Tyler Mason’s Oct. 2 Gophers mailbag

After a 4-0 start to the season, Minnesota suffered its first loss of the season last Saturday against rival Iowa. The Gophers were outplayed in nearly every facet of the game and now must regroup as they head to Ann Arbor, Mich., to take on the Wolverines in another trophy game. I took time to answer your questions in advance of Saturday’s game at the Big House. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions this week.

Q: After watching Nelson struggle for the entire first half, why did Kill not turn to Leidner?  I know he played against subpar competition the two weeks he played but considering how bad Nelson was — missing wide open receivers or jumping around in the pocket like he was scared — what did they have to lose?–Kyle, Wisconsin

A: I agree, Kyle, that Kill and the coaching staff probably should have played Leidner in Saturday’s game against Iowa. In fact, I was surprised to see Nelson starting the game, as I figured the Gophers would stick with what worked the week before against San Jose State. While Leidner didn’t do a ton with his arm in that game, he tied a school record for the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (4). Simply put, the offense moved the ball with Leidner under center.

Nelson looked rusty Saturday, and it appeared as if his hamstring was still bothering him. He didn’t have the same mobility in the pocket and was hesitant to run the ball. When I saw his inability to run away from pressure or throw the ball away (he took a few bad sacks) is when I would have made the switch for Leidner. It’s not guaranteed that Leidner would have had any more success through the air than Nelson did, but inserting him into the offense certainly could have given the Gophers a spark. If nothing else, he was likely healthier than Nelson. 

Kill has said all along that Nelson is the starting quarterback as long as he’s healthy. Kill left it up to Nelson to tell him whether or not he was healthy enough to play. Nelson said he was, and Kill rolled with the sophomore. As was evident by the final score, the move didn’t pay off. Not everything can be pinned on Nelson in that loss, however, but I do think Leidner might have given the Gophers a better chance to win that game.

Q: Do you really think Kill can turn this program around? This team does not look improved to me and the best players are graduating: Hageman, Vereen and Hill. What do you think about a proven coach who can recruit: Jim Tressel?–Dennis Sheets, Youngstown, Ohio

A: First of all, I don’t think there’s any chance Jim Tressel would come to Minnesota. Yes, he had success at Ohio State, but I just don’t see it happening.

As for Kill, I do believe he can turn this program around. He’s already done so to some extent during his first two seasons. Kill inherited a program that Tim Brewster left in shambles. The cupboards were bare in terms of talent when Kill took the job, and he’s slowly started to add talent and balance to this roster. His upcoming recruiting class already has commitments from two four-star recruits, so if you put stock in rankings systems, there’s progress being made in that regard.

I think where we’re seeing progress is in the discipline of the players. It sounds like a small thing, but discipline goes a long way in terms of winning. You don’t see the most successful teams beating themselves, something the Gophers had done in recent years. This year’s team looks improved in that area. 

Kill needed three seasons to turn the programs around at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois. I’m not sure if three years at Minnesota will be a good enough barometer, given how tough it is to win in the Big Ten. Let’s let the 2013 season play out, as well as 2014, and then I think we can truly judge whether Kill has the Gophers moving in the right direction. As of right now, I do believe Minnesota has taken steps forward under Kill’s watch.

Q: Why can’t Gophers coaches seem to be able to get their players ready, willing and able to play with the necessary intensity right from the game’s opening kickoff?–James Nelson, Deerwood, Minn.

A: Minnesota’s struggles in the first half of games this year is certainly concerning. Even in the nonconference portion of the season, the Gophers — particularly the offense — have been slow to find a rhythm early in games. For whatever reason, they come out of the gates flat before making the necessary adjustments at halftime. I’m not sure why it is that Minnesota has started its games this way, but the players acknowledge the need to come out with a greater sense of urgency.

It is definitely concerning that the Gophers have started these games so flat — especially against Iowa, a big rival. I don’t know how much of that can be pinned on the coaches not getting the players ready, or how much is on the players for simply coming out with a lack of intensity. In nonconference play, Minnesota was able to overcome sluggish first halves and run away with games in the second half. We saw that won’t work in the Big Ten, as the Gophers never rebounded from a first-half deficit against Iowa. On Tuesday, Kill and a few of the players said they were perhaps a bit too amped up and overanxious to start that game. To win these conference games, Minnesota will need to come out aggressive and score early, otherwise it will once again find itself playing from behind. 

Q: It seems the honeymoon is over. How do you see this team bouncing back after laying an egg against Iowa at home?–Larry, Minnetonka, Minn.

A: The best way to bounce back is to win Saturday at Michigan, which would help everyone forget the embarrassing loss to the Hawkeyes. Of course, that is much easier said than done. Even if Minnesota is competitive this weekend against the Wolverines, that could go a long way in rebuilding the Gophers’ confidence.

What Minnesota can’t let happen is another downward spiral like the one that occurred last season following the loss to Iowa. That defeat also came after the Gophers started 4-0, and they went on to win just two more games the rest of the way. Minnesota needs to get back to doing what it did to win four games already this year: establish the power running game and minimize mistakes. Against Iowa, the Gophers couldn’t run the ball and had too many penalties and mental lapses. They’ll need to reverse both trends this weekend to have a chance in the Big House.

Q: Is there another winnable conference game the rest of the year? I would have thought Iowa would be the best shot at one.–Sven Briggs, Duluth, Minn.

A: There’s no doubt that Iowa was a game many fans circled as perhaps one of the most winnable Big Ten games. Minnesota will need six total wins — two in conference play — to become bowl eligible. Now after losing to the Hawkeyes, that task becomes tougher.

But I still believe there are a handful of winnable Big Ten games still on the schedule. The next two weeks appear tough, but keep in mind that Michigan almost lost at home to Akron in Week 3. Minnesota does host Nebraska this year, and the 3-1 Cornhuskers look far from invincible. Penn State also comes to TCF Bank Stadium; the Nittany Lions suffered a loss at home to Central Florida in nonconference play. That could be another opportunity for Minnesota to earn a Big Ten victory.

Winning on the road is never easy, especially in conference play. After Michigan this weekend, the Gophers also travel to face Northwestern, Indiana and Michigan State this year. The Hoosiers may be the most vulnerable of those four, having already lost twice at home to nonconference foes.

I do think the Gophers will get the two wins necessary to become bowl eligible. Before the season started, I wouldn’t have ruled out a seven-win season. But that was with a win against Iowa penciled in. Now, seven wins seems like a very tall task.

Q: Michigan has struggled against some opponents weaker than the Gopher. What have UConn and Akron been able to do to stymie Devin Gardner and Co. that Minnesota should key in on?–Tom, Eau Claire, Wis.

A: Gophers fans will no doubt remember Gardner for what he did against Minnesota last year. Making his first start of the year in place of the injured Denard Robinson, Gardner threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns (including a 45-yard score) to upend the Gophers 35-13 in Minneapolis.

Despite his success last year, Gardner has had a lukewarm start to the 2013 season — his first full year as Michigan’s starting quarterback. The most glaring stat that stands out is his interception total. Gardner has already thrown eight picks in just four games, including three against Akron.

Minnesota safety Cedric Thompson said Tuesday that he’s noticed on film that Gardner has appeared more panicky this year than he did when the Gophers faced him last year. A few of Gardner’s interceptions have come on tipped balls, but he’s also looked uncomfortable on a number of his picks. If Minnesota can get Gardner to panic and possibly throw into double coverage or get a pass tipped, the Gophers may have a chance to intercept him once or twice and get him out of sync.

Q: Who has the best nickname on the team?–Dan Craggs, Scottsdale, Ariz.

A: Of the nicknames I’ve heard, my favorite easily has to be “Nugget,” given to sophomore running back Rodrick Williams. He was bestowed the moniker on his official visit to the University of Minnesota, during which ate 50 chicken nuggets from McDonalds. Since then, the nickname has stuck.

(Note: Submit your questions for the next mailbag – which will run Oct. 9 – after the Northwestern game. Look for the link on FOXSportsNorth.com)

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