MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota football team is coming off its first loss of the season, a 30-7 defeat at the hands of TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. The Gophers return to TCF Bank Stadium this weekend for the final non-conference game of the season before opening up Big Ten play. As Minnesota looks to rebound and get its offense on track, here are five things to watch for Saturday against San Jose State.
1. Will Chris Streveler get his first career start?
Through Minnesota’s first three games of 2014, redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Streveler has played in all three contests. The first instance was after Minnesota was up big late against Eastern Illinois, while his appearances off the bench against Middle Tennessee and TCU came after starter Mitch Leidner was banged up with an injury. Leidner has dealt with multiple injuries already, including a knee against Middle Tennessee and a foot injury at TCU that resulted in the Gophers listing Leidner on the injury report as "questionable" for Saturday’s game against San Jose State. On the depth chart released Thursday, Minnesota’s starting quarterback was listed as "Leidner OR Streveler," meaning the Gophers aren’t tipping their hand either way. But given the fact that Leidner has been banged up for two straight weeks, it might be wise of Minnesota to give him some rest and have him ready for the start of the Big Ten season next weekend. Sure, Streveler has thrown just four passes in his college career, but Leidner wasn’t exactly effective when he was in — he completed just 48.1 percent of his passes and had four interceptions and just two touchdowns. If there was a time to put Streveler out for his first career start, Saturday would appear to be a likely choice.
2. Can Minnesota’s offensive line get back on track?
The Gophers’ offense has struggled throughout the first three games, but it took a step back last Saturday at TCU. One week after running back David Cobb rushed for 220 yards against Middle Tennessee, Minnesota couldn’t move the ball on the ground against the Horned Frogs — the Gophers finished with just 99 rushing yards on 39 carries. Meanwhile, the passing game was also grounded — just 169 yards through the air — but quarterbacks Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler didn’t always have enough time to throw. The problem to both areas can partly be traced to the offensive line, which collectively had its worst game of the season (and probably the worst in quite a while, dating back to last year). This is a unit that returned plenty of starters on the line, but, for whatever reason, the front five for Minnesota couldn’t get the job done against a tough TCU defense. The Gophers’ running backs rarely were able to get into the second level last Saturday because of a lack of a push up front by the offensive line. San Jose State’s defense isn’t the same caliber as TCU’s, so Saturday could be a chance for Minnesota’s linemen to reestablish themselves.
3. No David Fales for San Jose State. What do the Spartans have at quarterback?
When these same two teams squared off last year at TCF Bank Stadium, San Jose State’s biggest threat on offense was Fales, an accurate quarterback who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the sixth round of this year’s draft. But even as Fales threw for 439 yards and three touchdowns against the Gophers, it wasn’t enough as Minnesota pulled away for a 43-24 win. With Fales now gone, the offense will fall on the arm of Blake Jurich, a redshirt senior who’s thrown for four touchdowns and 468 yards in SJSU’s first two games. On top of that, he’s been highly accurate, completing 73.1 percent of his passes (38-for-52) against North Dakota and No. 5 Auburn. As good as Minnesota’s secondary is, the Gophers have still surrendered an average of 274.3 passing yards per game through the early going this year. Though Jurich is a bit untested, he has been accurate and could keep Minnesota’s defense on its toes Saturday.
4. Will passes continue to be thrown Maxx Williams’ way?
Williams, a redshirt sophomore tight end, emerged as the Gophers’ top receiving threat last year as he led the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches. In the season opener against Eastern Illinois, Williams had just two catches and wasn’t targeted a ton by Leidner in the passing game. One week later, Williams had a 27-yard touchdown in the first half but was otherwise held without a catch. Last Saturday against TCU, Williams had a season-high three catches, one of which went for 12 yards and Minnesota’s only touchdown. It was evident throughout the game that Leidner was trying to get the ball into Williams’ hands, although sometimes that meant forcing throws into coverage. Still, it’s apparent the Gophers want Williams to be heavily involved in the passing game. San Jose State has allowed just one passing touchdown and 261 total passing yards in two games, but finding Williams several times could be a recipe for attacking the Spartans’ pass defense.
5. Can the Gophers put the TCU loss completely behind them?
Minnesota was feeling good about itself after starting the year 2-0 with wins over Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee. With that said, the Gophers knew they were in for a tough test against a team from a Power Five conference, and that proved to be the case. There were a few positives to take away from last Saturday’s game, including the fact that Minnesota outscored TCU in the second half, 7-6, after trailing 24-0 at halftime. Several players stood out on defense, namely linebacker Damien Wilson, who added 11 to his Big Ten-best 35 tackles, and cornerback Eric Murray. Offensively, the game against TCU was one to forget for Minnesota. If the Gophers can come out Saturday and put together a complete game, they can feel good about themselves heading into the Big Ten schedule with a 3-1 record.