Tyler Mason's Oct. 30 Gophers mailbag
OCT 30, 2013 2:23p ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers program finally has some buzz around it this season after upsetting No. 24 Nebraska at home this past Saturday. Fans rushed the field as Minnesota defeated the Huskers for the first time since 1960. The Gophers are now bowl eligible but say they've reassessed their goals heading into the final four games of the season. Given Minnesota's two-game winning streak, the questions I received in this week's mailbag were almost entirely positive. Thanks to all who submitted your questions, and be sure to do the same next week after this Saturday's game at Indiana.
Q: Is the win over Nebraska the type of victory that can springboard this program?
--Ryan Klein, Luverne, Minn.
A: There's no question that a win over a ranked opponent -- especially a school the Gophers hadn't beaten in 53 years -- can go a long way for a program and the players' confidence. After Saturday's win, quarterback Philip Nelson said the team now expects to make it to a bowl game each year. That postgame press conference was the first time I really heard a different attitude from the players and coaches as far as the fact that they believe they can beat this caliber of team. At the same time, I'm not sure that beating a struggling Nebraska team at home is the type of win that completely changes the landscape of a program. But I do think it's a good springboard, as you put it, for the rest of the season.
With that said, Saturday's win over the Huskers won't mean nearly as much if Minnesota goes out and lay an egg this weekend against Indiana. The Gophers have admitted as much, too, saying that you're only as good as your last game. If Minnesota loses out and finishes 6-6, then the Nebraska win is just a blip on the radar. But if the Gophers win a few more and finish with eight wins, I think we can certainly point to the Nebraska game as one that helped turn the tide in a positive direction. The victory should also help generate some buzz for the program, too. The Gophers received some recognition nationally for the upset, with college football analysts noting it was one of the bigger upsets of the weekend. For a fanbase that has been desperate for success.
Q: Given the uncertainty of Coach Kill's capability to successfully gain control of his epilepsy condition and to successfully manage it, coupled with the increased success that Gopher's football is having under Coach Claeys' guidance plus his increased value because of it, might it be wise for U of M officials to consider finding some way to secure Coach Claeys' continued services for Gopher football for everyone's mutual benefit?
--James Nelson, Deerwood, Minn.
A: Tracy Claeys has definitely made a bit of a name for himself with the success the Gophers have had under his watch as the acting head coach. Claeys made the move from the press box to the sideline for Minnesota's win at Northwestern and remained there this past weekend against Nebraska. Yet while Claeys has technically been the man in charge as Kill continues to take time away from the team, it's important to remember that the system in place is Kill's. Claeys and this staff have been together a long time -- in Claeys' case, 19 years -- so not much changes even when Kill is gone.
Because of that loyalty, I don't see Claeys leaving Kill's staff any time soon if a head coaching job were to be offered to him. He genuinely enjoys the job he has as a defensive coordinator and loves Kill and the rest of the coaches. Claeys and others have had offers over the years but have opted to stay with Kill. Claeys has admitted that he'd be silly not to listen to potential head coaching offers, he seems content with staying at Minnesota. I'm not sure that any financial incentive would be necessary to keep him here.
Q: Phillip Nelson played very well against Nebraska. He only completed 7 of his passes but there were several bad drops. Should he be named the started for here on out?
--Ben Fried, Minneapolis, Minn.
A: I've said before that I do believe the Gophers should stick with one starting quarterback so that player -- whether it's Nelson or Mitch Leidner -- can gain some confidence and consistency as the top guy. Given the way he's played in each of the last two games, it's hard not to like what Nelson is doing right now.
As you mentioned, he didn't get much help from his receivers Saturday as the Gophers had several dropped passes. Nelson's accuracy against Northwestern was the best it's been all year, and his 152 yards against Nebraska were a season high (and would have been higher if not for those drops). He also ran for 55 yards, his highest total since the second game of the year when he rushed for 122 yards against New Mexico State, and scored twice on the ground.
Whether or not he's named the starter isn't the key, as we saw the last two games when he came off the bench in place of Leidner. I do believe Minnesota will try to use both quarterbacks in games, but I think Nelson should be the one getting most of the snaps. He's earned it with his ply against Northwestern and Nebraska.
Q: What has been the biggest difference for Philip Nelson the past two weeks? He seems to be much more comfortable.
A: I asked both Nelson and acting head coach Tracy Claeys that very question at Tuesday's press conference. Claeys cited Nelson's efficiency in each of the last two games. Throws that might have been close but still incomplete in the early going of the season are now being made. That's generated some confidence for Nelson, and he's also started to trust his receivers more.
Nelson admitted he has more poise in the pocket, which I think we've definitely seen in the last two games. He isn't as likely to just tuck the ball and run when his first option on a pass isn't open. He's staying in the pocket a bit more and making better reads by keeping his eyes downfield while also gaining a better understanding for what defenses are trying to do against him. I think these are all things that naturally come with experience, and Nelson now has 13 games under his belt at the college level. He's finally starting to look the part of a confident quarterback, and it's paying dividends for Minnesota's offense.
Q: What kind of bowl game do you think Minnesota is looking at if it gets two more wins this season?
--Bridget, St. Cloud, Minn.
A: It's crazy to think that in an earlier mailbag, I was answering questions about whether the Gophers still had a chance to make a bowl game. Now we're talking about which bowl game the Gophers would make with an eight-win season -- and an 8-4 record is not that hard to fathom at this point. Two more wins (possibly against Indiana and Penn State in the next two weeks) would certainly boost Minnesota's standings in the pecking order of Big Ten bowl games.
Earlier, it appeared as if they might be destined for the Heart of Dallas Bowl which, while it is a New Year's Day game, is the second-lowest of all Big Ten bowls. Now, the Texas Bowl -- formerly known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, which the Gophers played in last year -- is an option as a step up from the Dallas Bowl. There's also a chance that Minnesota could sneak into the Gator Bowl, the Big Ten's sixth-best bowl game. The Gophers may need some help from other teams ahead of them, but an eight-win season could be enough for a trip to Jacksonville.
Regardless of which bowl game the Gophers play in this winter, winning a bowl game could do a lot of good for the program. Minnesota came close last year before fading against Texas Tech. Earning a victory Jan. 1 would certainly end this season on a high note.
Q: What big recruits do we have either committed already or "hopeful" to commit soon?
--James DePoint, Blaine, Minn.
A: This year's recruiting class is shaping up nicely for Kill and his staff. Minnesota has already landed a pair of four-star recruits, according to Scout.com. That includes offensive lineman Connor Mayes from Van Alstyne, Tex., and local product Jeff Jones, a running back from Washburn High School in Minneapolis. The Gophers have also received commitments from four three-star recruits, including Somerset, Wis., tight end Gaelin Elmore and Owatonna, Minn., defensive end Andrew Stelter.
Even though Kill has been away from the team to focus on his epilepsy treatment, he has continued to work hard on the recruiting front. Given the public nature of his seizures and the headlines they've generated, Kill has had to reassure recruits that he plans on coaching the Gophers for the foreseeable future.
Q: Can this ground and pound offensive philosophy be sustained long term or are the Gophers just working with what they got?
--James, Rochester, Minn.
A: I think the run-first offense can not only be sustained, but it's the type of offense that Kill prefers to run -- especially in the run-first Big Ten. It's what he and his staff did at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, and they've turned the Gophers into a legitimate running team.
Minnesota currently has three running backs that, when health, the Gophers feel confident in starting. That trio includes Donnell Kirkwood, David Cobb and Rodrick Williams. On top of those three, quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner also like to tuck the ball and run on occasion.
As I mentioned in the last question, the Gophers landed a four-star running back recruit in Minneapolis native Jeff Jones, so there will be more running back talent coming to campus soon. The Gophers are also high on freshman Berkley Edwards, a speedy tailback who will all but certainly redshirt this season. Add those youngsters into the mix with the three current running back options -- all of whom should be back next year -- and Minnesota will have a solid stable of running backs to continue the ground-and-pound philosophy next season.
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