If there was a bigger surprise in the Big Ten during the 2013 football season than what took place in Minneapolis, you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.
Minnesota started off hot, winning all four of its non-conference games. However, it appeared like a bit of fool’s gold as they also lost the first two games of the Big Ten season to Iowa and Michigan respectively. The latter saw head coach Jerry Kill miss the trip due to a reoccurrence of his epilepsy, and it appeared the Gophers were about to tank.
Instead, the team responded by reeling off four straight wins, including victories over Nebraska and Penn State, all while head coach Jerry Kill reduced his game day role. It ended in an eight-win season for the first time in a long time, and that means expectations have been raised.
The question entering 2014 is are those expectations realistic for a program whose margin for error seemed so slim last season?
Getting Michigan and Ohio State out of the East division may not help matters this season, but could it be that Kill and his long-tenured coaching staff have found the formula that will win games in Minneapolis?
Let’s take a look at how we see Minnesota’s 2014 season actually playing out.
2014 Minnesota Golden Gophers Schedule:
Aug. 28: vs. Eastern Illinois: WIN
Eastern Illinois did hang with Northern Illinois and went 12-2 last season while making the FCS playoffs. That’s all well and good, but they’ve lost a head coach and the maestro behind those results—quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. While Minnesota will be living life without star defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, this game shouldn’t be a struggle for the Gophers. Look for Minnesota to start fast and win going away.
Sept. 6: vs. Middle Tennessee State: WIN
The Blue Raiders are no strangers to Big Ten opposition, but don’t let an 8-5 record last season fool you. All but two of the eight wins came in Conference-USA play, and MTSU wasn’t exactly a defensive juggernaut in C-USA play either. Minnesota also isn’t the same team that had to fight hard for a 24-17 win on the road to MTSU in 2010. Don’t expect this to go down anywhere close to how that game went down. Minnesota wins this one easily.
Sept. 13: at TCU: WIN
Had this game been last season there’s little doubt that a trip to Fort Worth would’ve ended in a loss. However, Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson has himself a mess of a program right now. His best players keep screwing up off the field and it keeps costing them on it. Predicting a win here has little to do with confidence in how good or great Minnesota may be and just how messed up TCU is right now. This is one game against a “Power 5” opponent on the road that I’m confident a Big Ten team can win.
Sept. 20: vs. San Jose State: WIN
David Foles isn’t in the fold for San Jose State and that means the shootout that was 43-24 win isn’t likely to be repeated. By that I mean, San Jose State may not score 24 points and Minnesota is just as likely to put up 43 points on the visiting team. Minnesota will have a field day in the run game in this one, and it could be quarterback Mitch Leidner doing most of the damage. I just don’t trust that SJSU’s defense is up to task against one of the Big Ten’s premier offensive lines either. Look for a near repeat, if not a bigger blowout, for the Gophers.
Sept. 27: at Michigan: LOSS
There is nothing that would help redefine the Gophers football program than winning the Little Brown Jug from Michigan; unfortunately this one is being played at the scene of the 42-13 crime — Michigan Stadium. However, I do see these teams being a lot closer on the field this time around. Michigan appears to have offensive line issues once again in camp and Minnesota has no such quarterback issues. Leidner appears to be a much better passing quarterback and that will help the Gophers at least stay competitive this time around. It won’t lead to breaking a six-game win streak though.
Oct. 11: vs. Northwestern: WIN
These two teams are very familiar with each other as former members of the Legends division, and before last season these two programs were supposed to be heading in different paths. One year later and that seems to be the case once again, and this could be the deciding game for these two teams’ hopes of being a contender in the Big Ten West division. Having this game at TCF Bank Stadium is a massive help for the Gophers, as is having more all-around talent. Northwestern will give them a test, it just won’t be enough in this matchup. Minnesota solidifies itself as the “other” team in what many thought would only be a three-horse race.
Oct. 18: vs. Purdue: WIN
It’s a good thing Minnesota is getting some reprieve after a meeting with Michigan. Last season there was no such luxury and the Gophers were fine. This year, seeing Northwestern and a struggling Purdue squad following the Wolverines is just what the doctor ordered. Unless there’s a drastic change in the Purdue defense, I expect this game to be won by the Gophers in the trenches. They’ve got a better offensive and defensive line, and that will make all the difference in the world.
Oct. 25: at Illinois: WIN
Taking it’s tour through the easier part of the Big Ten West, Minnesota goes to what could be a tricky matchup in Champaign. Illinois has an offense that could be very competitive, and a defense that appears to be turning a corner. Yet, Illinois is still going to struggle against better teams. The Gophers are exactly that in 2014, and I can see a defensive touchdown by the Gophers giving them a big enough margin to not have to worry late in this contest.
Nov. 8: vs. Iowa: WIN
Floyd of Rosedale has been a topsy-turvy affair since Jerry Kill took over at the helm of the Gophers program. He took the Big Ten by surprise in winning it his first year on campus in 2011, but the pig hasn’t returned to Minneapolis on a permanent basis since then. Look for that to change in 2014, and that’s because these two teams are a lot closer talent-wise than most think. Add in this game being at home and I see every possibility for the Gophers to take this one.
Nov. 15: vs. Ohio State: LOSS
While it’s been nice playing against, and beating, your peers in the Big Ten…this one is stepping up against the big boys. Even with the news that Braxton Miller is out for the season, it doesn’t chance Ohio State having the most dominate offensive line in the Big Ten. It also doesn’t change the fact that Minnesota has a terrible history against the Buckeyes. Look for this to be a small reminder that Minnesota still has a ways to go to compete at the top of the conference.
Nov. 22: at Nebraska: LOSS
Beating Nebraska is apparently no big thing anymore, after all Minnesota did it last season. However, this isn’t 2013 and Nebraska isn’t breaking in a brand new quarterback. This game also isn’t in TCF Bank Stadium and that’s a major issue for the Gophers. That doesn’t mean the game won’t be close, in fact I expect that to happen — yet the Gophers are just not on the same level talent-wise.
Nov. 29: at Wisconsin: LOSS
The battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe hasn’t been much of a battle as of late. That’s what happens when you’ve let Wisconsin keep the trophy for an entire decade. Unfortunately for Minnesota, this game is the second of two road games against expected Big Ten West division leaders and it’s going to be the second straight loss. Minnesota feels like it is closing the gap on Wisconsin, and that’s true, but the Badgers are likely focusing on a potential spot in the College Football Playoff. That means a laser-like focus on the game at hand, and that’s bad news when combined with this one being at Camp Randall.
Overall Record: 8-4
Big Ten Record: 5-3
Gophers finally grab the Axe, manage to make big statement in the process
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.
Annexstad shows promise in Gophers debut
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.
Don Lucia steps down from Gophers hockey program
Long-time Gophers head man steps down just a few days after his team misses out on NCAA tournament.
One of the most decorated coaches in the last two decades of college hockey is stepping down, as the University of Minnesota announced the departure of men’s hockey head coach Don Lucia.
“I want to thank Mark Dienhart for giving me a tremendous opportunity 19 years ago,” Lucia said in a statement. “I came to Minnesota because of the tradition, and I hoped to add to the tradition when I left. I am proud of the 14 banners that have been added to the rafters of 3M Arena at Mariucci.
“I am forever grateful to all the coaches, staff and most importantly the players who have worked so hard to accomplish this over the years.
“Most importantly to me, we did it the right way. Our players all graduate and have always represented themselves to the high standards of Gopher Hockey on and off the ice. It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to be the head hockey coach at the University of Minnesota.”
Lucia put up 14 banners to the rafters in Mariucci Arena, including eight regular season conference titles, four tournament titles, five Frozen Four appearances and two NCAA national championships.
Minnesota won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004, just four and five years in to Lucia taking over the program.
However, in recent years the Gophers have had increasing struggles as a program.
This past season was perhaps the most disappointing, as Lucia’s Gophers were just 19-17-2 overall and finished fifth in the Big Ten conference. Minnesota was left out of the NCAA tournament thanks to that mediocre record and one of the craziest scenarios in college hockey history.
Minnesota needed just one or two of six conference finals to go their way and they were likely in. The Gophers wanted to see Air Force, Boston University, Michigan Tech, Princeton, Denver and Notre Dame win their respective conference crowns.
Instead, all six of the results went exactly the other way and Minnesota was left out of the tournament thanks to the needs for other at-large bids to be handed out.
Lucia’s team went from winning six conference titles in a row to finishing fifth in the Big Ten. That could have played a part in Coyle’s decision and discussion with Lucia following the end of the season.
Signs pointed to something happening as late as yesterday, with Lucia skirting around the issue when asked by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
“We’ve had a lot of talks, let’s put it that way — just over the last couple years,” Lucia said.
“I don’t plan on coaching when I’m 70, I can promise you that,” the 59-year-old Lucia continued. “We’ll talk. We’ll see what’s best for where he’s at and where I’m at. We’re on the same page right now, and I think we’ll continue to be that way.”
Change had to come for a very proud program, and Lucia stepping aside rather being flat-out relieved of duties was the right thing to do for all parties involved.
Thus ends a 19-year career at the helm of the Gophers and a 31-year career as a college hockey head coach.
While the ending was a slide down the national stage, Lucia brought plenty of glory and plenty to love about Gophers hockey. His legacy is a big one and his presence is going to be hard to fill on the bench and in the Gophers hockey community.
It will be interesting to see where the search by Coyle goes, because this hire has the potential to make or break the future of this program.
Gophers, Huskers could have games altered by Oregon wildfires
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.