Minnesota Football Season Preview Continued: Games 7-12

Earlier we looked at the first six games of the Minnesota Football Season.  You can check it out here.

Minnesota Football Season Preview Continued: Games 7-12

Game 7: Saturday, October, October 22 – Rutgers

The Gophers start the second half of the season with a home game against Rutgers. (It still seems really weird to me to have Rutgers in the Big Ten, but I digress). Like Maryland, Rutgers is coming off of a disappointing season (4-8), and has a new head coach. Even with eight returning starters on offense, it’s tough to know what to expect as coach Chris Ash, and new offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer are implementing a new, faster attack. Rutgers has historically run a more pro-style offense, so things could be rocky until Ash gets more of his own recruits in the lineup. There’s been more turnover on the defense in terms of new starters, but that might not a bad thing. The Scarlet Knights allowed a lot of yardage last season, including 3,311 just through the air. The strongest unit will likely be the front four, where three starters return and will be joined by fifth-year senior Darius Hamilton, who missed all of the 2015 season with an injury. Rutgers will also be breaking in a new kicker after the graduation of long-time starter Kyle Federico.

Bottom line: The Gophers’ best shot at winning this game may be going pass-heavy against the Knights’ defense, but they should be able to do so.

Game 8: Saturday, October 29 – at Illinois

Illinois is an opponent that intrigues me. I’ll be interested to see what they’re able to do in their first year under former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith. The offense has just five returning starters and the defense four, all of them upperclassmen. Unfortunately for the offense, receiver Mike Dudek (1,038 yards as a freshman in 2014) tore his ACL in the spring for the second year in a row and will be lost for the season. However, senior quarterback Wes Lunt is a three-year starter with other respectable receivers available. Sophomore running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn led the team with 723 yards a season ago, and three starters return on the offensive line. Four seniors will anchor the defense up front, and senior safety Taylor Barton led the Illini in interceptions a year ago with four.

Bottom line: For the second week in a row, the Gophers face a team with a stout front four and could struggle to run the ball. Leidner needs to be accurate when throwing to Barton’s side of the field. Still a winnable game.

Game 9: Saturday, November 5 – Pudue

Ah, Purdue. The team with one of the creepiest mascots in college football. The good news for the Boilermakers is that they have a lot of starters returning- 16, to be exact. The bad news? Those starters won exactly two games a season ago, one of them against an FCS opponent. (I still don’t know how they managed to beat Nebraska). Minnesota won this game 41-13 as the road team a year ago.

Bottom line: I hope the Purdue fans have plenty of Boilermakers- the liquid kind- available. Minnesota should win this one handily.

Game 10: Saturday, November 12 – at Nebraska

The Gophers end the season with what I expect to be their three toughest opponents aside from Iowa. Nebraska‘s players will surely have more than football on their minds this year as they prepare to play without punter Sam Foltz. Foltz, you’ll recall, was killed in the July car accident in Wisconsin that also took the life of former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler and injured LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye. Will the loss of Foltz be something the team rallies around and uses as motivation to overachieve? Only time will tell. As far as personnel, the Huskers do have a fair number of starters back from last year’s 6-7 team (remember, Nebraska was the other 5-7 team to get into a bowl game based on APR). Key returnees include quarterback Tommy Armstrong, receiver Jordan Westerkamp, running back Terrell Newby, and linebacker Josh Banderas, all seniors. However, the offensive line and the defensive front really lack experience. They’re a bit thin at safety as well.

Bottom line: Right now I’d call this close to a coin flip. I’ll give it to the Huskers for now since the game is in Lincoln, but ask me again in a month or so.

Game 11: Saturday, November 19 – Northwestern

The last home game of the Gophers’ season will be against Northwestern. The Wildcats are coming off of a surprising 9-3 regular season last year, followed by an equally-surprising 45-6 shellacking by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. Clayton Thorson, who took over at quarterback as a freshman in 2015, will likely have more of the playbook at his command this year, resulting in a more balanced attack. (Tight end Dan Vitale, who graduated in the spring, scored four of just eight receiving touchdowns for the ‘Cats a year ago). On defense, Northwestern has to replace two very good defensive ends, but the rest of the defense has enough returning players with experience to be in good shape. Keep an eye on special teams, where kicker Jack Mitchell made just 18 of 27 field goal attempts a year ago.

Bottom line: This is another game that looks like it could go either way right now. I’ll give the edge to Minnesota as the home team.

Game 12: Saturday, November at Wisconsin

The Gophers finish the regular season against Wisconsin at Camp Randall. On offense, the Badgers have three starters returning on the offensive line after senior center Dan Voltz announced his injury-related retirement this week. All three starters, however, are sophomores, and there’s not as much experience throughout the offense as I’m sure the coaches and fans would like. On defense, there are two starters returning at end and two more at linebacker, but the Badgers will miss linebacker Joe Schobert. The secondary is thin, especially at safety after the graduation of Michael Caputo. Senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton is the only returning starter in the backfield.

Bottom line: Could this be the year the Gophers take back the Axe? The Badgers never stay down for long- this might be their best chance for awhile. I’d feel better about their odds in this game were it to be played in Minneapolis, though.

In the End

One thing is clear to me after writing these articles- Minnesota has as easy a schedule this year as you’re going to get in the Big Ten. Do I expect them to win every game that I said they’re capable of winning? Of course not. It’s sports, guys get hurt, weird things happen. I’ll go on the record predicting that Minnesota finishes 8-4, and either 2nd or 3rd in the Big Ten West (which will be won by Iowa). You heard it here first.

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