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Minnesota Gophers Spring Preview 2015: Can Kill’s team continue to contend?

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Raise your hand if you thought the Badgers vs. Gophers would be for the Big Ten West division title last season? Sure, you probably thought Wisconsin would have that opportunity on the line, but few thought the Gophers were also going to be the main contender to the Badgers’ run to the West division title.

That’s exactly what happened, as the bitter rivals clashed in Madison in the most-played rivalry in FBS football.

However, one couldn’t help but notice just how far apart the two rivals still were after Wisconsin’s 34-24 win. Wisconsin had nearly 200 more yards, managed to pass for over 200 yards (a feat it did just three other times) and only got 95 yards passing themselves.

Previous Previews: Illinois | Michigan | Northwestern | Maryland

It’s year five of the Jerry Kill era in Minneapolis, and there’s little question this program has gone in the right direction. After back-to-back 8-5 finishes, there is also plenty of room for this program to grow if it wants to be a real championship contender.

Usually that type of change comes in the form of a breakthrough spring performance or two. Let’s see if Minnesota has that in them in 2015 or not.

 

Spring Football Start Date: March 3

Spring Football Game Date: April 11

Key Returning Players: Mitch Leidner, QB; KJ Maye, WR; Theiren Cockran, DE; Josh Campion, LT; Eric Murray, CB

Key Losses: David Cobb, RB; Maxx Williams, TE; Zac Epping, LG; Tommy Olson, C; Cedric Thompson, S

 

Gophers Spring To-Do List:

– Find a Go-To Receiving Threat: With redshirt sophomore Maxx Williams bolting after his breakout season in 2014, the Gophers are left with a major hole in a passing game that wasn’t working well to begin with. Williams was the leading receiver last season, hauling in 36 passes for 569 yards and a team-best eight touchdowns.

There is some intriguing talent at wide receiver, especially with K.J. Maye. He’s the one who has displayed the most home run hitting ability, averaging 18.6 yards per game. It’s just too bad he was only on the receiving end of 16 passes last season.

If Minnesota wants to be a true contender next season, finding a passing game that teams will have to at least respect from time to time will be key. That’s especially true given the new look the run game will have without single-season rushing record holder David Cobb gone.

Not only would be good for Maye to continue to develop, but it would be nice to see names like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones take steps forward along with quarterback Mitch Leidner.

– Next Man Up Has to Work on Offensive Line: After the 2013 season people wondered if Minnesota’s defense would be up to the task without Ra’Shede Hageman. It proved to be just fine in 2014.

Now, the opposite line faces a huge challenge with the loss of arguably two of the best lineman (RG Zac Epping and C Tommy Olson) of the Jerry Kill era gone.

Those two have been mainstays along the offensive line since Jerry Kill came on board, and replacing their leadership and production will be a major test this spring. Luckily, all three of the other starters will be upperclassmen in 2015 and that should help the transition up the middle of the line.

Still, the replacements should be solid additions to the line. Potential center or right guard Jon Christenson has started twice in his career (once at center and this past season at guard against Missouri).

Spring will be about developing the chemistry needed for this group to continue to be one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten.

– Find the right rotation at Running Back: As we mentioned before, there is no David Cobb for the Gophers offense to lean on in 2015 and that should be a scary proposition. Not only should it be scary because he ran for a school-record 1,626 yards, but because his 314 attempts were 77 more attempts than Leidner had passing.

It’s also more than double Leidner, who was second on the team in rushing attempts. Clearly there is an opportunity out there for someone to grab, but the question is just who that someone will be.

We know it won’t be led backup Donnell Kirkwood either, since he is gone and graduated. That leaves sophomore Berkley Edwards and senior Rodrick Williams to be potential replacements…unless you look deeper on the roster.

jeffjonesSpring may be all about one name and one name only — redshirt freshman Jeff Jones. He is easily the most highly touted recruit of the Jerry Kill era and many see him as the clear heir apparent at the running back position.

Jones won’t just be handed the job though, and if he doesn’t bust out in spring ball the Gophers have the depth to make a running back-by-committee situation more than work.

– Show defensive line depth: With two defensive linemen gone to graduation, the Gophers are going to get a severe test in their ability to bring along young players quickly. Last season the Gophers got a good amount of production from two players — end Theirian Cockran and tackle Cameron Botticelli. Both ended up as unanimous honorable mention All-Big Ten picks.

One half of that group is gone, as Botticelli graduated, and that means Cockran needs to lead the pass rush on his own as the Gophers look to build something good on the other side with Michael Amaefula gone as well.

The good news is defensive tackle appears pretty stocked with Scott Ekpe coming back from a torn ACL and Steve Richardson starting 12 games in his freshman campaign. Richardson has star written all over him, but there are still questions about the rotation on the defensive line that will need to be answered.

Will someone be able to be a truly consistent edge rusher opposite Cockran? Can this group be healthy enough in the spring to develop some true depth heading in to the season?

If Minnesota wants to take the next step it needs to have a better overall athletic presence up front, and spring will tell us a lot about just where this group stands in 2015.

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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Buckeyes Hockey

2017 NCAA Hockey Tournament: A Big Ten Primer

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The creation of the Big Ten hockey conference shook collegiate hockey to its core. Some believed the league would be too top-heavy and others believed it would ultimately kill the sport.

If the 2016-17 season has taught us anything, it is that it appears Big Ten hockey is alive and well. Three teams are in the 2017 NCAA tournament, including the once upstart Penn State Nittany Lions.

Penn State earned their way in thanks to a victory in the Big Ten tournament finale, one that PSU didn’t necessarily have to win to get in, but one that made their tournament appearance a lock.

As the tournament draws near, let’s take a look at the details for the three Big Ten teams in the tournament.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Seed: No. 1 seed in Northeast Regional (No. 4 overall seed)
1st Round Matchup: vs. Notre Dame
When: Saturday, March 25; 3:30p.m. ET
TV/Streaming: ESPNU/watchESPN

Other Teams in Regional: Cornell and UMass Lowell
Regional Championship: Sunday, March 26; 3:30p.m. ET (ESPNU/watchESPN)

You would think the Big Ten regular season champion would get some more love. However, off to New Hampshire are the Gophers. No matter, because there isn’t a more dedicated group of hockey fans in the country (sorry, not sorry, North Dakota). There’s also the fact that Minnesota is the last of the No. 1 seeds in the tournament. You aren’t going to get your choice of places to play in that scenario.

That said, the Gophers are also in the second-most loaded regional in the tournament. Blue blood names like Notre Dame and Cornell is bad enough, but UMass Lowell are quickly becoming a powerhouse and a mainstay in the NCAA tournament over the past 6-7 years.

Getting out of this group likely makes the winner a favorite to take home the national championship.

As for the Gophers’ chances, well they haven’t seen any of the teams in its regional yet this season. They are 7-4-1 against fellow NCAA tournament teams though, while first round opponent Notre Dame is just 7-6-1 and come out of the equally loaded Hockey East. However, the Golden Domers come in to the tournament having gone 5-1-2 over the last 11 games of the regular season before dropping a game to UMass Lowell in the Hockey East semi-finals.

It will also be a matchup of future Big Ten teams, and one that will likely come down style of play. Minnesota and Notre Dame are both averaging over three goals a game and come in with top 25 defenses as well. Something is going to have to give and it could be the most intriguing of the first round matchups in this year’s tournament.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Seed: No. 4 in West Regional
1st Round Matchup: vs. No. 1 Minnesota Duluth (25-6-7 overall record)
When: Friday, March 24; 6:30p.m.
Where: Fargo, North Dakota; Scheels Arena
TV/Streaming: ESPNU/watchESPN

Other Teams in Regional: Boston University vs. North Dakota
Regional Championship: Saturday, March 25, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNU/watchESPN

When you are one of the last at-large bids, draws like Ohio State got are what will happen. Being unable to play in Cincinnati was a big blow, but there wasn’t a whole lot of choice for the selection committee.

As a result, the Buckeyes are off to the hostile confines in Fargo, where they must face UMD. Get past that and there’s a likely date with home-state UND in the following round. To say the deck is stacked against the Buckeyes in this regional isn’t an understatement.

Minnesota-Duluth is battle-tested this season, winning a rough NCHC tournament title and coming in at No. 3 in the latest USCHO.com national poll. Oh, and that NCHC title? It came over fellow West regional squad North Dakota.

Ohio State loves to bang and loves to score goals, but this is going to be a tough regional to get through. In fact, it is arguably the toughest quartet to predict a winner out of.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Seed: No. 3 seed in Midwest Regional
1st Round Matchup: vs. No. 2 seed Union
When: Saturday, March 25; 4:30p.m. ET
TV/Streaming: ESPN3

Other Teams in Regional: Denver and Michigan Tech
Regional Championship: Sunday, March 26; 6p.m. ET (ESPNU/watchESPN)

Penn State didn’t need the Big Ten tournament title win, but it got it. Sure, it took two games of double-overtime to achieve it, but here are the Nittany Lions as Big Ten title holders in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.

Unfortunately it will happen in a regional with the No. 1 overall seed and against a team that historically hasn’t been kind to the Nittany Lions. Union is 4-0-0 all-time against Penn State, but they haven’t met since the 2013-14 season.

Let’s just say the Nittany Lions are no longer a building program like they were back then, while Union is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since winning the national championship that same season.

Penn State comes in to this tournament as one of the best offensive teams in the country. The team is tied for second nationally, averaging 3.97 goals per game. Defensively the team is just 22nd and gives up 2.68 goals per game as well. Union features a Hoby Baker Award finalist in Mike Vecchione, and he too can score — notching 29 goals alone this season.

Doubting the upstarts has been a bad idea most of this season, but this is one of the harshest spots the Nittany Lions could find themselves in. Can they make a run like they did last weekend and rep the Big Ten in Chicago for the Frozen Four? That certainly will be interesting.

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2017 talking10 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Awards Special

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The Big Ten may have its awards, but what is the point of watching endless hours of Big Ten basketball without putting our two cents in, right?

Welcome to the 2017 taking10 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Awards special. Our hope is to educate you on the names that dominated our conversations and the hardwood across the Big Ten this season.

So, sit back and enjoy our special for your viewing pleasure.

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Minnesota and P.J. Fleck’s First Order Of Business: A New Slogan

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“Row The Boat” is sooooo 2016. And with the hiring of P.J. Fleck as the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ new head man, it’s time to usher in the sparkle and shine for the new year.

Fleck has gone on record to state that Row The Boat will continue on with Ski-U-Mah in the Twin Cities, but we here at Talking10 couldn’t help but ponder what a new slogan could be now that the man who loves to get his oars in the water, has now backed the U-Haul up to Minneapolis.

So, without further delay, and without further whimsical nonsense, Andy Coppens, Dave Fitzgerald, Phil Harrison and Philip Rossman-Reich provide you with some corny, edge of craftiness potential slogans for the marriage between P.J. Fleck and Minnesota:

Defend The Bank-

Yep, they play in TCF Bank Stadium so…

Protect The Bank-

Again, the Gophers play in TCF Bank Stadium. Rinse and repeat.

Shovel The Snow-

Lest you forget, it’s COLD in the Twin Cities. They get a lot of snow.

Chip The Ice-

See above and add water.

Grind The Axe-

Made especially for you Badger fans.

Chuck The Wood-

Gophers aren’t wood chucks, but close enough, eh? You betcha.

Build The Dam-

Okay, okay, Gophers aren’t Beavers, but neither are wood chucks.

Dig The Hole-

Now we have the right rodent. Sounds imposing doesn’t it?

Shop The Mall-

This might be more for Fleck’s wife Heather, for the many trips to the Mall of America there in the suburb of Bloomington.

Go.Pher.It-

Sometimes it just works …

Win, Don’t Cha Know-

It’s not Canada, but pretty close. That Fargo accent has to rub off somewhere right?

Hot Dish, MMMMMM Bacon-

Literally everything is better with bacon, even big-time college football.

Secure The Trophies-

They certainly play for enough of them in Minneapolis, so why not?

Protect The Jugs-

You can figure this one out.

Clip The Mullet-

Minnesota loves hockey with its football. Hockey players love mullets. Fleck’s style is business up front, but party in back in the post game, so it all fits.

Drain The Lake-

It’s not Donald Trump draining the swamp in Washington, but Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes and its looking for a new direction.

Hit The Bull’s Eye-

Minnesota is home to mega-department store Target where you can waste hours looking at nothing, yet everything.

Walk The Skyway-

Have you ever been to Minneapolis in the winter? It’s a God-send to have the connected walkways in the air going from building to building so you don’t freeze your Gopher hiney in the brutal winters.

 

Okay, if we had the energy of Philip John Fleck, maybe we’d keep right on going. We don’t, and you’ve likely spent ten minutes of your time you’ll never get back. But hey, we had fun with it, and we hope you did too.

What do you think? Should Fleck implement one of these? Got one that you think would fit that we missed? Feel free to comment on Twitter to @BuckeyeFitzy @AndyOnFootball @RiseNU or @PhilHarrisonCFB

 

 

 

 

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P.J. Fleck’s got plenty of challenges ahead of him in building Gophers program

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A sea change is afoot in Minneapolis, as P.J. Fleck has been announced as the head coach of the Minnesota Gophers football program. Given he was at the top of the list for the administration and fans, excited is the word of the day.

However, once the initial excitement fades away the reality of the Gophers’ situation will settle in. That reality? A locker room that is a mess and players who feel hurt by the administration and the university at large.

Fleck comes in as a man with a reputation as a program builder and a man with plenty of motivational techniques in his arsenal. That’s the good news here, as Fleck faces a challenge that just about no nine-win team will face heading in to the 2017 season.

The reality is he needs to start over on and off the field. Minnesota’s offense was stagnant at best, its defense just okay and its culture clearly a mess. Fleck addressed that need for cultural change head on in his first press conference.

“I am more than football,” Fleck said, via the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Our kids will be more than football. What does that mean. We are going to serve and give as much as can. In the new era of Gopher football it is not about us. We’re going to connect people to Gopher football who don’t even like football. … Our players will have incredible, elite actions every single day. When you watch Gophers football from this point on, it will be different.”

He is going to have to change things in the locker room first and foremost. He is going to have to change the moral culture within this group of players, while also building a program within his image on the recruiting trail too.

At least the opening moments of his tenure have been full of the right words. Actions however will speak louder, and judging by his actions at Western Michigan, there’s little doubt that his actions more than back up the words spoken.

Those needed changes aren’t always immediate though, and the question in Minneapolis has to be just how quickly Fleck can get this group of players to buy in to what he is selling.

We’ll know more when Fleck announces his staff, but perhaps the best bit of news is that Fleck will get to work with a clean slate in terms of what is around him on the field. There will have to be a new quarterback with Mitch Leidner graduated, meaning Fleck can mold the offense in his image quickly rather than slowly.

This team also has plenty of experience returning from that 9-4 team, meaning he won’t be working with a completely bare cupboard either. But, are those returning players ready for what Fleck and Co. will bring and expect from its players?

Spring football is going to go a long way towards telling us all the answers. For now, we saw a coach who understood what he was walking in to and that is half the battle of getting a program to believe in you going forward.

 

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