Through Rose [Bowl] Colored Glasses: Minnesota

For the second installment reaching out to hear what our opponents currently think about their squad, I go to another big roadie, a new beginning for the oldest rivalry. On October 3rd, the Badgers will play the Gophers for the 119th time, in Minnesota's new home, TCF Bank Stadium. The excitement for Minnesota is palpable. After years sadly borrowing the Metrodome, the University has sold out the first [outdoor!] season in its own place.

Although the Badgers have gone 8-2 in the series in the last decade, the last two have been unnecessarily dicey, and given our road record the last two years, there is reason for hope in the Twin Cities and concern back in Mad-town. Minnesota returns a bunch of starters whereas the Badgers have another quarterback controversy, a re-tooled offensive line, and a slew of new faces on defense.

In anticipation of what could be one of the biggest games in Minnesota in a decade or more (Game Day, anyone?), I sent the good people at the Daily Gopher a few questions. Those questions and their answers are below:

Doubling Down in the Twin Cities

(1) Defense has been the Gophers achilles heel for the last few seasons. What has Brewster done to cure the problem? What will the fix look like in 2009? - The 2007 defense was one of the worst ever to set foot on a Big Ten field. 2008 was markedly better, although still finished in the bottom third of the conference. But the improvement cannot be ignored, the details are below but the 2008 defense improved by giving up just shy of 12 fewer points per game and 135 fewer yards. The fix? Well we return 8 starters and finally some of the athleticism that was recruited in Brewsters highly acclaimed 2008 class will be seeing the field. So the fix will come from a year of experience and a year of maturation. Nobody expects this defense to rank in the top 3 of the conference and they will not duplicate their 31 turnover performance, but they will be capable of stopping teams on 3rd down and making the opposing offenses work for their points. Much of what ailed this defense last year was just one or two big plays at critical times. Up 7 at Wisconsin in the 4th qtr and has the Badgers at 2nd and 19 on their own 28. 17-yard pass to Toon (with a NEAR sack) plus a 15-yard penalty followed by a 39-yard pass to Anderson takes the Badgers to the 1 and it was all downhill from there. That was 71 yards given to the Badgers on two plays, that is where the improvement needs to happen.

Charting Change 2007 to 2008
Pts Allowed 36.7/24.8 (-11.9)
Rush Yds Allowed 229.3/143.3 (-86)
Pass Yds Allowed 289.3/240.3 (-49)
Total Yds Allowed 518.7/383.6 (-135.1)
Turnovers generated 14/31 (+17)
Opponent 3rd Down % 44.3/34.6 (-9.7%)

(2) Can Adam Weber be the man under center? Who will step up to take the pressure off of Eric Decker on offense? - I believe that Weber is the most underrated QB in the Big Ten. From his freshman season to his sophomore season he improved by 5% in completion and reduced his INTs by 11 on the year. All of this while he was sacked 31 times last year, had a terrible running game and was missing Decker for the last few games of the year. He is the man under center, a good leader on the team and I have complete confidence in him as the starter this year and next. As for who will step up to help him in the passing game? Well once again I'm going to the "plus one more year" theory and the JUCO help on the way. Last year we had a few talented receivers who were true freshmen. It was right around the Badger game that guys like Xavier Brandon and Brandon Green started to step up their play. Xavier is now gone, but Brandon Green and DaJon McKnight are expected to take big steps forward and help Decker out as other options in the receing game. The other guy worth mentioning is Hayo Carpenter who is a JUCO transfer that has Gopher Nation kind of excited. He has the tools to step in and be a threat immediately but that is often hard to gauge so time will tell.

(3) The last decade has been good for the Badgers, narrowing the gap in this series by 8 games, including two Gopher losses that must have been very painful (the blocked punt - Barry's last Axe game - and last season's meltdown). Is Wisconsin in the Gophers' collective head, or should we look at the hockey series over the same time and shut the hell up? How will the new stadium change things (keeping in mind my most painful loss as a Badger fan anywhere, anytime was in the Metrodome in 1993)? Oh the blocked punt game is painful for Gopher fans, but I don't know that it has any affect on the current roster and coaching staff. I was at the post game press conference for last year's game and I think if anything the 2008 loss will serve as pretty good motivation. This rivalry is heating up with the mutual dislike between the head coaches and with Minnesota improving their overall talent, so I don't think the new stadium changes anything but this is the best game on the home schedule for 2009 without a doubt.

(4) The days of Maroney and Barbour likely left with Glen Mason, but is there a feature back in Minnesota's stable? No is the easy answer. Duane Bennett was to be the feature back last year but blew out his knee when Ralph Spry was unable to block his man on a screen. Jay Thomas has also been through a series of injuries but the senior will be in the mix in 2009. DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Solomon got their shots as true freshmen last year and performed admirably. Hasan Lipscomb is the hot four-star incoming recruit and Kevin Whaley redshirted last year after getting shot in the leg before arriving on campus also will be in the mix. All have a shot at carrying the load with Eskridge and Bennett likely getting the first crack at the bulk of the carries. This was a major area of weakness the last couple seasons. Weber led the team in rushing in 2007 and was second in 2008. Improving the running game was a major focus in the offseason so we'll have to see if this team can get it done on the ground.

(5) Recruiting in Minnesota is heating up, but it seems like Wisconsin and others (like Notre Dame) are still doing well there; can Brewster end the poaching? Things are slowly changing with regards to the best from Minnesota staying in Minnesota. In the 2008 class Brewster lost the top two players to Notre Dame and Ohio State and kept just one of the top 5 kids from the state. But the 2009 class was a different story. The number one ranked player in the state did end up at Clemson but the 2 through 8 players ended up as Golden Gophers. The only player Wisconsin "poached" was Casey Dehn, a two-star lineman who's only offers were from Wisconsin and Minnesota. What is becoming interesting is the slow reversal of the recruiting battles. So far in the early 2010 recruiting battles the Gophers have received verbals from two of the top three or four in-state kids already and have put the pressure on a number of Wisconsin kids early. Tom Parrish will be a top 5 or 6 player out of Wisconsin who has verballed to Minnesota. And Konrad Zagzebski gave the Gophers an early verbal before changing his mind once the Badgers were forced to offer. I'm not suggesting we will have our pick of Badger State kids, but Brewster is putting Beilema on his heals just a little bit which never happened in the past. Enjoy David Gilreath while you can, because you'll have to start finding guys like him elsewhere in the future!

(6) Which is more important this year, beating Iowa or beating Wisconsin? This year? Wisconsin, without a doubt. I don't think the general fan base is expecting to beat Iowa this year (although being competitive should be expected this time). Wisconsin however, is viewed as beatable. We were right there till the end in Madison a year ago, the Badgers return just 11 total starters from a 7-6 team, the Gophers return a lot of their young talent and the game is at home as the first Big Ten game in the new stadium. This game will be a benchmark game for Minnesota. If we want to gain some level of Big Ten respectability you have to beat a team like Wisconsin at home. The Badgers are not a weak team by any stretch but they also are not at the Ohio State/Penn State level this year. I'm also not saying the Gophers are a superior team but Wisconsin is beatable this year and, like I said, if you want to gain some respectability you need to win home games like this.

No comments: