Thursday, January 7, 2010

Gopher Football Post-Mortem

When the 2009 football season got underway, a quick look at the schedule showed the following breakdown:
  • Non-Conference Games: at Syracuse, Air Force, California, South Dakota State
  • Conference Home Games: Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois
  • Conference Road Games: Northwestern, Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa
Compare that to the 2008 schedule, in which the Gophers started 7-1, only to finish 7-6, including a loss to Kansas in the Insight Bowl:
  • Non-Conference Games: Northern Illinois, at Bowling Green, Montana State, Florida Atlantic
  • Conference Home Games: Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa
  • Conference Road Games: Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin
At first blush, 6-6 with a much tougher schedule than 2008's 7-5 is a sheer sign of progress for a program in its third year under coach Tim Brewster. Of course, a deeper dive shows that progress is debatable.

In 2008, the Gophers were 7-1 heading into a winnable home game against Northwestern, and lost on an interception return, setting in a downward spiral which culminated in a bowl loss for the team's fifth-straight defeat. Breaking down the 2008 schedule shows the record was more smoke and mirrors than anything:
  • "Good" Wins (1): Illinois (and this is debatable, since Illinois was 3-2 going into the game. However, they were in the Rose Bowl a season prior).
  • Games they had to win (6): Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State, Florida Atlantic, Indiana, Purdue
  • Games they were expected to lose (4): Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas
  • "Bad" Losses (2): Northwestern (only because of the nature of the loss), Michigan
Now, contrast that with 2009:
  • "Good" Wins (2): Northwestern, Michigan State
  • Games they had to win (4): Syracuse, Air Force, Purdue, South Dakota State
  • Games they were expected to lose (5): California, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa
  • "Bad" Losses (2): Illinois, Iowa State
Progress? Maybe. The quality wins in 2009 were better than those in 2008 by a long-shot. The win at Northwestern in September looks even better today than it did three months ago, given that the Wildcats finished 8-4 (5-3 in the Big Ten) and lost a heart-breaker in OT to Auburn in the Outback Bowl. The Michigan State victory on Halloween night was the Gophers' finest performance of the season, and was a wonderfully-exciting game. Sparty finished 6-6 like the Gophers, but the Minnesota win gets extra points because it was the team's best overall performance against a talented, yet underachieving team.

The bad losses in 2009 are worse than 2008 as well, simply because of how the season turned because of them. The Gophers lost to Northwestern on a last-minute interception return in 2008, but the Wildcats did finish 9-4 last season (including a bowl loss). It gets placed in the "bad" category because the Gophers were 7-1 heading into the game, were playing at home, and lost it in such dramatic fashion. Although Michigan was awful in 2008, the Wolverines never lost at the Metrodome during the Gophers' 28 inside, so that loss was almost expected. 

In 2009, the loss to Illinois was simply awful. The Gophers were coming off the Michigan State win, were 5-4 (3-3 Big Ten), and had a chance to close out their first season at TCF Bank Stadium with a couple of wins. When Illini QB Juice Williams left with an injury in the first quarter, things were looking up for the team. Instead, the Gophers fell behind 28-7 at the half and fell short despite a late comeback. The Illini finished 3-9 and 2-6 in the Big Ten for the season. The loss to Iowa State wasn't exactly horrible, but the Gophers had more talent on both sides of the ball than the Cyclones and scored just 13 points against an ISU defense which came into the game ranked 99th nationally.

The non-conference schedule was much tougher in 2009 and the Gophers had a good chance to win the game they lost in 2009 against Cal (if they had been able to stop Jahvid Best). Everyone knew that road contests against Penn State and Ohio State on consecutive weeks was going to be tough going into the season, and the late-season game at Iowa was also going to be problematic. The Gophers lost all three of those games, despite getting solid defensive efforts for parts of (Penn State/Ohio State first halves) or all of (Iowa) those contests.

The biggest reason why 2009 cannot be declared one of progress lies on the offensive side of the ball. The Gophers fired spread guru / offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar late last season and installed a power running attack with the hiring of offensive line guru Tim Davis. The power running style lasted all of one game, and Brewster installed young Jedd Fisch as the new offensive mastermind for 2009. Fisch's schemes were very complicated, and at many times the offense looked completely out of sorts.

For those waxing nostalgic for Dunbar's offense, keep in mind that the Gopher attack wasn't exactly humming along in 2008. The spread took a long time to catch on with the Gophers, which was one of the reasons why Brewster decided to go back to the basics for last season's Insight Bowl. Still, the offense looked legendary compared to the Fisch schemes this season. As the StarTribune's Darren "Doogie" Wolfson points out in his fine article, the Gophers' offense scored one TD for the entire game three times and went TD-less in three others. Overall, the Gopher offense ranked last in the Big Ten and 109th out of 120 Division I teams in yards per game with 306 as well as last in the league and 111th in the nation in rushing yards per game (99..5). All in all, it was a putrid performance on the offensive side of the ball.

Junior QB Adam Weber looked lost much of the time. Despite starting 38 consecutive games, Weber's numbers took a huge dive from his fine freshman season of 2007 to this year. As a freshman, he threw for nearly 2,900 yards, completed 57.5% of his passes, and threw 24 TDs against 19 interceptions. In 2009, he threw for 300 fewer yards, completed 52% of his passes, and tossed only 13 TDs against 15 interceptions. The most telling stat is that Weber rushed for 617 yards as a freshman and was sacked only 13 times. In 2009, he "rushed" for -133 yards and was sacked a staggering 38 times.

A lot of that is on the poor play of the offensive line, which was a mess this season. Center Jeff Tow-Arnett was injured and missed a good chunk of the season, and the Gophers had to plug holes there often. JC transfer Jeff Wills was very, very, erratic in his first season at the D-1 level. Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel played well, but was often the last line of defense up front. The offensive line must play better for the team to improve in 2010, and that is imperative. Another area of improvement for next season will be to not lead the Big Ten in penalties, which the Gophers have managed to do for three consecutive seasons.

When star receiver Eric Decker went down with an ankle injury in the 2008 Northwestern game, nobody stepped up to take his place and the Gophers lost out. When Decker went down in the Ohio State game in 2009, the Gophers showed there are some players who will be able to step in as playmakers in 2010. Sophomore Da'Jon McKnight caught 17 balls for 311 yards, an average of 18.3 a catch, and is the leading returning receiver. Fellow sophomores Troy Stoudermire (26 for 306, 2 TD) and Brandon Green (21 for 293, TD) also showed some big play ability, but need to be more consistent next season to have an impact.

The running game didn't show much in 2009, mostly because the team showed little commitment. Sophomore Duane Bennett was the team's leading rusher with 376 yards, and freshman Kevin Whaley was next with 367. Another sophomore, DeLeon Eskridge, was next with 294, followed by freshman QB Mar'Queis Gray (265). The team has talented tailbacks but Brewster often played the hot hand and did not allow any one back to seize the position. However, a lot of the problems running stemmed from the poor offensive line play.

On the defensive side, there was progress from a year ago. The defense showed play-making ability. Defensive backs Kim Royston and Kyle Theret will return in 2010 and showed big-play ability this season. Freshman Michael Carter is probably the team's best corner man, but he had some scrapes with the law in his first season on campus. The Gophers will miss Marcus Sherels, Eric Small, Lee Campbell, and Cedric McKinley, but will be able to give returnees like Gary Tinsley more reps. The defense is much more athletic than it has been for many years, and this is seemingly an area of strength for next season. One thing defensive coordinators Kevin Cosgrove and Ronnie Lee can definitely improve next season, however, is the team's third down defense, which was maddeningly weak in 2009. Even though one ranking shows the Gophers with the 53rd-ranked defense in 2009, it's far better than the weak offense in terms of measuring progress.

The kicking game was solid in 2009, with junior Eric Ellestad handling the kicking (31-31 on PATs; 13-17 on FGs) and senior Blake Haudan (41.9 average) doing the punting. Haudan will be replaced by Dan Orseske (44.6 average in 9 punts in 2009) next season 

All in all, 2009 was a mixed bag of progress (defense, for the most part) status quo (running attack), and regression (offensive line play, QB play). Coach Brewster has promised to improve the O-Line play before next season and have open competition between Weber and Gray for the QB position, but next year is crucial for this program. Brewster will almost certainly be fired if the team posts another 6-6 effort, and then it's back to square-one for a program which has been stuck in neutral for nearly 50 years. 

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