Bad news, you guys. Even though basketball season starts on Friday, that doesn't mean the Illini don't have to play on Saturday. It sucks, I know, but at least the Illini are playing an opponent that they actually sort of almost kinda have a chance to beat.
So with that in mind, it's time to find out more about these Gophers. Are they the adorable nemesis of Carl Spackler, or is there something more to this team from the north?
We turn to Jeff from The Daily Gopher to find out.
1. After getting off to a 4-1 start to the year, the Gophers have hit a bit of a rough patch and now sit at 5-4. With two tough games against Nebraska and Michigan State remaining on the schedule, do you feel like this week's game against Illinois is even more important than it usually would be seeing that it's your last best chance for that sixth win and bowl eligibility?
Absolutely. Just about every Gopher fan sees this game as a must-win to get bowl eligible- and it scares us half to death. This is about the time when we expect the other shoe to drop, for the worst to happen, for something go wrong. Despite some ups and downs and Minnesota proving they're not ready to hang with the upper half of the Big Ten just yet, a bowl game would still be a big accomplishment in Jerry Kill's second season. And all they need to do is beat a team they SHOULD beat. Will they? As it seems to be for every Gopher game and season- hope for the best, expect the worst.
2. Now that you're in the second year of the Jerry Kill Era, what have you seen this season that pleases you the most? The least?
Most has been the defense, especially the defensive line and secondary. The line is actually generating a pass rush and the secondary has starting making plays (well except for last week against Michigan). The least, by far, was not just cancelling a home-and-home series with North Carolina, but paying $800,000 to cancel it!?! That is not a typo. That really happened. On the field, I would say the most disappointing thing has been the lack of a sustainable running game, especially with the backs. MarQueis Gray was a freak lined up at QB, but besides him they've struggled quite a bit to sustain a ground game with their running backs, something that was supposed to be a strength with Kill and a run-based offense. Donnell Kirkwood has been the only reliable back this year, although true freshman Roderick Williams, has shown signs.
3. Although his record as a starter is only 1-2, do you feel like this Minnesota offense is a better unit under Phillip Nelson?
Yes, for two reasons: one is Nelson is a better passer than Gray already, and two is because of the added bonus of having Gray as a receiver. The receiving corps has some potential but is really young, and has been banged up quite a bit lately. While Gray's not 100% because of the high ankle sprain he suffered way back in September (and then reinjured against Northwestern) having a 6'4 260 pound WR with 4.6 speed is a nice option to have, you know? Nelson has also shown good poise and while he's not quite the running threat Gray was (outside of Denard Robinson, Braxton Miller, and Taylor Martinez, who is?), he's still athletic enough to make you pay on the QB keeper while being able to read defenses and throw the ball with accuracy. He's only been on campus since January and will only be starting his fourth game, but the coaches have said the entire playbook is available to him because he already knows it that well.
4. The 2012 Minnesota defense is improved over 2011 pretty much across the board, but particularly in pass defense. What changed over the spring and summer?
Before we get to the good, it should be pointed out the linebackers have been really subpar. It's been strange because coming into the year, the line and secondary were major question marks while the talent and experience at linebacker was the one stable unit. Of course, it's been exactly the opposite. The linebackers, despite a ton of starting experience, have struggled, and it's one of the reasons the run d has been so unsuccessful.
But the line and secondary have been excellent. A big part of it is another full year for everybody in the strength and conditioning program Kill's strength coach Eric Klein runs. There's been a noticeable difference in size and speed of this team, and especially the defense, between this year and last. On the line, senior end DL Wilhite and junior behemoth DT Ra'Shede Hageman have made major strides and are finally living up to their potential (Hageman has been double-teamed pretty much the entire season), while in the secondary some young guys have stepped up, especially Derrick Wells and Cedric Thompson at safety.
However, no one has had a better 2012 than senior corner Michael Carter. A four star recruit, he played well as a true freshman, then was so bad and so unmotivated as a sophomore and junior they almost booted him off the team. His cousin, former Gopher All-American and NFL'er Tyrone Carter talked some sense into the kid in the offseason and he's been Minnesota's best defensive back, and might have a chance to play on Sunday's.
5. How do you foresee this 2012 season shaking out for the Gophers?
I am hopeful the Gophers win Saturday to get to six wins. Hopeful, but not certain because this is a game the Gophers can lose and Illinois can win. The key, as it is every week for Minnesota, is stopping the run on defense, and establishing the run on offense. If they can do those two things, I like their chances. If not...yeah not so much.