Today, we get a double dose of Gopher goodness as both Tom C. and JDMill of noted Minnesota blog, The Daily Gopher, makes its semi-annual (at least) visit to LTP to shed some light on the 2012 edition of Jerry Kill’s team and how they match-up with our Wildcats. I think I can speak for most of you when I say that had we won last Saturday, this would be the week ‘Cats fans would be saying “we always lose one we shouldnt’ and THIS is that one”. Now, after laying an egg in the fourth quarter at Penn State and getting that devastating first loss of the season, I’m pretty certain we feel this week the team and coaching staff seem uber-focused on getting back to our core and showing all of us they mean business. I’ve predicted rain based on forecasts for the last two games and have been off, so the current 75% chance of rain on Saturday is something I won’t even pay attention to this week. We’ve got enough to worry about with the potential of MarQueis Gray AND Max Shortell both platooning at QB. Let’s get in to it…
LTP: It appears that Mr. Gray will be back at QB, at least partially. My hunch is that NU will have to prepare for both MarQueis and Max Shortell this week, much like you have to prep for Siemian and Colter (we hope!). What have you learned from Shortell and what do you expect the game plan to be with both QBs possibly in the mix?
JDMill: We actually aren’t so confident that Gray is going to play, but we also aren’t so sure Coach Kill isn’t willing to play this one close to the vest so you dudes have to prepare for both guys. Even if Q can play this weekend, my guess is Shortell gets the majority of the snaps. What we’ve learned from Shortell is that he is confident, he is accurate and he can put up numbers quickly. Syracuse blitzed him something like 80-90% of the time and he did enough to move the ball, but he didn’t set the world on fire.
MarQueis can make plays with his legs as a runner, and, in my opinion, is a better passer when he’s on the move. It’s almost as if when he’s forced to make a play, he stops thinking so much, and just reacts to what is in front of him. Having said that, the threat with MarQueis is obviously running. That threat could be significantly diminished if his conditioning has been hurt due to his injury.
Tom: We went through this last year. Shortell started the Purdue game but Gray came in quickly and was there for the rest of it. My gut tells me that Gray will be playing almost the entire game. I think we have a pretty good idea of who Shortell is. He is big, strong and a pretty good passer. But he is a sophomore, who never got a redshirt season, and he makes mistakes. He is a good backup who has a very good shot at earning the starting job next year and being a solid starter.
LTP: The defense. You were getting all sorts of praise, and having watched the Syracuse game, you could see your D-line getting all kinds of pressure. Then, the Iowa game happened. What did the bloodbath against the Hawkeyes do to your perception of this 2012 team?
JDMill: I was concerned about our ability to stop the run up the middle all of the non-con schedule, and Iowa absolutely exposed that. Weisman gouged us for 177 yards and averaged almost 8.5 yards/carry and he wasn’t doing it by beating linebackers around the edge. I still believe we have a good to very good pass rush, and an above average pass defense, but B1G teams will continue to exploit the middle until Claeys can prove that this unit can slow it down.
Tom: I don’t know if it really changed any perceptions. In all of our first four games we struggled defending the run. Pretty much every team we faced was averaging 5 yards per carry or more, they just didn’t attempt to run much because they were either a passing team or were behind. Iowa just exploited what we kind of already knew. Power run games scare me against this defense. Our defensive line is pretty good at getting pressure, not so good at the point of attack. Northwestern’s offense is a bit different than what we have faced. I wouldn’t say it is a power run game and NU gets a lot of yards from Colter, so I’m interested to see how well we can defend this different style of running attack
LTP: AJ Barker seems to have come out of nowhere and become your new generation Eric Decker. Just how good is he and who else should we really be worried about on offense?
Tom: Barker is leading the team in stats, but Eric Decker he is NOT. I think Barker is having a solid season mostly because he is more mature and thinking less than most of the other receivers. Devin Crawford-Tufts is certainly more talented, Isaac Fruechte has more big-play ability and even Marcus Jones is more dynamic than Barker. But he does a good job of getting open and he has reliable hands. Those two things make him a desirable target for whoever is under center. He is solid, he is reliable, I doubt the game will hinge on his play-making
JDMill: I’m sure Barker, a walk-on, would appreciate the comparison to Decker, but not quite. Yes he’s our leading pass catcher, leads in yards receiving and in TD’s, but the difference is that when Decker was around he was the ENTIRE offense, or at least the entire receiving offense. Barker has 4 receiving TD’s, but there are 3 other guys on this team who have at least 2 TD’s through the air. Shortell & Gray are not picky about who they throw to. Barker is good, but he’s averaging less than 4 catches/game and right around 70 yards… not exactly world-beater numbers.
As far as offensive weapons, outside of Barker (who I just tried to tell you isn’t that great), nobody really stands out. We’ve got a couple of TE’s who have caught a some TD passes and who are good for a couple of catches/game, and we’ve got Minnesota native Isaac Fruechte (pronounced Frick-tee) who could turn into a good possession receiver. Donnell Kirkwood is main back, but he’s been up and down and really got held back by Iowa last week.
LTP: The pass defense. You’re ranked #20 and give up only 181 ypg and across the board your scoring defense (#30), total defense (#23) have been statistically sound. You’ve played and shutdown a potent Ryan Nassib (we should know), but got lit up by Iowa pretty good. How good is this “D” and where exactly are the weaknesses?
Tom: The pass defense is pretty good and as discussed the run defense leaves much to be desired. But we faced teams that were either one-dimensional by nature or became that due to the scoreboard. That makes defense much easier, particularly when they are having to play into what is our relative strength. We have a couple corners who are seniors and who are playing at the level they should be playing. We have a handful of young safeties who are all pretty good, led by Derrick Wells who is playing at an All-Big Ten level this year. The secondary was assumed to be a major question mark heading into the season and it has become the strength of this much improved defense.
JDMill: We got lit up on the scoreboard by Iowa, but not necessarily through the air. Iowa put up less than 200 yards passing on us, which isn’t the most yards we’ve given up through the air, and it’s well within the range of normal for this defense. The Gopher pass defense has yet to give up 250 yards passing in any game. I am going to sound like a broken record by the time we’re done here, but Iowa did their best work on the ground. This defense can be very good… but we are highly susceptible to runs up the middle.
LTP: If you were Northwestern, knowing we’ve got a crafty dual-threat Kain Colter and a more traditional passer in Trevor Siemian, who will both be getting snaps, along with the ability to run between the tackles and/or take it to the perimeter with the option, how would you rank our potential success of the four options?
JDMill: If you don’t know how I’m going to answer this you haven’t been paying attention. Colter and Mark can be a factor up the middle. That is your best chance for success against the Gopher defense.
Tom: We haven’t really faced a talented, rushing quarterback yet this year. But if I were Northwestern I’d take my chances with him over a traditional pocket passer. As noted, we tend to get good pressure on a passing quarterback and our secondary has defended the pass rather well. But making our linebackers be fundamentally sound with their rush lanes and making our defensive linemen have to read the play before getting into the backfield; that is what I’d make us do.
LTP: Top three pleasant surprises of the 2012 Gopher team? Top three disappointments?
Tom: Derrick Wells, Donnell Kirkwood (once thought to be a slow, bowling ball of a running back has shown some good quickness and has been very solid), Ra’Shede Hageman. Bottom 3. Mike Rallis, Keanon Cooper, Spencer Reeves (our starting linebackers were thought to be the defensive strength and they might be our biggest weakness).
JDMill:Surprises: The depth of the pass catching options, the defensive secondary, the pass rush.
Disappointments: lack of a consistent running game, inability to stop runs up the middle, wildly erratic special teams
LTP: Match-up fears against Northwestern?
JDMill: Running Northwestern QB’s have traditionally had a field day with Gopher defenses. Kain Colter scares the pants off of me. Actually that’s not fair, my pants are already off.
Tom: Defending Colter is my biggest fear. Part of me thinks that we might actually be well suited to defend an athletic quarterback, at least more suited for that than a power run game. And part of me thinks that the young defense will be thinking too much and playing on their heels. I like our chances to score a lot of points on offense, regardless of who is at QB but I’d prefer to see Gray if he is 100%
JDMill: With two weeks to prepare for this game, and two weeks to heal up, I believe in my heart that Coach Kill and Coach Claeys have a plan to slow down Colter and to keep Northwestern from going crazy up the middle. Since I believe that they have said plan, I believe that have a great chance to win this game. Gophers 27, Northwestern 24.
Tom: I am going with the Gophers in a relatively high scoring affair. And I pick the Gophers for three reasons. One, I am a homer. Two, we have had two weeks to prepare. Three, we are at home. I would feel MUCH better about this game had Northwestern won last week, now I fear they will be focused and pissed as opposed to feeling good about themselves heading to Nebraska next week.
LTP: I think you summed up why ‘Cats fans have a quiet confidence about this game. There is not doubt the team is itching to get back on the field to erase the awful memory of last Saturday. I for one can’t wait to see how we respond, and I believe we’ll win. Thanks a ton for taking the time to educate us and prep us a bit more for Saturday. I look forward to returning the favor.
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