Following a closer-than-expected 28-23 victory over the Western Michigan Broncos last week, the Minnesota Golden Gophers will look for a more comfortable win this week at home against the Syracuse Orange.
Minnesota comes into Saturday's contest having started a season 3-0 for the first time since 2008, but they will likely be without star quarterback MarQueis Gray, who suffered an ankle injury in last week's game.
On the other sideline, the Orange will not be without their breakout star quarterback, Ryan Nassib, but they sit 1-2 on the season.
With both teams looking for a massive victory on Saturday, here's a look at everything you need to know about Syracuse-Minnesota.
When: Saturday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.
Watch: Big Ten Network
Syracuse Injuries (via USA Today)
WR Adrian Flemming, Undisclosed, Questionable
TE Ron Thompson, Undisclosed, Questionable
WR Jeremiah Kobena, Upper Body, Out
WR Kyle Foster, Lower Body, Out for Season
DT Ryan Sloan, Lower Body, Out for Season
FB Myles Davis, Lower Body, Out for Season
OT Kristofer Curtis, Undisclosed, Out for Season
OT Justin Pugh, Shoulder, Out
Minnesota Injuries (via USA Today)
OL Zach Mottla, Undisclosed, Questionable
DB Martez Shabazz, Undisclosed, Questionable
QB MarQueis Gray, Ankle, Questionable
WR Jamel Harbison, Knee, Out for Season
TE Kendall Gregory-McGhee, Back, Out
BCS/Top 25 Implications
Despite a 3-0 start, it's become pretty apparent that the voters don't take Minnesota seriously. The team is yet to receive a vote in either the Coaches' poll or the Associated Press poll this season, but the reasoning is understandable.
The Gophers needed three overtimes to beat UNLV 30-27 on the road, and they narrowly escaped with a 28-23 win over Western Michigan at home last week.
A win against Syracuse will likely at least get Minnesota in the rankings conversation, but it almost surely won't be enough for an actual spot in the Top 25.
On the other side of the field, the Orange may actually be the more impressive team thus far, regardless of their 1-2 record. Syracuse lost to the Northwestern Wildcats by just a point in Week 1 and followed it up with a narrow loss to the then-No. 2 USC Trojans.
A win against Minnesota certainly won't get Doug Marrone's squad anywhere near the rankings, but it'll be yet another good sign for an improving program.
What They're Saying
With the Orange losers of seven of their last eight games dating back to last season, it would seem reasonable to call Marrone's tenure into question.
His record, 18-22, is completely unspectacular and he's yet to bring in a particularly exciting recruiting class since taking the job in 2009.
Nonetheless, according to the Post-Standard's Bud Poliquin, Marrone's first 40 games actually place him in the conversation with legendary Orange head coach Ben Schwartzwalder.
Via the Post-Standard:
Less obvious, though, is this: In terms of improvement—that is, when one compares each coach’s record through his first 40 games vs. the Orange performance in those 40 games preceding his hiring—Marrone is producing at a near-record pace, trailing only those results crafted by the legendary Ben Schwartzwalder.
Indeed, in the 40 games before Marrone’s arrival prior to the 2009 campaign, SU went 9-31 (.225), which gives Doug a “plus-9” in wins from one 40-game stretch to another
Also working his way to a slow build is Gophers head coach Jerry Kill, whose team has already matched its win total from 2011. According to tight end John Rabe, key to that improvement has been the players' increasing comfort level with the offense.
Via ESPN Chicago's Brian Bennett:
I think it's more familiarity with the offense. We're a lot more comfortable with the whole offensive scheme and knowing where we all fit in. We've had a pretty good start in the running game, and I don't think we're even close to where we can be.
Syracuse Player to Watch: QB Ryan Nassib
With another brilliant performance against Stony Brook last week, the senior signal-caller continued his astounding breakout campaign.
Nassib, who is in his third season as a starter, is second in the NCAA in yards (1,139) and is tied for third with nine touchdowns.
Key to his breakout has been the unleashing of a no-huddle spread offense that has been en vogue for the past few years in college football. After throwing for over 300 yards just twice in his career before this season, Nassib has done so in each of Syracuse's three games in 2012.
One small problem: The Gophers' secondary has been phenomenal thus far, albeit against mediocre competition.
Giving up just 162.7 passing yards per game, Minnesota ranks 15th in the nation thus far. What's more, the opposition has thrown the ball an average of 38.3 times per game against the Gophers—a rate that is nearly eight more times per game than any team ahead of them on the list.
Nassib was great against the Trojans, so don't expect him to fall flat on his face on Saturday. However, don't be shocked if he's back down below that 300-yard plateau, either.
Minnesota Player to Watch: RB Donnell Kirkwood
Though currently listed as questionable, Kill said that it's possible that quarterback MarQueis Gray will miss a month with his high ankle sprain (via TwinCities.com's Marcus R. Fuller).
That means it's all but certain Max Shortell will make the start behind center on Saturday. A sophomore, Shortell has looked good in limited work this season, completing 15 of 23 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns.
Nonetheless, he doesn't provide the same spark Gray does on the ground. Through three games this season, Gray has 234 yards on the ground to go with his 398 through the air.
Without the dual-threat quarterback, the onus will be on Kirkwood to pick up the slack. The redshirt sophomore is in his first season as the Gophers' primary back and has looked strong in every game thus far.
For the Gophers to find any semblance of balance on Saturday, Kirkwood will have to continue his upward trend.
Key Matchup: Syracuse Secondary vs. Minnesota QB Max Shortell
While the Gophers' secondary is certainly worthy of praise, don't discount the Orange's among the nation's best.
Syracuse's 164.7 passing yards allowed per game are just two more than Minnesota and rank No. 17 in the NCAA.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, they likely will not have a veteran signal-caller taking the snaps this week. Instead, it will likely be Shortell, who was great last week against Western Michigan, but he will face his first test as a starter on Saturday.
How Shortell performs against Syracuse's underrated secondary will likely be the difference between keeping Minnesota's undefeated record and the team's first blemish of 2012.
With a high-powered offensive performance, look for the Orange to prevail on the road on Saturday night.
The stage and competition will be too much for Shortell, which is too bad because this would have been a close contest with Gray taking the snaps.
Score Prediction: Syracuse 31, Minnesota 20