Monday, September 24, 2012

Interstate to the Insight Bowl: The Gophers' Hot Start and a Conference Preview

Donnell Kirkwood (#20 in the air) has 373 yards rushing and 3 TDs through 4 games.

The 2012 Gophers football team has already eclipsed the 2011 team's win total, and they haven't even started the Big Ten portion of their schedule yet. With Saturday's slobberknocker 17-10 victory over Syracuse--their first BCS school opponent on the year--in front of a raucous sell-out crowd at TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers put themselves within two wins of clinching bowl eligibility. And the calender hasn't even turned to October yet.

Though their slate has thus far consisted of mostly cupcake squads (their three opponents besides FCS-level New Hampshire have as many wins combined as the Gophers), the predominant mood emanating from the metro campus is one of renewed optimism. This seems like an understandable reaction considering the ebb to which the program had fallen late in old coach Tim Brewster's tenure.

What's encouraging about the Gophers' play so far this season are the varied manners in which they have earned their victories. The UNLV road trip to start the season was a back-and-forth triple-overtime nailbiter in which we witnessed the emergence of Derrick Wells as a sure-tacklin', ball-houndin' safety. The New Hampshire blowout showed us the purest distillation of MarQueis Gray's dual-threat ability as he had rushed and thrown for more than 100 yards apiece by halftime and four total touchdowns. The Western Michigan battle served as A.J. Barker's coming out party, with the former walk-on wideout catching three TD passes, and served as the answer to the question, "Could Max Shortell lead this team to victory if need be?" And against Syracuse, a quickly coalescing defensive unit largely shut down one of the nation's top passing attacks as Minnesota students showed up in droves to give the team one of their first true home-field advantages in four seasons at The Vault.

Former walk-on WR A.J. Barker leads a no-name receiver corps with 4 TD catches.
The title of this article is a bit of a jab and a reference to the program's penchant for both choking away opportunities in the national spotlight during the Glen Mason and, to a lesser extent, Brewster eras and settling for post-season bids in fourth- and fifth-tier bowls. The Insight Bowl--which, a quick Wikipedia search has corrected me, is now apparently called the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, though to me, it will always be the Insight Bowl--has played host to the Gophers' last three bowl appearances, all losses.

This early season exuberance, a seemingly weaker-than-usual Big Ten, and the presence of bowl-ineligible Ohio State in the conference has Gophers fans optimistic about their bowling prospects this season. Let's take a look at the Gophers' upcoming in-conference slate of games, ranked in terms of winnability on the scientifically-tested scale of 1 to 5 "Bart Scott Can't Wait"s.
CW = BS^5.

Is there any chance that lovely Jacksonville (home of the fourth-tier Gator Bowl) might play host to a massive Minneapolis migration over the holidays? Let's find out:

Game 5: at Iowa (2-2), Sept. 29. The battle for Floyd of Rosedale heads south to Kinnick Stadium as the Gophers hope to retain the pig for the third season in a row. Iowa has had a disappointing start to their season, as they were clipped 32-31 at home by middling MAC squad Central Michigan last weekend. They have experienced a great running back exodus the last 30 months, but their flagging offense was given a boost by unheralded walk-on Mark Weisman who rushed for 217 yards and 3 TDs on 27 carries in the recent loss. Senior QB James Vanderberg has been unimpressive in the Hawkeyes' first four games, throwing just one TD pass, and their usually stout defense just gave up 32 points to friggin Central Michigan. This represents a great chance for the Gophers to pick up their first road win in Iowa City since 1999.

Rank: 3.5 "Can't Wait"s

Game 6: vs. Northwestern (4-0), Oct. 13. The Gophers will host the also-potentially-unbeaten Wildcats in what could be the biggest match-up between these two squads in many a moon if the 'Cats can clobber Indiana and Penn State to enter the Vault at 6-0 for the Gophers' homecoming game. Before their victory against South Dakota last week, Northwestern was the only FBS team to be 3-0 with all their wins coming against schools from BCS conferences. Their defense has stiffened since giving up 41 points and 481 passing yards to Syracuse in their season opener (QB Ryan Nassib passed for less than half that total against the Gophers last week), averaging just 11 points allowed over their last three games. The Wildats utilize two different quarterbacks in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, and their potent rushing attack, led by junior Venric Mark, could cause problems for Minnesota's front seven.

Rank: 4 "Can't Wait"s

Game 7: at Wisconsin (3-1), Oct. 20. A contest that has in recent years been reason for Gophers fans to practice their wincing and grimacing faces looks much more intriguing this year given the Badgers' early season struggles. Wisconsin's been in turmoil since about the 8th day of the season, when a loss at Oregon State prompted the immediate firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson. A quarterback controversy led to Joel Stave taking the job from touted Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien for their recent win over UTEP, and the normally stout Wisconsin O-line--as well as a recent head injury--have largely knocked RB Montee Ball out of the Heisman Trophy chase. Camp Randall is one of the most raucous, intimidating places for an opposing team to enter, but the Gophers have played as well as the Badgers have shown against similar-level competition in their four games so far this season.

Montee Ball, posing like a trophy that someone else will win this year.

Rank: 3 "Can't Wait"s

Game 8: vs. Purdue (2-1), Oct. 27. The Boilermakers clobbered Minnesota 45-17 in front of like 14 West Lafayette residents in the third game of the Gophers' month-long midseason malaise last season. Their only loss so far this year was a narrow 20-17 defeat at Notre Dame, and it's tough to have a real read on them right now because all the national pundits are still trying to figure out "what Notre Dame is" and Purdue's other two games have been against the low-powered Eastern bloc (Kentucky and Michigan). 315-pound All-Big Ten senior DT Kawann Short anchors their front line with three sacks so far this year. Their starting QB, Caleb TerBush (the capital "B" is not a mistake, apparently), hasn't thrown as many balls as their supposed back-up, 6th-year senior Robert Marve, who tore his ACL a couple weeks ago but reportedly might try and still play this season.

Rank: 3.5 "Can't Wait"s

Game 9: vs. Michigan (2-2), Nov. 3. Michigan actually scored two touchdowns against Alabama. If the Gophers played Alabama, there's a good chance the final score would be in the 62-(-10) neighborhood. I don't think we beat Denard Robinson, Fitzgerald Toussaint and company one year after the 58-donut debacle at the Big House.

One boy. One Dream. One jug. Denard and the Little Brown Jug. Coming to theaters this January.

Rank: 1.5 "Can't Wait"s

Game 10: at Illinois (2-2), Nov. 10. The Fighting Illini are the one FBS team that the Gophers can legitimately say that they have "throttled" in the last couple seasons, as Illinois absolutely rolled over in a 27-7 victory that concluded Minnesota's 2011 campaign. Coach Ron Zook was fired after that game, which was Illinois' sixth consecutive defeat after six straight victories to open their 2011 season; The Illini went on to defeat 6-7 UCLA in the Worst Bowl in theHistory of Bowls last New Year's Eve. It's been an up-and-down season for Illinois so far, with big wins against Western Michigan and Charleston Southern to go with lopsided losses at Arizona State and against Louisiana Tech. Reilly O'Toole (sounds like an O'Toole.) has had an okay start to his first season as starting QB, but this team definitely misses their two NFL first-round picks from last year: All-Big Ten WR A.J. Jenkins and 16-sack All-American DE Whitney Mercilus.

Rank: 4.5 "Can't Wait"s

Game 11: at Nebraska (3-1), Nov. 17. The last two games on the Gophers' regular season schedule are probably their toughest, and that small stretch begins with a trip to Cornhusker Country to probably get smacked around by QB Taylor Martinez, RB (stands for Raging Bull) Rex Burkhead, and a punishing defense led by senior DE Eric Martin. The Huskers just hung 73 on Jared Allen's alma mater, and their only loss is a 36-30 West Coast defeat at UCLA. Minnesota was humiliated by the Huskers 41-14 on national (regional?) television last year, so there may be a taste for revenge in the mouths of the Gophs for this one. But the corn-fed kings of the prairie will probably run for about another 346 yards against us again this year.

Rank: 1 "Can't Wait"

MarQueis vs. the Spartans in 2011.

Game 12: vs. Michigan State (3-1), Nov. 24. The Gophers gave a Spartans team that finished 11-3 a real scare last November, as three Gray-to-Da'Jon McKnight connections helped give Minnesota the lead going into the fourth before Mich State pulled it out 31-24. Junior RB Le'Veon Bell has taken the role of star offensive player over from old QB Kirk Cousins, and Bell has already gone for over 210 yards twice in four contests. Like Purdue, the Spartans' only loss so far was against Notre Dame, but their top-6 defense from last year returned most of its starters--like top tackler, junior LB Max Bullough--and have only given up 11.8 points per game through four contests in 2012.

Rank: 2 "Can't Wait"s

PREDICTION:  The Gophs split the difference in Big Ten play, going 4-4 to finish with a record of 8-4 and punch a ticket to.....the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

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