Midseason report: Gophers failing to meet modest preseason expectations

BY foxsports • October 15, 2010

Expectations weren't high to begin with for the University of Minnesota football team in coach Tim Brewster's fourth season.

At best, national prognosticators saw the Gophers finishing with three wins. But halfway through the season, at 1-5 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten Conference, three wins would be a huge shocker based on how they've played so far.

Saturday's game at Purdue appears to be Minnesota's best chance at a win the rest of the way, but even that will be tough with a defense that can't stop anyone.

South Dakota and Northern Illinois racked up yards and poured on points against the supposedly more talented Gophers in nonconference play, and nothing changed in Big Ten games against Northwestern and Wisconsin.

Here's a closer look at how the Gophers have fared, by position, compared with what was expected entering the season:

QUARTERBACKS

Statistically, senior quarterback Adam Weber is having a solid year. He is tied for second in the Big Ten with 12 touchdown passes and has thrown only four interceptions. It's an extreme makeover from last year, when he threw six touchdown passes and eight interceptions through six games. It helps to have three reliable targets (MarQueis Gray, Da'Jon McKnight, Eric Lair) instead of the one (Eric Decker) he had last season.

First-half stud: Weber seems more mobile and willing to use his legs than he was a year ago. In 2009, his longest run was 10 yards. But he has runs of 12, 13, 16 and 18 yards so far this season.

Second-half key: On critical drives and third downs, Weber has to work on his accuracy, because he often fails to make the routine throws you'd expect from the most experienced active quarterback in Division I college football.

RUNNING BACKS

The potential for the Gophers to produce their first 1,000-yard tailback under Brewster seemed strong after junior Duane Bennett opened the season with 187 yards at Middle Tennessee State.

Bennett followed it up with another 100-yard performance, but he hasn't reached that mark since. Junior DeLeon Eskridge has taken the feature role from Bennett after his breakout 119-yard game against Northwestern. But neither player has been consistent.

First-half stud: Bennett leads the team with 402 yards rushing. It's not outstanding, but he had a team-high 376 yards all last season.

Second-half key: The coaches need to figure out which player is their workhorse and stick with him.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Gray looked like an all-Big Ten candidate when he averaged 100 yards receiving over a three-game stretch. His production dropped against better competition in Big Ten play and after plantar fasciitis developed, but other players have emerged. Lair and McKnight both have two-touchdown games this year.

First-half stud: Lair won a national tight end of the week award after catching three passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern.

Second-half key: The Gophers have a run-oriented offense, so the receivers have to take advantage of the fewer opportunities they have to make big plays, especially when the game is on the line.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Offensive linemen care most about two statistics: sacks allowed and yards per carry. Both are improved from last season.

The Gophers have given up only 1.2 sacks per game (seven in six games), ranking 28th nationally. In 2009, the offensive line allowed 13 sacks through six games, including five against Wisconsin. Yards per carry are up (3.6 to 3.8), but not by much.

First-half stud: Senior center D.J. Burris has a lot of pressure on him because there's a huge drop-off in talent and experience if he goes down. His leadership has been impressive.

Second-half key: The biggest tests are to come. Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan leads the Big Ten with 5 1/2 sacks. How the Gophers handle him Saturday will say a lot.

DEFENSIVE LINE

This area was expected to be strength but has been the biggest disappointment.

Juniors Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey can match up well against most opponents, but they've been worn out in the second halves of games. The Gophers are giving up a Big Ten-worst 196.3 rushing yards per game.

Sophomore D.L. Wilhite and junior Anthony Jacobs have one sack between them off the edge, and the team has only three sacks in six games, second-worst in the nation.

First-half stud: The 330-pound Edwards has a sack and 10 solo tackles, including a team-best 6 1/2 tackles for loss.

Second-half key: Better production off the bench from the interior linemen will allow starters to be fresher. The Gophers desperately need to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

LINEBACKERS

Losing sophomore Mike Rallis for the past three games stung a defense that was already destined to struggle because of inexperience. Rallis had the best spring and fall practice of any player on the team. But he hasn't had a chance to help much because of an abdominal strain.

First-half stud: The defensive MVP for the first half of the season is junior Gary Tinsley, who is tied for sixth in the Big Ten with 7.7 tackles per game, including a 14-tackle game at Wisconsin.

Second-half key: Getting Rallis back healthy is one. Tackling better is another.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Big play after big play after big play -- that's what the secondary has allowed in almost every game. The Gophers have been rotating starting cornerbacks and safeties every week to find the right combination. Nothing has worked. The 9.23 yards per completion by opponents is tied with Colorado State for worst in the nation.

First-half stud: Senior safety Kyle Theret has started every game since returning from a two-game suspension to begin the year. He averages a team-best 8.8 tackles per game.

Second-half key: The Gophers need to find someone to replace senior free safety Kim Royston, who has not been able to fully recover from a broken leg.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Gophers had been among the Big Ten's best in this area under Brewster, but not this season. Eric Ellestad has struggled on kickoffs (four out of bounds) and field goals (1 of 5 from 30 yards or longer). Dan Orseske is averaging just 37.4 yards per punt.

First-half stud: Junior Troy Stoudermire is 45 yards away from breaking the Big Ten career record of 2,575 kickoff return yards set by former Michigan State player Derrick Mason.

Second-half key: The Gophers have to be able to rely on their special teams to help with field position.

COACHES

Brewster has stuck with first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Horton's power running game, saying he wants to keep the games within reach and ease the pressure on the defense. But this strategy isn't helping the Gophers win.

How long will they deny his quality receivers the chance to carry the load?

Co-defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, who is dealing with his son's battle with leukemia, has carried a heavy burden trying to get 10 new defensive starters to improve.

First-half stud: Linebackers coach John Butler has made the most out of not having his top guy, Rallis. Tinsley and junior Keanon Cooper are making strides.

Second-half key: Brewster and his staff need to find some way to win at least three more games and be competitive against Ohio State and Iowa to prove they should return next season.

OVERALL

Brewster claims his team easily could have been 5-0. But the Gophers are much closer to being 0-5, because they trailed before beating Middle Tennessee State 24-17 in the season opener.

Brewster has blamed defensive inexperience for much of the team's problems, but an inability to finish games kept the Gophers from beating South Dakota and Northwestern and made the hot seat hotter for Brewster.

The reality is that athletics director Joel Maturi and university President Bob Bruininks could be deciding his future soon -- if they haven't already.


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