The most important part of the schedule for the Minnesota Golden Gophers begins this weekend against the Northwestern Wildcats.
If the 2-1 Gophers have any expectations of playing in a major bowl game this season, they need to win their next three games before they play No. 5 Penn State and No. 13 Ohio State on the road on consecutive weekends.
After Northwestern, the Gophers play the Wisconsin Badgers and Purdue Boilermakers at home.
The next three games are not guaranteed wins. However, the Gophers should win or be in contention to win each of these games if their offensive star player stays healthy, the emerging defensive star continues playing well, and the coaching staff figures out how to balance the offense.
Wide receiver Eric Decker has lived up to his preseason hype as one of the best wide receivers in the nation. Decker has been the focal point of the Gopher offensive attack with 27 catches for 415 receiving yards. Decker has also caught two touchdowns and has even thrown a touchdown pass.
Decker’s season is even more impressive given that he has been constantly double-teamed, and it is no secret to anyone watching who the ball is going to when the Gophers need a completion. Unfortunately, all of the attention is taking a toll on Decker.
Decker had his chin split against the California Bears while making a dazzling highlight reel catch. He returned to the game and played well. Decker, however, had to leave the game for good with a little more than two minutes left when he twisted his ankle after being tackled.
Decker had an ankle injury last season that limited his playing time at the end of the year. If Decker’s ankle injury from this season becomes chronic, it could pose problems for the Gophers, as he is their only legitimate home run threat on offense. No other Gopher receiver has 100 receiving yards.
If there is a poster child for the Gophers of what good things can happen to someone who works hard by putting his nose to the grindstone, it would be senior linebacker Nate Triplett.
Triplett, not happy with his playing time when he first arrived at Minnesota, spoke with his coaches about how he could get on the field more. Triplett was encouraged to show what he could do on special teams.
Triplett played so well on special teams that he won the Bobby Bell Award for the Gopher Special Teams Player of the Year on his way to earning his starting linebacker position.
This season, Triplett has emerged as the star on the Gophers defense. Against the Air Force in week two, Triplett won the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week Award after making 17 tackles and returning a fumble 52 yards for a touchdown. In Triplett’s two other games this season, he has seven tackles, 12 assists, and an interception.
While California’s star running back Jahvid Best put himself at the top of the list in the Heisman race with his five touchdowns against the Gophers, the Gophers defense has actually played well against the run this season.
The mistake that the Gophers' run defense made against Best is that they took the wrong angle of pursuit. Best simply had too much speed for the Gopher defense. Once Best had a step and his shoulders were square, it was only a matter of time as to when the celebration in the end zone would begin.
The Gophers' run defense has been stingy, giving up only 514 yards on the ground. Opponents have rushed the ball 144 times for an average of 3.5 yards.
If Triplett and the Gopher defense can rectify issues concerning the angle of pursuit that plagued them against California, the Gophers' run defense should be fine. No one so far this season has run the ball effectively between the tackles against Minnesota.
The most pressing issue for the Gophers is trying to figure out how to get their anemic running game going so that they can find balance in their offense. Minnesota has 42 first downs on the season; 32 have been earned through the air.
The Gophers have thrown the ball 105 times and have run the ball 77 times. However the number of rushing attempts by the Gophers is inflated by their nine sacks. Thus, the Gophers are approximately calling two passing plays for every running play they run.
After three games, Minnesota has gained only 257 yards running the ball. In comparison, Minnesota has passed for 700 yards over the same three games. Running backs Duane Bennett (121 yards, 4.0 average) and DeLeon Eskridge (103 yards, 4.7 average) have done well when given the opportunity.
Minnesota needs to figure out a way to balance its offensive attack by giving Bennett and Eskridge more opportunities to carry the ball.
The Gophers need to get busy. If not, the Gophers will have a very difficult road to get to a marquee bowl game. Minnesota could upset Penn State, Ohio State, or Iowa on the road this year, but the reality is that if the Gophers fail to take care of business early, they will likely be playing in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl or the Insight Bowl.
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