Thursday, June 29, 2006
A REASONABLY ANTICIPATORY ASSESSMENT OF: MINNESOTA
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SMQ spins the wheel for a hastily-rendered but not too-soon look at a random school's prospects for the fall, sans inevitable academic and criminal suspensions, sudden transfers, debilitating injuries and other miscellaneous misfortunes of the long summer
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Gophers hemorraghed draft picks but will be OK...just OK, though, and only if they can hold the ball for, like, 46 minutes a game
PAST FIVE SEASONS: 35-25 (17-23 Big Ten) - 2005: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten); Lost Music City Bowl
STARTERS BACK, ROUGHLY: 14 (7 Offense, 7 Defense)
WHAT'S CHANGED: The focus will be on the loss mainly of raging stallion Laurence Maroney, as well as the apparent dismissal of academically-challenged Gary Russell, another 1,000-yard rusher as a backup, but equally as important to the assembly line execution of the Big Ten's best running game were linemen Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom, the oft-highlighted pull-and-trap masters who made things much, much easier for their lauded teammates - including Bryan Cupito, least-sacked quarterback in the nation in '05. Instead, the impetus could suddenly shift to the passing game, where various key facets return: Cupito has started 23 of 24 games in two years, receiver Ernest Wheelwright has 67 catches and 12 touchdowns in the same span, receiver Logan Payne finished second on the team with 37 catches last year and hulking tight end Matt Spaeth had 26 in his second straight four-touchdown season.
WHAT'S THE SAME: Then again, recent history and the mere presence of yet another absurdly promising back like Amir Pinnix should tell us the Gophers don't plan to fall below 200 yards a game on the ground. Coordinator Mitch Browning's Denver Bronco-like emphasis on agile pulling linemen stretching defenses horizontally to create seams in the zone blocking scheme does not require all-America talent (Maroney was a first round pick, but similarly productive Marion Barber III, Terry Jackson II, Tellis Redmon and Thomas Hamner were not, nor was Eslinger - 6th round, like a glove, to Denver - or Setterstrom - 7th round to St. Louis). Pinnix has been solid in every game he's entered in his short career, and occasionally spectacular (206 on 32 carries against Michigan State last year), though he has but three career touchdowns and has yet to get carries in more than three consecutive games. Brylee Callender saw time in the Spring and could replace Russell as the Back-up of Imminent Dread or even wind up the starter if his unfortunate history - including a burst appendix and two suspensions in high school, one kicking him off his baseball team and keeping him out of Minnesota in 2004, a charge of underage drankin' at his prom, and an anonymous turn in the JUCO ranks - doesn't rear its head again. No way it gets them back in the top ten in scoring and total offense (right?), but the Gophers are still genetically inclined to run the ball effectively for another "generation" or so regardless.
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Pinnix: Bro's gonna be fine
HIGH-RANKING SECONDARY TACKLER ALERT: No matter what the offense does, we got problems here on defense, where the highest statistical finish last year was 69th (rushing defense), and the two "make something happen" categories - sacks and tackles for loss - were easily the lowest (at 111th and 106th, respectively). And the one guy not being successfully blocked every play, tackle Anthony Montgomery, was drafted by the Washington
RednecksRedskins. Projections to fill his hole inside on the early two-deep include two 265-pounders (Eric Clark and Todd Meisel) and a 245-pounder (Matt Stommes) - unless they're the next coming of John Randle, in which case they would have already been plugged into a bad situation before now, that's not gonna do it against Big Ten offensive lines. Outside is 230-pound end Steve Davis ("explosive!" - TSN), who recorded six sacks last year and is the line's only returning starter. Were those sacks worth the inevitable deficiencies agains the run of a player giving up between 50 and 100 pounds to the opposite tackle every game? Given that those sacks totaled a net 35-yard loss, the equivalent of roughly eight carries by Minnesota opponents, SMQ's going to say, uh, not really. The linebackers, at least, are all experienced, though not all are on the level of athletes in the league's upper half. Only John Shevlin (64.5 total tackles, nine for loss) was what you could call 'active' last year. The 'high-ranking secondary tacklers' were departed safety John Pawielski (team leader at 73.5 total tackles), returning cornerback Jamal Harris (52) and Trumain Banks, another cornerback who was third on the team with 53 and is trying to make the switch to free safety - where he'll probably be asked to make even more tackles.
BORN TO RUN: Continuing SMQ's discussion this week of the relevance of big passing numbers, Cupito's another guy who saw diminishing returns above 200 yards. Three of four games he threw for more than 250 were Gopher losses (396 against Ohio State, 315 against Iowa and 263 against Virginia in the bowl game), and the two over 300 were ultimately not close games; the only "high" total in a win (271) came in a double overtime shootout against Purdue, in which Cupito never would have needed to throw 35 times if he hadn't also tossed three interceptions. Meanwhile, he beat Tulsa with 235, Colorado State with 159, Michigan (before being knocked out of the game) with 139 and Michigan State with a mere 123, all but the Michigan win 40-plus-point efforts, which should demonstrate that, veteran talent or not, this team really, really only needs to think about throwing to keep defenses honest. This would be easier, of course, if its own defense allowed patience to be a viable virtue more often.
OVERLY OPTIMISTICAPPROPRIATELY UNEASY POST-SPRING CHATTER: The NCAA has not declared officially Russell out, but...he's out:
Does the program not have a set of highly trained/borderline illegal set of academic gurus with murky ethics to make sure star players successfully handle the daunting complexities of scholarship, like enrolling for class? They did much more for Bobby Jackson. Or did the Clem Haskins Affair teach them fealty to the regulatory overlords? Or what?
REASON FOR HOPE: Running backs ought to be fine, if less spectacular; veteran passer and catchers could lend more balance to the offense. Experienced linebackers expect to make a lot of plays.
REASON TO BE AFRAID, VERY AFRAID: Mauroney, Russell, automatonic offensive linemen are gone - Cupito may have to win games, which always=bad news in the past. The defense was pushed around and only got smaller up front.
IF THIS TEAM WERE ANY POP CULTURAL, HISTORICAL, LITERARY, POLITICAL OR OTHERWISE NOTABLE FIGURE, IT WOULD BE... Blondie (the ancient comic strip named for a hot chick, that is, not the seminal post-punk band named for a hot chick): peaked as the popular archetype of quaint Americana in its genre around 1936, but hanging in there ever since with old fashioned sensibilities and generally respectable - if only mediocre at best - performances against more talented peers. Usually at least as good as Hagar the Horrible, or Michigan State. Glen Mason and Minnesota also took their own step toward relationship longevity this New Year when they resolved to stay together for at least another four years - for just $1.65 million per!
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Er, uh, sure, baby...didn't I just give you a new contract? I'm really looking forward to the Gaylord Hotel Music City Bowl again this year...
HONESTLY, WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE SCHEDULE, SMQ'S THINKING... Six wins, juuuuust a bit outside the bowl picture. Mason almost got this bunch over the hump with 10 wins in 2003, but looks like it ran out of gas around the top of the hill and is coming back down slowly. The out-of-conference fare is usually weak enough to count on three fairly automatic victories, but Mason's Gophers have never topped five Big Ten wins in a season and given the expected defensive troubles on top of the loss of Maroney et al, may not get a whiff of that number this year.
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PREVIOUS REASONABLY ANTICIPATORY ASSESSMENTS:
June 3: Boston College...June 4: Arkansas State...June 6: Hawaii...June 8: Virginia...June 10: Rice...June 11: Boise State...June 14: Tulane...June 18: Oregon...June 21: Colorado...June 24: South Florida...June 26: Fresno State
ABSURDLY PREMATURE ASSESSMENTS:
April 3: Central Michigan...April 4: BYU...April 5: Kentucky...April 7: Bowling Green...April 8: Southern Cal...April 11: Rutgers...April 12: Marshall...April 13: Florida State...April 15: San Diego State...April 16: Alabama...April 19: Oregon State...April 20: Buffalo...April 21: N.C. State...April 23: Arizona...April 24: Memphis...April 25: Louisiana Tech...April 28: Iowa...April 30: Toledo...May 2: Ohio State...May 3: Mississippi State...May 5: Southern Miss...May 7: Louisiana-Lafayette...May 11: Akron...May 12: North Carolina...Michigan State...May 15: Air Force...May 17: Stanford...May 18: Georgia Tech...May 21: Connecticut...May 23: Purdue...May 24: Navy...May 27: UCLA...May 28: New Mexico State...May 29: Tennessee
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