Tyler Mason’s Nov. 12 Gophers mailbag

In this week's Gophers mailbag, topics include Minnesota's chances of beating Ohio State and rival Wisconsin, plus much more.

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MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers got the pig back. Floyd of Rosedale is back in Dinkytown after Minnesota trounced rival Iowa by a 51-14 final on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Now comes the stiffest test of the season for the Gophers as they prepare to host an Ohio State Buckeyes team that is the fourth-highest scoring offense in the nation.

Thanks to those who submitted questions to this week’s mailbag. Be sure to send more questions after Saturday’s game against the Buckeyes.

Q: Hate to look ahead, but, with three rivalry trophies in Dinkytown, can Minnesota bring home the last one? — Daniel, Minneapolis

A: It is indeed a bit dangerous to look ahead that far. I know the Gophers players aren’t doing it, as they know they have two tough opponents to go before the season finale against rival Wisconsin. But for the sake of this mailbag, let’s examine Minnesota’s matchup with the Badgers on Nov. 27.

A few weeks ago, I would have said that the Gophers could (not necessarily that they would) beat Wisconsin in Madison at the end of the season. My thinking has changed a little bit on that after A) Minnesota lost a clunker to Illinois, and B) Wisconsin’s defense has emerged as the top defense in the nation in several important categories. We knew the Badgers would have a solid running game, but UW’s passing attack hasn’t been much better than the Gophers’. So, on paper, this looks like it could be an even matchup for Minnesota.

Of course, history is not on the Gophers’ side. They haven’t won Paul Bunyan’s Axe in a decade. Minnesota’s last victory over Wisconsin was in 2003, the longest drought for the Gophers in this rivalry’s long history. The last time Minnesota won at Camp Randall Stadium was even longer ago: 1994. Then again, history was against the Gophers when they faced Michigan, yet Minnesota took home the Little Brown Jug for the first time since 2005. Floyd of Rosedale, which the Gophers won on Saturday by beating Iowa, has now been in Dinkytown twice in the last four years. And then there’s the Governor’s Victory Bell, a trophy awarded to the winner of the "rivalry" between Minnesota and Penn State. The Gophers beat the Nittany Lions a year ago to add to the trophy case.

I’d venture to guess that winning Paul Bunyan’s Axe would top the excitement of winning the Jug — and that thing was paraded around campus and around the Twin Cities for weeks after the victory. This is probably the closest Minnesota has been to being on the same level as Wisconsin in years. Who says the Gophers can’t head east and take that Axe back to Minnesota?

Q: I know the Gophers have added speed each year since Coach Kill got here, but are we fast and athletic enough to keep up with the kind of athletes Ohio State brings to town on Saturday, and even beat them? One part of me thinks we could literally beat anyone in the country the way we played against Iowa, and the other part of me remembers being over-matched by TCU’s speed and athleticism. — Nathan, Moorhead, Minn.

A: Not to be the bearer of bad news, but I think Saturday’s game could be more along the lines of Minnesota’s matchup with TCU than its win over Iowa. The Gophers knew exactly what they were going to get from the Hawkeyes, a team that likes to run the ball between the tackles and relies heavily on its ground game. Minnesota took that away as it slowed down bruising running back Mark Weisman, which meant Iowa’s offense didn’t do much against the Gophers. While Minnesota does have speed on defense, particularly at cornerback, we saw against TCU that the Gophers still don’t have the speed that some of the top-tier offenses in the country possess.

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Ohio State would certainly fall into that category. Minnesota’s coaches and players talked Tuesday about the quickness of the Buckeyes on offense. Head coach Jerry Kill said that Ohio State is "built for speed" and noted that OSU’s receivers are the fastest Minnesota will have played against since that TCU game. Because of the difference in speed, it will be important for the Gophers’ defenders to keep Ohio State’s offensive players in front of them. Also key: tackling. A missed tackle of a Buckeyes speedster could result in a home run for Ohio State.

Q: It seems like a lot of major sports networks are blowing off the work the Gophers have done and the big win over a good Iowa team. What is the key to pulling off a victory that people don’t think we can do, but seems like is very real possibility to be done? — Adam, Eden Prairie, Minn.

A: Sure, the Gophers may not be getting the national attention some fans feel they deserve. At the same time, they still don’t have a win against a Top 25 team this year. A win Saturday against Ohio State would do wonders in terms of putting Minnesota on the college football map from a national perspective.

That won’t be easy by any means, but it’s not impossible for the Gophers, who are 12.5-point underdogs at home against the Buckeyes this Saturday. The key will be keeping Ohio State’s offense off the field for as long as possible. That means converting on third downs when Minnesota has the ball, and establishing a solid running attack with David Cobb. The Gophers will need their offensive linemen to get a good push off the line and help the ground game chew up the clock while picking up yards to keep the chains moving. The old adage that says the best defense is a good offense certainly holds true in this matchup.

When Minnesota is on defense, the Gophers can’t afford to give up the long scoring plays to the Buckeyes. This Ohio State team can put up points in a hurry — it averages 46.0 points per game — so Minnesota needs to try and slow the tempo down in some way. And winning the turnover battle will be crucial, too. The Gophers aren’t good enough to turn the ball over several times against the Buckeyes and still come out with a win. If Minnesota can force more turnovers than it surrenders on Saturday, the Gophers could be in good shape. If not, it’ll be a long day for Kill’s team.

Q: What is new with Jeff Jones and his status for next year? — Anthony, Mankato, Minn.

A: Nothing really new on the Jeff Jones front. The former Minneapolis Washburn standout running back was one of the biggest recruits in last year’s recruiting class for Kill and the Gophers. But due to academic issues, he hasn’t been with the team this season. The last I heard was that Jones was attending school at the university but still hadn’t been eligible to join the Gophers due to low test scores.

It’s likely that Jones would have redshirted this season anyway, especially with last year’s emergence of running back David Cobb and a stable of dependable backups. But Cobb and fellow running back Donnell Kirkwood are both seniors, meaning there will be more carries to go around next year for other running backs. If all goes well with Jones academically, I wouldn’t think it would be out of the question for him to possibly see some playing time next year.

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Q: What is your prediction for the last 3 games and which bowl game do the Gophers go to? Odds of a Jan 1 game????? — Earl, Minneapolis

A: As I mentioned earlier in a previous answer, I think the Gophers’ season finale against Wisconsin is winnable. I don’t, however, see Minnesota upsetting Ohio State this weekend or pulling off a road win at Nebraska the following weekend.

With that said, I’m not 100 percent convinced that the Gophers end up stealing a game in Madison. Plenty will happen for both teams between now and then. If Wisconsin can get past Nebraska at home, it travels to face Iowa on the road. Should the Badgers go 2-0 in those two games, they’re in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West. If Minnesota stumbles in the next two weeks, the Gophers might not be playing for a trip to the conference championship when they head to Madison.

My heart tells me that Minnesota’s game in Madison is one it could win, but my gut still says that the Gophers will lose a close one to the Badgers to close out the season. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Kill and Co. do manage to steal a win in the last game of the year against a Wisconsin team that, like I mentioned earlier, Minnesota hasn’t beaten in a decade.

As for the bowl game, that’s a tough one to predict, as so much of it will depend on what happens with the rest of the Big Ten between now and the end of the season. I’ve seen the Gophers projected to play anywhere from the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit on Dec. 26 to the San Francisco Bowl on Dec. 30 to the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville. I don’t think playing on a New Year’s Day bowl game is as important for Minnesota as winning whatever bowl game it’s in. The Gophers have struggled the last two years in their bowl games, so winning that final game of the season would be a sign that this program is turning the corner. A Jan. 1 bowl game could still be in the works, but the end result of the bowl game should be the focus.

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