator Jedd Fisch, the Gophers' offense looks to be much of the same to prior seasons'. That is, it runs completely through Eric Decker. Now, Decker may just be the best receiver in college football (note, I said best RECEIVER, not best pro prospect). However, defenses know that Weber will lock in on Decker the vast majority of the time, and it's easy to adjust if you know where the ball is going. Couple that with an unwillingness to commit to a running game - or at least to running off tackle - and the Gophers are quickly deemed predictable.

The offense was pitiful last weekend at Penn State, managing just 138 total yards (42 on one Decker reception in the fourth quarter) while holding the ball for just over 18 minutes the entire game. Weber was awful, going 10-22 for 101 yards and a pick, but the entire until was bad. Compounding on a problem I have been discussing privately and which the Star Tribune's Kent Youngblood explored this week has been the team's poor performance on third down. Against Penn State last week, the Gophers' offense was just 3-11, sitting in third-and-long situations just about every time.

The offense needs a kick-start, and Gray can provide it. At bare minimum, work him into the team's third down package. The Gopher teams of the last ten years were successful with QBs Billy Cockerham (pictured right) and Asad Abdul-Khaliq emerging as playmakers. Weber is not a playmaking type of quarterback, and that eases the preparation for the defenses. By putting Gray into the package and letting him do something but hand off, the Gophers will confuse the defenses at bare minimum and begin to convert more efficiently on third down. However, Gopher fans have no idea whether or not Gray is a playmaking type of QB because the team has not allowed him to develop at all. Personally, I would favor putting Gray in as the starter and seeing how he does - today.

They will face an erratic yet big-play threat in Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor this weekend, so the Gophers will see what might have been if they had utilized Gray more effectively.

The bottom line is that Weber is not getting the job done for the Gophers and the offense needs a change. The team has alternated running backs all season long. Why don't they at least try to mix up the QB situation a bit instead of allowing their dual-threat QB collect dust on the bench? It's time for a change - free MarQueis Gray!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Gophers/Sioux: One bad and one good....

Programming Note: I'll be back on the "Papa Joe Chevalier Show" Monday afternoon at 3:30 CDT to talk baseball playoffs. Listen online here.

After the nightmarish performance at the Ralph Englestad Arena last season in which the Gophers were swept away and out-scored 12-4, Minnesota was looking for a better start in Grand Forks this weekend. It looked good for about five minutes of the first period, and then it morphed into something previously seen last season.

UND out-shot Minnesota 43-22 and took the opener 4-0 on Friday night before a raucous sellout crowd of almost 12,000. Brad Eidsness turned aside all 22 Gopher shots, but few shots were quality scoring opportunities. On the other end of the ice, Minnesota goalie Alex Kangas made 39 saves, many of them spectacular, and kept the game from being an even bigger embarrassment. The game slipped away from the Gophers in the second period, which saw UND out-shoot Minnesota 19-9 and completely control the play.

Jason Gregoire, Derrick LaPoint, Chay Genoway, and Mario Lamoureaux each scored for UND, and 11 different Sioux picked up points in the balanced attack. The Sioux scored twice on the power play and once short-handed, as the Gophers' special teams really struggled in the opener.

North Dakota simply out-skated, out-hustled, out-shot, and out-manned Minnesota in the opener. The message boards were alive after Friday's game, calling for coach Don Lucia's head.

Thankfully, the Gophers played better in Saturday's game. They took an early lead on Jay Barriball's goal, only to see it evaporate on two Genoway power play goals. A nice goal by Mike Hoeffel tied the score in the second period, and Hoeffel's tally midway in the third period gave the Gophers an lead. However, defenseman Jake Marto's long shot eluded goaltender Kent Patterson and gave the Sioux a 3-3 tie. The game's final 10 minutes (including OT) features some solid action with scoring opportunities on both ends, but both teams had to be satisfied with one point.

The Gophers were much better in Saturday's game. However, they were still out-shot 34-19 in the second game, making the UND advantage 77-41 in the two-game series. Jordan Schroeder was held to three shots for the entire weekend. The penalty-killers played to a 67% success rate this weekend, as the Sioux were 2-6 both nights. Considering the stark stat disadvantages, it's fortunate the Gophers came away from Grand Forks with any points.

The message-boarders can take it easy on Lucia and the Gophers for a while at least. The Gophers were coming off an off-week and only played one exhibition game to tune up for a trip to Grand Forks, The Sioux, on the other hand, played a non-conference tune-up series at home the weekend prior. Now, it's understandable for fans to be a bit upset about the perceived lack of effort on Friday night, but it was the first game, for crying out loud! Have our expectations become that much more unreasonable?

The road gets no easier for the Gophers next weekend. They return home, but must face preseason consensus WCHA champion Denver. The Pioneers are coming off non-conference splits against Vermont and Ohio State - both tournament teams from a season ago - and will be a tough test for the Gophers. If the M&G plays like it did Saturday in Grand Forks for the upcoming series, they'll be fine.

My Examiner weekend recap is posted here. Check that page often during the week as we prepare for the league's first full slate of conference play next weekend.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rout in Happy Valley

The Gopher football squad put up one of its more pathetic offensive performances in recent memory Saturday, managing just 138 total yards, as #14 Penn State cruised to a 20-0 homecoming victory. The conditions at Beaver Stadium were less than ideal for the game, with the six inches of snow which fell on the region prior to the game. However, the Gophers were the only ones who appeared to be caught in the mud.

PSU RB Evan Royster ran 23 times for 137 yards - virtually as much as the entire Gopher squad, and QB Darryl Clark overcame a sluggish start to complete 21 of 32 passes for 287 yards and a TD.

The Penn State defense, ranked sixth in the country going into the game, punished the Gophers all day long, and never allowed them to get anything going. The time of possession bore this out, with the Nittany Lions holding the edge 41:59 to 18:01 for Minnesota.

Penn State also held a stark edge in third down conversions, making good on 11 or 17 attempts. The Gophers, on the other hand, were just 3-11 on third down.

The Gopher defense played pretty well in the first half, despite being on the field almost the entire game. The defense held Penn State to just two field goals, until PSU's long 12-play, 91-yard drive to cap the first half. WR Derek Moye stretched out to catch a Clark pass in the end zone, but was ruled out of bounds by officials. After further review, the Nittany Lions were given credit for a touchdown, as the replay officials ruled that Moye had control of the ball when he got his requisite one foot down. Replay evidence appeared inconclusive at best, and the Lions took a 13-0 lead into halftime instead of a more manageable 9-0, assuming PSU would have converted on the field goal in the waning seconds of the half.

Adam Weber's numbers were pathetic on Saturday, completing just 10 of 22 passes for 101 yards and a pick. To be fair, Weber's protection was suspect all day, as the offensive line play was rather miserable. However, it may be time to consider MarQueis Gray or someone else at the QB spot. A noticeable difference between Weber and other QBs the Gophers have faced this season has been the ability to make plays, especially on third down, which is something Weber has been complete devoid of doing this season.

The Gophers are now 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten. The road gets no easier, as Minnesota travels to Columbus, Ohio next weekend to take on Ohio State. The Buckeyes were shocked by a Purdue team the Gophers dominated one week ago, but the Buckeyes will definitely be up for this one. The Gophers did beat OSU in Columbus in 2000, so there's always a chance. Of course, they beat Penn State in Happy Valley in 1999, too.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Update: Weather Will Affect Gophers/Penn State

Here's a picture of Penn State's Beaver Stadium from Friday evening. Six inches of snow have fallen in Happy Valley, with another six inches expected to fall overnight. By gametime, there will be a rain/snow mix.

Sounds like good running game weather, no?

Check back here Sunday for a recap of this game. Monday will feature a recap of the Gophers/North Dakota hockey series.

Have a good weekend.

Gophers/Penn State Football Preview

Ten years ago, Glen Mason's Gopher football team marched into Beaver Stadium to take on second-ranked Penn State. The Nittany Lions had a punishing defense which featured LBs LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown, who would end up going 1-2 in the 2000 NFL Draft the following spring. The game looked like a mismatch, but the Gophers had played PSU tough in Mason's first two years at Minnesota.

In 1997, the Gophers led 15-3 in the 4th quarter before a PSU touchdown cut the margin to 15-10. Later, a terrible official's call missed a Penn State receiver running out of bounds and then re-entering the field to catch an important pass which set up a second Curtis Enis touchdown to give the Nittany Lions a 16-15 win over a Gopher team which finished 1-7 in the Big Ten.

In 1998, the Gophers again played Penn State tough. The Gophers cut the PSU deficit to 16-10, before Kevin Thompson hit Corey Jones for a 65-yard TD pass. What the officials missed, again, was Jones stepping out of bounds before he re-entered the field and caught the pass. The TD took all the wind out of Minnesota's sails and Penn State escaped with a 27-17 win.

The 1999 game featured a Gopher team which had lost consecutive tough games to Ohio State and Purdue - both at home - and stood at 2-3 in the Big Ten and 5-3 overall. Eyeing their first bowl appearance since 1986, the Gophers absolutely needed at least one win in their final three Big Ten contests, which were the Penn State game in Happy Valley, at home against Indiana, and at a terrible Iowa team in Kirk Ferentz's first season.

The Gophers trailed 20-14 in the 4th quarter, before Thomas Hamner got loose on a screen pass from Billy Cockerham and sprinted 49 yards for a TD. The score was tied because the Gophers failed to convert on a two-point conversion. After Travis Forney kicked a field goal to give PSU a lead with 9 minutes and change to go, the Gophers faced a 4th and long just inside the Penn State 40 yard line with less than a minute to play. However, Cockerham's Hail Mary was tipped by WR Ron Johnson and fell into the hands of Arland Bruce to complete the "Immaculate Deflection" and put the Gophers in position for a winning field goal. Dan Nystrom's 32-yard field goal gave the Gophers a 24-23 shocker at the gun and was the signature win of the Mason era.

Ten years later, there are indeed some similarities between the 1999 and 2009 Gophers heading into Happy Valley. Coach Tim Brewster is in his third season at Minnesota, as was Mason in 1999. The Gophers currently sit at 2-1 in the Big Ten and need a few more victories to become bowl-eligible. However, the biggest similarity between this year's situation and that of 1999 is that Coach Brewster desperately needs a signature victory to cement his stamp on the program.

It will be difficult in State College this weekend. Penn State is not as good as advertised early on, but they are still ranked among the nation's top 15 teams. The Nittany Lions are 5-1, losing only to Iowa three weeks ago, and are fresh off crushing victories at Illinois and at home against non-conference powerhouse Eastern Illinois.

PSU senior QB Darryl Clark has been efficient so far in 2009, completing over 60% of his passes and connecting for 12 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. He has also run for 3 TDs on the ground, and has averaged over 4 yards per carry. On the ground, junior Evan Royster is having another solid season, rushing for 504 yards and 4 TDs this season, one year after a 1,236 yard and 12-TD campaign. Sophomore RB Stephfon Green has also emerged in 2009, gaining 248 yards and 3 TD on 45 carries. Penn State's receiving core is deep, with Derek Moye, Chaz Powell, Graham Zug, Andrew Quarless, and Joe Suhey all surpassing the 100-yard mark this season.

Penn State's defense is strong. They have given up only 61 points in six games this season, and 21 of those were in the team's long loss to Iowa.

The Iowa game proved that Penn State's offense can be forced into turnovers if defenses can get to Clark and make him uncomfortable throwing the ball. As is the case with any mobile QB, if given time to make plays, they will usually find ways to make plays.

The Gophers finally broke through last week against Purdue and controlled the line of scrimmage offensively. The Gophers rushed for 207 yards and finally found a running back, freshman Kevin Whaley, who can run off-tackle. Whaley gained 79 yards on 8 carries and had a large role in running significant time off the clock down the stretch. One game after fumbling in his only carry, Duane Bennett is once again in the Gophers' good graces, with 9 carries for 53 yards last week.

QB Adam Weber put the ball in the air only 9 times last week, completing 5 and getting picked twice. The less Weber is relied upon to make a play, the better it is for the Gophers if they have designs on winning.

The defense and special teams have made plays all season long for the Gophers. Although the defense has given up yards in bunches in 2009, they have shown they have play-making ability, especially in the linebacking and secondary corps. They'll need both to step up against Penn State.

If the Gophers want to win this weekend, they need to play football like they did in the third quarter of the Purdue game. The Gophers dropped a hammer on the Boilermakers in the third, outscoring them 21-0 and completely dominating the play. They forced turnovers and did not allow Purdue to do anything offensively. They'll need to do the same offensively against Penn State.

Look for the Gophers to give Whaley the first opportunity to be the future back on Saturday. He is the Gophers' potential big-play back, and is explosive. He can definitely run off-tackle, something the Gophers have been unwilling or unable to do all season. The Gophers should try to establish the run early on and attempt to control the clock to keep their defense off the field. This will also limit Weber's feeling he has to force the ball to Eric Decker at all costs, and one can bet the Nittany Lions will be keying on Decker constantly.

On defense, it would be nice to see the Gophers have a consistent pass rush to put pressure on Clark. He showed in the Iowa game he will try to force the ball in to his receivers if he's panicked. The Gophers' linebacking has been strong all season long, so if Clark tries to force something over the middle under duress, look for Lee Campbell to get in the way.

Penn State can be beaten. As is the case with just about every PSU team over the past decade, they start the season with a lot of hype, get exposed, and lose to a good team. Coach Joe Paterno likely last did some actual coaching during the Reagan Administration, but fans will be filled with stories of how Joe Pa actually walks to work or even kicked an onside kick during a practice three years ago. This is a good matchup for the Gophers - certainly much better than next week against Ohio State - and will be a good test of how good and athletic is Brewster's 2009 edition.

Prediction: Penn State 27, Minnesota 21.

Tough Opening Weekend Test for Gopher Six

The Gophers were 10-3-5 when they made the trek northward to take on the North Dakota Fighting Sioux on January 9-10, 2009. The Sioux were 11-10-1 going into that series and were coming off a three-game stretch where they lost to Michigan Tech (winners of six games all of last season) and two one-goal games at home against Bemidji State.

The Gophers got off to a strong start last season, but would have to make the trip to Grand Forks without their coach, Don Lucia, who was home ill for the weekend with an unknown disorder. The Gophers played like they were punched in the gut all weekend long, and the Sioux buzzed around for two games and thoroughly dominated Minnesota in the two-game sweep, out-scoring them 12-4. The weekend ignited a stark contrast in the teams' directions, as Minnesota would finish 5-7-2 and miss the NCAA Tournament, while UND would go 9-2-3 the rest of the way to capture the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular season champions.

The Ralph Engelstad Arena is perhaps the toughest place to play in the WCHA, and the Gophers will have to kick off the 2009-10 season in Grand Forks this weekend. If there is one advantage to going to Grand Forks, the fact that the Gophers are going up there before the new year works in their favor. UND traditionally makes its annual run in the second half of the season and traditionally starts slow. However, this is a rivalry series in which both teams will be jacked.

The Gophers were idle last weekend after opening their schedule with a 6-1 exhibition win over British Columbia on October 4. The Sioux swept Merrimack at home last weekend. Both teams come into the series ranked and are expected to be among the WCHA's elite in 2009-10.

For North Dakota, a group of talented freshmen will once again supplement the strong returning core. Freshman forward Michael Cichy had a great weekend in his first collegiate action, scoring 1-2-3 and picking up WCHA rookie of the week honors. Fellow freshman Danny Kristo picked up two assists against Merrimack, and is a strong candidate to win rookie of the year honors. Returnees Chris VandeVelde, Brett Hextall, and Jason Gregoire will be strong up front, and captain Chay Genoway provides plenty of scoring punch from the blueline.

In goal, Brad Eidsness returns and figures to see the majority of action. He is solid, if not spectacular, and was so last weekend against Merrimack.

For the Gophers, fans will get their first opportunity to see touted newcomers D Nick Leddy, D Seth Helgeson, and F Zach Budish this weekend under somewhat hostile conditions. Sophomore Jordan Schroeder returns, and much will be expected of him in his second season. Coach Lucia will start the season with a top line of Schroeder, senior Jay Barriball, and junior Mike Hoeffel, which will be expected to produce a ton of offense. The Gophers are experienced with only two seniors lost from last year's squad and four freshmen to work into the lineup.
Another feature this year's Gopher squad will have over last year is size - especially on the blue line. The 6'5" Helgeson will join holdovers David Fischer (6'3") and Sam Lofquist (6'2") to create a sizable defensive corps. The big guys will nicely compliment smallish puck-movers like Cade Fairchild and Leddy. Budish is 6'3" up front and plays his size. How he comes back from a knee injury suffered his senior year of high school remains to be seen.

The key to this season is in goal, and Alex Kangas is due for a bounceback season. Kangas's numbers dropped significantly from his tremendous freshman-year marks, but he was solid down the stretch when the team most needed it. Sophomore Kent Patterson will likely get more starts this season, but look for Kangas to carry the load again.

It's a good time to be going up to Grand Forks. In addition to being notoriously slow-starters, UND is a young team working in a bunch of freshmen. They also do not have a marquee scoring threat for the first time in recent years (see T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Duncan of late) - at least not yet. The Sioux will be up for the Gophers this weekend, but look for the M&G to put on a much better show than last season.

Prediction: Split

PS - Check out my WCHA Examiner home page for season previews for both squads. Also, take a look on the blogroll on the left side, especially Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald and Roman Augustoviz of the Star Tribune, for all the latest news from around the league.