Gophers Enter Conference Play with a Thud
The Gophers 4-0 start generated a lot of optimism among the Gophers fans despite the weak nature of their opening schedule. Through the first four games Minnesota had played only one team from an AQ conference, Syracuse, while their other three games came against a poor UNLV team, an FCS school and a MAC also ran. Their average margin of victory over FBS opponents was just 5.6 points, but after Kill and his staff engineered a largely incompetent opening campaign signs of competence were seen as a positive.
As has been referenced repeatedly in the local pres and on message boards the Gophers out-gained their opponents significantly in their opening four games:
Holding a an edge in passing is positive, but that gigantic +221 rushing yardage differential in just four games looked great.
However, as previously stated Minnesota did face some questionable opponents including FCS New Hampshire who wouldn’t have provided much resistance to any AQ Conference team.
|UNLV Runnin’ Rebels||209||159||+50||269||116||+153|
|New Hampshire Wildcats||240||68||+172||172||163||+9|
|Western Michigan Broncos||180||165||+15||217||209||+8|
|VS FBS TOTAL||495||446||+49||717||553||+164|
Against FBS opponents Minnesota held only a +49 rushing advantage, and against their only AQ opponent they were 16 yards in the red in rushing.
What this pointed to was the fact that Minnesota without Gray would not be able to lean on its rushing game and the primary load would have to be shouldered by Shortell. The decisive first half against Iowa where they fell behind 24-0 gave us some indication of how well a one-dimensional Gopher offense centered around Shortell will function in conference play:
Iowa looked like a team that might be prepared to run away with the game early when Vandenberg hit TE C.J. Fiedorowicz up the seam for a 45 yard gain on the second play from scrimmage. Iowa ran a pretty unconvincing play action but Minnesota’s safeties and linebackers bit on hit had, allowing Fiedorowicz to run deep into open space. After that big gain Minnesota did manage to hold Iowa to a FG and the same inconsistent play that’s haunted Iowa in the passing game all season gave the Gophers ample opportunity to jump in and take control of the game.
Iowa managed just three first downs on their first three drives, moving the ball an average of 15.5 yards on the two possessions following that 44 yard FG. Rather than jump on the stumbling Hawkeyes, Shortell and Minnesota stumbled themselves and continued to struggle for the entirety of the first half:
Minnesota First Half Drives
Minnesota’s first possession ended when Shortell beautifully sold play action then under-threw receiver A.J. Barker who had beaten Tanner Miller down the right sideline. Miller was forced to turn and back pedal to attempt to make a catch rather than catching it in stride and Miller ripped the ball away from him to end Minnesota’s first drive after only four plays.
Overall in the first half Shortell was 3/10 for 27 yards and a pick. That’s a 2.7 YPA average. Iowa never sacked Shortell but the pressure they put on him in concert with his confusion at Parker’s disguised coverages and perhaps being rattled by a big away game yet again contributed to that 24-0 start that put the game away before halftime.
While both teams struggled early Iowa found its stride and scored TDs on three straight possessions. Iowa abused Minnesota’s undersized defensive line ensuring Weisman almost never faced opposition in the backfield. By the time he encountered a defender he had a full head of steam and was barreling into the line or engaging defenders at the second level. Rather than looking to avoid Minnesota’s defenders he frequently ran at them, bowling over them and punishing them en route to 155 yards rushing in the first half including runs of 27, 32 and 44 yards.
That single 44 yard scamper by Weisman nearly equaled the Gophers entire team rushing in the first half. Minnesota rushed for just 48 yards on 11 carries (4.3 YPC) while Weisman racked up his 155 yards on 16 carries (9.7 YPC).
The hunt for positives
As ever, local columnist and resident Pollyanna Sid Hartman looked for positives:
Mark Weisman, the outstanding Hawkeyes running back who rushed for 155 yards in the first half, was held to only 22 in the second.
When Iowa dropped into cruise control in the second half they stopped relying so heavily on Weisman. In fact they gave him only 5 carries in the second half including none in the fourth quarter.
Comparing 5 second half carries when your team is up by 24 and clearly chewing clock to 16 first half carries when both the pass and run were in play may be a little less than honest, but this is Sid Hartman we’re talking to here. Weisman did manage to break one of those 5 second half carries for a 17 yard gain and there’s every reason to believe that given sufficient carries he would have amassed more yardage.
Iowa has not put up a consistent game all season and this game was no different. The defense softened up in the second half and the offense seemed more concerned with holding onto the lead and eating clock than running up the score on the Gophers. Minnesota did capitalize on this to a degree with Shortell throwing for two second half TDs, though his final toss came with just 41 seconds left when the game was already over:
Max Shortell First half vs Second Half
You can look at a split like that in one of two ways: either Shortell’s performance improved dramatically in the second half or Iowa lightened up as their defensive priorities changed.
Likely both are true to a degree. Iowa gave Shortell more opportunities in the second half and was more concerned with keeping the clock moving, but Shortell did have a few decent strikes down the field. Worryingly he followed up his lone TD drive when the game was still somewhat in question with a pick, a drive that netted -8 yards before a punt, and another pick.
Iowa marked Shortell’s third career game as a starter with previous starts coming versus Syracuse and last season against Michigan. His cumulative stats in those three games are not overwhelming:
47/85 (55.0%), 532 yards, 6.25 YPA, 3 TD, 3 INT, 112.45 QB Rating
Shortell is only a Sophomore so there is of course time to develop, but overall while he’s shown the ability to make some throws down-field his ability to decode defenses pre-snap and recognize coverages has eluded him. It’s something that he’ll have to progress in quickly if he’s going to make an impact into next season when Gray has graduated and moved on.
Minnesota only managed to gain 299 yards of total offense against an Iowa team that had just surrendered nearly 400 yards of total offense to Central Michigan. In fact those 299 yards represented the second best defensive effort (by yardage) for the Hawkeyes this year with Central Michigan, Northern Iowa (339) and Iowa State (342) all outgaining the Gophers.
Minnesota’s 13 points, boosted by a TD with seconds to spare against a disinterested Iowa team anxious to get off the field and celebrate their win, was fewer than all of Iowa’s opponents scored except Iowa State:
Iowa 2102 Opponent Production
|Northern Illinois Huskies||147||54||201||17|
|Iowa State Cyclones||101||241||342||9|
|Northern Iowa Panthers (FCS)||94||245||339||16|
|Central Michigan Chippewas||111||283||394||32|
|Minnesota Golden Gophers||102||197||299||13|
Minnesota looked out-classed and out-coached by a team that couldn’t defeat Central Michigan and Iowa State at home. They failed to break the 200 yard passing mark against a team that allowed Iowa State, FCS Northern Iowa and Central Michigan to throw for an average of 256 yards in back-to-back-to-back games.
After registering 11 sacks in their first four games–including 4 against FCS New Hampshire–Minnesota didn’t sack Vandenberg once in 31 pass attempts.
Overall this game makes Minnesota look much further off than anyone imagined after their 4-0 start. It makes the possibility of a bowl berth seem remote after it seemed a foregone conclusion just a few days ago.
Next week Minnesota faces #24 Northwestern who has yet to lose a game in 2012 and is rushing for over 255 yards a game. In order to save their season and salvage a chance at a low-level bowl game Minnesota must find a way to corral Northwestern and keep them out of the endzone, because after the Wildcats there aren’t many games even the most optimistic of Gopher fans could pencil in as a win:
Minnesota Remaining 2012 Schedule w/ Massey Aggregate Rating
|10/13/2012||#24 Northwestern Wildcats||#27|
|10/20/2012||@ Wisconsin Badgers||#40|
|11/10/2012||Illinois Fightin’ Illini||#94|
|10/17/2012||@ #21 Nebraska Cornhuskers||#24|
|11/24/2012||Michigan State Spartans||#35|
* Minnesota’s Massey Aggregate Rating: #64
Unless something changes dramatically in the coming weeks that Illinois game should be the only game Minnesota is favored in.
This season on paper looked like it had the potential to be the best of Kill’s tenure as Gopher’s coach. They faced one of the softest OOC schedules in recent memory and the Big Ten fell back to them with a majority of the teams on their schedule struggling in at least some phases of the game. However, after the domination handed out by a frankly mediocre Iowa team suddenly that schedule starts to look a lot harder.
With everything that broke their way in 2012 and now with most Gopher fans’ favored QB at the helm Minnesota still may be staring down the barrel of a 5-7 (1-7) record in 2012.
So far this doesn’t look like a team that’s improving, it looks like a team whose pre-existing talent has matured enough to take advantage of weak opponents to a degree.
Unfortunately for the Gophers there aren’t many opponents ahead of them that are weaker than they are.