Big Ten Football Preview: Minnesota
Jerry Kill has produced winning seasons in 14 of his 19 years as a head coach, but has failed to produce one with the Golden Gophers in his two seasons in charge. The losing trend is likely to continue with this Gophers team. After facing a relatively easy non-conference schedule, Minnesota will face a challenging conference schedule consisting of Michigan, Nebraska, and Northwestern. If Kill aspires for Minnesota to eclipse the .500 mark he will need consistent play on both sides of the ball against top tier foes.
Minnesota’s offense will rest on the shoulder of incumbent starter, sophomore, Phillip Nelson. Last season Nelson started the final seven games and led the Golden Gophers to a 2-5 record. Improvement from Nelson is mandatory for a successful season in Minnesota. A key area will be his ability to take care of the football. Through seven games last season Nelson threw eight interceptions. For a team that is somewhat devoid of talent, Minnesota can’t afford to give teams extra opportunities. In all seven of their losses last year the Gophers failed to put up more than fourteen points. Protecting Nelson is a veteran offensive line. They will be returning eight linemen who have started multiple games. This line will look to not only protect Nelson, but also open holes for the Gophers 2012 leading rusher, Donnell Kirkwood. Last season Kirkwood rushed for 926 yards and six touchdowns. With the presence the line should have this year, he has the ability to surpass both marks. Minnesota will have a tough time when not running the ball. They will be without their top wideout from last year, A.J. Barker, who quit the team in the offseason. This year the passing attack will be by committee. Look for redshirt senior, Derrick Engel, to emerge as Barkers replacement and become Phillip Nelson’s new top target.
On the defensive side of the ball Minnesota will be returning six starters, including standout nose tackle Ra’Shede Hageman who earned honorable mention on the All-Big Ten squad. He will lead a Minnesota defense that struggled to keep teams out of the end zone last season, and could be in for more of the same this year. Even though the Gophers possess a good front seven, their secondary will struggle early as they try to replace both starting cornerbacks from last season. The veterans on this defense will need to help the newcomers, to stand any chance of making a bowl game.
For Minnesota to stand any chance of making a bowl game they will have to come out of non-conference play without a loss. If they stumble early, they will need to steal a win from the one of the top contenders in the Big Ten. If a few things fall into place, Kill could very well be leading his team to a second straight bowl game, with a chance to capture a winning record.
Mike Wargon is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.