Gophers still trying to get passing game going
Minnesota has scored 95 points over the first two games, and the Gophers have barely mastered the forward pass so far.
That could be a good sign. If sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson and the rest of the offense find a rhythm with the aerial attack to supplement what has the potential to be a rugged, productive running game, the Gophers will be in good shape.
They're also running out of time to make the necessary improvement before Big Ten play begins.
Nelson has rushed for a team-high 205 yards and three touchdowns. But he has completed just 48.6 percent of his passes for 226 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown. Nobody has more than three receptions. The Gophers rank 112th out of 123 FBS teams in yards passing.
''Quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, we've got to be able to move the ball through the air better for sure, but the main thing is being able to run the ball and that should be able to open the other stuff too,'' Nelson said.
The depth chart is wide open for wide receivers to emerge as a true go-to target, whether Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel, Logan Hutton, K.J. Maye, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky or Jamel Harbison.
''We've got about six or seven people playing in there right now. We had two or three drops that we can't afford to have. But there's talent in there, and we've got to get it figured out over the next three or four weeks,'' coach Jerry Kill said.
In all likelihood, though, the Gophers won't find out much more about their passing game this weekend. They host FCS opponent Western Illinois, which has won its first two games convincingly but over weaker competition. WIU went 3-8 last season and was picked in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll to finish ninth out of 10.
Here are five things to know about the game on Saturday between the Leathernecks and the Golden Gophers:
BIG LOSS: Minnesota starting cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun is out for the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Derrick Wells, who would've been on the first team to start were it not for a training camp injury, will take over. But Boddy-Calhoun, who returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown in the season opener, will be missed.
''He was probably playing at the highest level of any defensive back that we have,'' Kill said.
DISCIPLINED SQUAD: The two-game sample size is small, but the Gophers are the least-penalized Big Ten team so far with a total of five flags for 42 yards. They had seven penalties in their Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to Texas Tech last December.
FAMILIAR FACE: This game was scheduled long before Nielson became the Western Illinois coach last December, but it has given him a unique opportunity to return to the state where he had so much success.
Nielson won NCAA Division II championships at Minnesota Duluth in 2008 and 2010, posting 15-0 records each year, and won five Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference titles over his 10 seasons on the sideline from 1999-2003 and 2008-2012. He served as UMD athletic director between stints.
Mark Hendrickson, Nielson's predecessor at WIU, went 18-32 in five years with the Leathernecks.
COMPETITION CRANKS UP: Hampton and Quincy could easily be the name of a law firm or a sporting goods store in Macomb, Ill., the town of about 20,000 people where WIU is located. Actually, Hampton and Quincy were the first two opponents on WIU's schedule this season.
The Leathernecks opened with a 42-9 victory over fellow FCS team Hampton. Then last week they beat up on Quincy, a Division II school about 70 miles southeast of Macomb, in a 34-6 decision. Their turnover margin is plus-10, nine of which came against Hampton.
But this will be WIU's first game in history against Minnesota. The Leathernecks are 0-4 against Big Ten teams and 6-24 since 1986 against FBS foes with the last win coming against Eastern Michigan in 2003. The only other FBS teams they've beaten in that span are also midmajors, Northern Illinois and Ball State.
DOWN IN THE VALLEY: The Gophers are aware of the danger the MVC can present. Minnesota lost to North Dakota State in 2007 and 2011 and South Dakota in 2010 and eked out a three-point victory in 2009 over South Dakota State.