Friday, October 30, 2009

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

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