Tyler Mason's Oct. 23 Gophers mailbag
The Gopher football team is riding high after beating Northwestern on the road this past Saturday in a game many people didn't give Minnesota a chance to win. Now sitting at 5-2 overall, the Gophers' hopes of a bowl game seem a bit more realistic as they enter the final five games of the regular season. The topic of a bowl game is how we kick off this week's mailbag in advance of Saturday's contest between Minnesota and Nebraska. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions.
Q: What bowl game should we be dreaming about?--Earl, Minneapolis
A: A week ago, a bowl game seemed a bit more unlikely, as the Gophers had just four wins and a somewhat challenging Big Ten schedule ahead of them. But after stealing a win against Northwestern -- a game many people didn't expect them to win -- they now need just one more victory to become bowl eligible for the second straight year. However, Minnesota's players insist they're not focused on the number of wins or the prospect of playing in another bowl game.
With that said, Minnesota would likely be destined for a lower-tier bowl game if it does indeed get that elusive sixth win. I've seen several pundits projecting that the Gophers will play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1. It always sounds nice for a program to be able to play in a New Year's Day game, but the reality is that Minnesota's situation last year in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas was nice in that the Gophers' game against Texas Tech was the only college football game that night. That meant more eyes -- and potentially more recruits -- watching the game. Depending on how the rest of the Big Ten shakes out this season, Minnesota could also find itself in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26. While that bowl is a step down from the Dallas Bowl, it does have the benefit of being one of just two games on that day, compared to six on Jan. 1.
Those two appear to be the Gophers' most likely possibilities at this point. Of course, as your question stated, you should be dreaming of the Rose Bowl or another BCS bowl game, but those obviously aren't realistic dreams in 2013.
Q: How surprised are you that Cobb has overtaken Kirkwood as the Gophers' lead back? Is that a result of Kirkwood still not being fully healthy?--Larry, Minnesota
A: To be honest, I am very surprised that David Cobb has emerged to have the success that he's had. Coaches have talked in the past about the tools Cobb possesses, and he turned heads in spring ball last season, but he had just one carry as a sophomore last year. With the strong play of Rodrick WIlliams as a freshman in 2012, Cobb entered 2013 as Minnesota's third-string back. But the injury to Kirkwood -- as well as some off-the-field issues for Williams and a maturation process by Cobb -- have opened the door for Cobb to lead the team in rushing yards (477) at this point in the season.
Before the year started, I thought Kirkwood had a legitimate shot at rushing for 1,000 yards. As soon as he suffered an injury early in the season, though, that prediction went out the window. Now it's not completely far-fetched to think that Cobb could reach that mark if he continues to have games like he did on Saturday against Northwestern, where he ran for 103 yards on 20 carries. Of course, he'll need to get the bulk of the carries from here on out to approach the century mark, and getting enough carries with two other competent tailbacks isn't necessarily an easy thing.
Minnesota hasn't named a starting running back yet for this Saturday's game, saying that decision will come Thursday and will be based on whichever back has the best week of practice. Cobb certainly argued his case this past Saturday for more touches this weekend against Nebraska.
Q: What sort of supervision applies to major college football officials? When a call is blown such as on the Gopher touchdown that was negated in the Northwestern game, does a system exist whereby some kind of sanctions may be levied against the official involved, maybe remedial training or fine or suspension?--James Nelson, Deerwood, Minn.
A: Look no further than to one of Minnesota's rivals and what happened to the Wisconsin Badgers early in the year. As you may remember, the Badgers lost to Arizona State after a controversial play at the end of the game in which the referees did not properly place the ball in time for Wisconsin to get a final play off. Those Pac-12 officials were reprimanded and sanctioned as a result, although the severity of the sanctions were never released by the conference. Still, there was at least some accountability on the part of the Pac-12, although not enough to assuage angry Wisconsin fans.
It's not often, though, that you see something like that happen, and I wouldn't imagine sanctions occurring for what took place Saturday in Minnesota's game against Northwestern. I'm assuming you're talking about the touchdown to Isaac Fruechte that was waved off after a pass interference on Drew Wolitarsky that probably shouldn't have been called. Missed calls like that happen; it's part of the game. Thankfully for the Gophers, it didn't end up costing them a win. And in this case, I don't think it will end up costing the referees anything, either.
Q: Have you heard how the program is handling recruiting given all that's going on with Jerry Kill?--Kyle Turnquist, Delano, Minn.
A: From what I've heard, it sounds like not much has changed since Kill has taken time away from the team to focus on his epilepsy treatment. Keep in mind, Kill is far from the only member of the program doing the recruiting. During Minnesota's bye week a few weeks ago, most of the assistant coaches were on the road talking to recruits while the offensive and defensive coordinators stayed behind to run practices. Last week, both offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator/acting head coach Tracy Claeys went straight from Wednesday's practice to local high schools to watch recruits. Even Kill himself has recently reached out to recruits and talked to them about his situation while reassuring them that he has no plans of leaving anytime soon.
While it would seem like recruiting might be put on the back burner with Kill away from the team, that's been far from the case for the Gophers. In this day and age, teams can't afford to miss a day on the recruiting trail, and Minnesota has been no exception.
Q: Do you think athletic director Norwood Teague and co. are 'quietly' feeling out some potential coaching candidates? It seems like it would be ignorant for them not to see what's at least out there in case Kill steps down.--Jim H., Maple Grove, Minn.
A: I really don't think they are at this point. Teague and university president Eric Kaler have continued to throw their support behind Kill as he works to figure out the best way to treat his epilepsy. I don't think they're just saying that for PR purposes, either; I truly believe they support Kill 100 percent. Because of that, I think it would be wrong of them to even entertain the idea of looking for potential candidates in the case that Kill does step down.
If it were to happen where Kill decides he can't coach anymore and walks away, I'd have to believe that Minnesota already has a plan in place to handle things internally. That's been the case during Kill's absence from the team as defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has taken the reins and handled the head coaching duties. That would likely be the scenario if Kill did step down midseason, too. Minnesota isn't going to hire anyone in the middle of the year. And given the tumultuous nature of the head coaching profession where coaches across the country lose their jobs every year, what would be the point of the Gophers doing any type of coaching search now?
I think that's all a moot point anyway. I truly believe Kill will be here for the long haul, and I feel the university believes so, too.
Q: Long term who is the best option for the starting QB job? Are you in favor of playing the hot hand or do they need to commit already and develop one of these guys?--Roger LaCore, Worthington, Minn.
A: To be completely honest, I'm not sure I've seen enough from either quarterback (Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner) to definitively say that I'd take one over the other. Leidner has only played a handful of games during his redshirt freshman season, and Nelson has not received much in the way of consistent playing time as of late. On top of that, both quarterbacks have very similar styles, and neither has really shown the ability to do one thing markedly better than the other.
Having said that, I do think any team is better suited to stick with one quarterback rather than juggle the starter every other week. It's hard to an offense to find consistency when the player playing most important position changes every game. I know the Gophers' coaching staff has used a two-quarterback system in the past, and that's fine if they want to mix in the backup every now and then for a change of pace. But keeping the same starter would, in my mind, benefit this team.
If I had to choose one right now to stick with, I might say Leidner. His physicality and ability to run the ball has been very impressive. I know he didn't have a good game against Northwestern and was eventually replaced by Nelson, but Leidner has shown me a few more things than Nelson has. Still, it's a small sample size, which is why I'm hesitant to pick one or the other.
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