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Minnesota Gophers Football Preview: 2015 was a year of transition and change

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The Jerry Kill era came to an end, and so did a trophy case nearly stocked full of rivalry trophies. However, 2015 was far from a lost season, instead it will go down as one of the strangest in Gophers history.

From a mid-season coaching change to a complete uprooting of a coaching staff once the interim tag was removed from Tracy Claeys’ title, there was plenty of drama on and off the field.

Close wins were the norm, as were blowout losses. Simply put, it was a complete roller coaster ride in Minneapolis in the fall of 2015. So, what were the good, bad and ugly of said season?

Before we get talking about 2016, lets look back at where things last left off in Gophers-land.

 

The Good

Winning a bowl game is always a nice treat…and the Gophers got that treat despite a 5-7 regular season. Tracy Claeys’ program took down Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl and ended the season a high note.

Given all the confusion, change and drama surrounding the program all season long, it was a nice reward for the players to go out with. Winning at the end of a hard season could prove to be a very nice catalyst going forward.

The Bad

Losing 5 of the last 6 regular season games certainly wasn’t a positive mark on a program that had seemingly begun to hit its stride under Jerry Kill. A close loss to nationally ranked TCU in the opener gave false hope as it turned out.

Instead, the Gophers lost to every team that could’ve given them a chance at legitimacy in the final six weeks of the season. Minnesota lost to the likes of Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin to round out the season.

Only a win against a battered Illinois team saved them from a six-game losing streak to end the regular season. Yet, despite that disaster of a finish…the Gophers still went bowling (always look on the bright side of life).

The Ugly

Remember how we talked about that rivalry trophy case? It went from nearly full to completely empty in a matter of a year. With a division full of some heated rivalries involving the Gophers, wining one or two of them usually means the season is going to be a success.

Instead, Floyd of Rosedale is in the hands of Iowa, a $5 bits-of-broken-chair is in the hands of Nebraska and a decade-long streak is now inching closer to two decades without Paul Bunyan’s Axe anywhere outside of Madison.

It is seriously difficult to imagine a more ugly scenario playing out for Gophers football, and if they want to pick things up in 2016 they’ll need at least half of these trophies back in their home at the football facilities in Minneapolis.

What it All Means for 2016

After 4-plus years of the Jerry Kill era things seemed like they were plateauing. Having a mix of the old school and the new school to help reinvigorate this program is exactly what was needed and what happened in the offseason.

The 2015 season itself showed us all that at least Mitch Leidner is still working hard to become a true dual-threat quarterback. Given the new system in place, that is big news and should be interesting to watch in fall camp and beyond.

However, more than anything, this past season showed that Minnesota’s program is deeper and better equipped to handle losses on the roster. This team is far from a blank canvas, and Claeys and Co. are going to have a lot of parts to mold and work with in 2016.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Minnesota gets Big Ten off to bright start in bowl season

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It’s the one time of the year where almost every fan of a team in the Big Ten can come together — bowl season. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats and no tide is higher than taking a strong narrative in to an offseason.

The Minnesota Gophers got things started on Wednesday and the “Row the Boat” crew started things off well with a 34-10 demolition of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Quick Lane Bowl.

Bowl season also seems to provide a glimpse forward from time to time, and in the case of the Gophers they continued to see progression in the run game.

Redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim set a career high with 224 yards on 31 carries with two touchdowns in the win.

That led to no need to test the arm of freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan, who threw just 13 passes on the day. He connected on seven of them for 132 yards and a pair of scores as well.

Star receiver Tyler Johnson caught both of those touchdown passes, including the final score of the game with 6:19 to play in the final quarter.

Overall, this game hit all the marks for the plan to be “elite” at Minnesota.

The Gophers defense had been a sore spot for most of the 2018 season and just like they did in the regular season finale against Wisconsin, they showed up big time.

Minnesota allowed just 283 yards of total offense to Georgia Tech, including just 206 yards on 44 carries for an average of 4.7 yards per carry. The Yellow Jackets went just 4 of 14 on third down in the game as well.

It all added up to a very positive performance for the Gophers and a nice start to what could be a very difficult bowl season for the Big Ten.

The cautionary tale may be reading too much in to a big win on the scoreboard. After all, Georgia Tech is in the process of a major transition away from the triple-option offense as Paul Johnson was removed as head coach following the regular season.

Still, the details suggest this is a Gophers program heading in the right direction at the very least. Dare we say it was an “elite” win for a program needing momentum going in to this offseason?

It certainly was a nice way to start things off if you want the Big Ten to do well this bowl season.

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Gophers finally grab the Axe, manage to make big statement in the process

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It’s been 14 agonizingly long years, but the streak has finally come to an end and the Minnesota Gophers have taken possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe. 

To make the win even sweeter, Minnesota became bowl eligible as they chopped down the goalposts at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since 1994. 

It is time to revel and celebrate for sure. As head coach P.J. Fleck stated after the game, “this is for the state of Minnesota.” 

But, this win was more of a statement than just ending a streak. How Minnesota beat the Badgers told a tale of a team ready to compete at a very high level. 

Much has been made of the growing pains of a young Gophers team. On Saturday, that team finally put it together for 60 minutes in all three phases of the game. 

There was a punt return for a touchdown and three made field goals from the special teams. Minnesota’s defense held Jonathan Taylor out of the end zone, forced three interceptions and a fumble out of Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook and the offense took those four turnovers and capitalized on them to the tune of 24 points. 

The Gophers defense played so well on Saturday and really throughout the final few weeks of the season that interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had the interim tag removed after the game according to Fleck. 

Minnesota didn’t win on a miracle or a fluke play. The Gophers were the better team on the day. That’s important to remember. 

So is the fact that this young team will now have 15 more practices and chances to get better because of this win.. Given the youth of this team, those moments are invaluable. 

The experience of getting back to a bowl game will also help. Every chance to be competitive matters. 

But now the bigger questions will be asked. Can the Gophers use this win as a game-changer for this program in general? Is this the defining moment of the Fleck era or a fleeting moment of glory? 

Only time will answer those questions, but it is hard not to be positive about this program after getting the biggest albatross removed from around the neck of the Gophers program.  

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Annexstad shows promise in Gophers debut

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Plenty of people were curious about the Minnesota Gophers starting quarterback coming in to the season opener. After all, it’s not often that a true freshman walk-on gets the starting nod. 

But, the attention and pressure of the first college game was not too much to handle for Gophers quarterback Zack Annextad. After a few shaky moments early on, Annexstad looked like he belonged on the field in the Gophers 48-10 victory over New Mexico State. 

Annexstad wasn’t super accurate, completing just 48 percent of his passes. But, he more than made up for it with a blistering 220 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, he kept the Aggies from picking him off all game long. 

Perhaps the best bit of news is that it appears the Gophers may have more than one good target for Annexstad to work with. Veteran wide receiver Tyler Johnson was on point, catching five passes for 100 yards and both of the touchdown throws.

Rashod Bateman caught five passes and Chris Autman-Bell had four to his name as well. 

Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Seth Green looked dangerous as an all-around player. He touched the ball in the backfield twice and scored on both of those touches, giving future opponents plenty to think about when it comes to game-planning for the Gophers.

Minnesota also showed off an impressive run game after a rocky start on the ground. Star running back Rodney Smith racked up 153 yards and the Gophers ran for 295 yards and three touchdowns as a team. 

Add in a defense that allowed just 38 yards on the ground and only 10 points and there is a recipe for success going forward. 

Of course, one has to take in to consideration the caliber of opponent, but for a team with a lot of question marks on offense, there’s little doubt this was a confidence builder. 

While there will be plenty of improvement needed in order for Minnesota to be competitive come Big Ten play, this offense looks and feels different than it did a year ago. 

As far as debuts go, there certainly was promise shown from Annexstad and that’s really all you can ask for from a freshman making his first start. 

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Gophers, Huskers could have games altered by Oregon wildfires

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Mother Nature could wreak havoc on college football this upcoming weekend, but the majority of the news has been focused on an impending hurricane barring down on Florida.

A look out West and things are just as dangerous and deadly, as wildfires are raging in California, Oregon and Washington. That could present a big problem for the Minnesota Gophers game on Saturday night with the Oregon State Beavers and Nebraska’s visit to the Oregon Ducks.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune cites sources within the Pac-12 saying that the game time may be moved or the game moved all together.

While the fire isn’t the problem, it is the air quality in the Eugene area that is. Oregon has already had to move practice closer to the Pacific Coast and the air in Eugene appears to be a major issue.

The smoke in Eugene, where an air protection agency listed the air quality as “hazardous,” prompted Oregon to move its Tuesday practice to Florence, near the Pacific coast.

The good news is that the smoke cleared enough a day later for the Ducks to return to practice in Eugene. But, there is reason to believe the game could still be an issue as smoke is expected to return.

The smoke is supposed to return at some point. But we just don’t know when. … There are too many variables for us to look that far ahead of time.”

Yes, that means we won’t know about the status of Nebraska-Oregon until Saturday itself.

Meanwhile, things don’t look as precarious for the Gophers matchup, but that doesn’t mean change would be out of the question.

“Based upon the information provided by the air protection agency and the expert health and safety advice of the respective University medical professionals, a decision will be made on whether or not to adjust game times and/or dates with the safety of student-athletes and fans as a priority,” Andrew Walker, the Pac-12’s vice president of public affairs, wrote in an e-mail to the (Portland) Oregonian.

Once again, it appears things are going to be in a wait-and-see mode in Corvallis as well.

It hasn’t affected Minnesota all that much, as they are more worried about playing at game that would kick at 9pm in Minneapolis if it were being played at home.

Head coach P.J. Fleck has talked this week about making sure players are staying up later as the week goes on to adjust their bodies. That’s especially important as practices are taking place first thing in the morning this season.

Either way, both of these programs are dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now and that may be the biggest hurdle to get over when prepping for Week 2.

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