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Insight Bowl Preview - Gophers vs. Texas Tech

12/27/2006, 12:00am CST
By Cory Doffing

Gopher Football

The Gopher football team is in Tempe, Arizona getting ready to take on the high powered offense of the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Insight Bowl. The Gophers finished the season strong with a 3 game winning streak after losing their first five games in Big Ten play. Minnesota hopes the return of Trumaine Banks at cornerback will help bolster a passing defense that is one of the worst in Division One. On offense Minnesota will try to sustain the momentum built up during the last three games without First Team All-American tight end Matt Spaeth, who will miss the game because of shoulder surgery. It should be a game with lots of offense on both sides that will bring an entertaining end to the season.

Gophers on offense

After struggling on offense through much of the season, the Gophers finally started to find themselves late in the year. After consecutive weeks of scoring 10 points against North Dakota State and 0 against Ohio State, the Gophers exploded for 63 points against Indiana, followed by 31 against Michigan State and 34 against Iowa. These were easily their three best offensive performances of the year, and seemed to put them in a good situation heading into the Bowl game.

But then the bad injury news started to surface. Tight end Matt Spaeth it was revealed, had played the last few games of the season with a separated shoulder, and surgery to repair that should will keep him out of the Insight Bowl. More recently it was announced that two year starting left tackle Steve Shidell broke his leg in practice last week, and he will also miss the game. Starting for Shidell at tackle will be sophomore Matt DeGeest. If worse comes to worse and DeGeest the Gophers would also have the option of moving Tony Brinkhaus back to tackle (where he played before this year) but that would be a last resort. Starting for Spaeth will be sophomore Jack Simmons. He is not nearly the run blocker that Spaeth is, but Simmons should be able to hold his own in pass catching if called upon.

The Gophers hope the loss of Spaeth and Shidell will have only a limited affect on their offense. Spaeth was named First Team All-American by the Associated Press even though there are several excellent tight ends out there with better receiving totals. That tells you just how respected Spaeth's run blocking was, and this is something the Gophers will surely miss. Shidell was a steady performer at tackle who had started every game since he filled in for an injured Joe Ainslie early last year. If the Gophers did the luxury of those two starters back in the lineup, I would be very confident of their chances of running the football. Texas Tech has given up some big games on the ground this year, which included five games of at least 180 yards allowed and four of at least 220 allowed. I do still think the Gophers can have some success on the ground, but I think it would help out a great deal if they can get their passing game going (like they did against Indiana).

Gophers on defense

To be honest, this is the last team I wanted Minnesota to play in a bowl game. Even though Texas Tech is only 7-5, the style of offense that they run is EXACTLY the kid of offense the Gophers have had problems stopping over the years. To say Texas Tech is a passing team is an understatement. On the season they have 601 passing attempts and only 195 rushing attempts, which means they pass 76% of the time. It's one thing to throw a lot of pass (which Tech does), but it's quite another to actually be good at it, which they certainly are. Their quarterback, sophomore Graham Harrell has put up some sick numbers this year in his first season as starter. He's throwing for a 67% completion percentage for 4110 yards, 36 TD's and just 10 interceptions. In comparison Bryan Cupito, whom Gopher fans have been pretty happy with this year, has thrown for 60% completions, with 2556 yards and 19 TD's. That shows you just how effective the Red Raider passing game is.

It was recently announced that senior wide out Jarrett Hick is expected to miss this game because of academic issues, but unfortunately for Minnesota that means very little when it comes to stopping the Red Raider offense. Joel Filana, Robert Johnson and Shannon Woods all have at least 72 receptions on the year, which is more than any Gopher players has (Logan Payne leads the way with 64).

As I mentioned above, this historically is the kind of offense that kills the Gophers. Minnesota allows 254 yards per game through the year, which ranks just 115th out of 119 teams in the nation. The Gophers usually choose to play a loose zone pass coverage scheme and good quarterbacks generally have little trouble completing a high percentage of their passes for many yards.

The Gophers did get one big break for this game when it was announced that senior cornerback Trumaine Banks (who missed about half of the season with a broken arm) will be back and playing in this game. This will help the effort and maybe, just maybe it will be enough for the Gopher defense to be effective against this offense. With all of the passing the Red Raiders do, I expect to see a lot of Banks, Jamal Harris and Dominic Jones at cornerback. Dominique Barber will also play a key role at free safety, and chances are the Duran Cooley and Kevin Mannion may find themselves playing more instead of Mike Sherels or the other linebackers.

What will happen

I really like the chances of the Gopher offense doing well in this game. Historically, Glen Mason and the rest of the Gopher offensive coaches have prepared the team very well for their bowl games. Since 2000, the only bowl games haven't scored at least 29 points in was in 2004 when they only scored 20 against Alabama. But in that game, starting quarterback Bryan Cupito suffered a knee injury and threw only 12 passes. In other contests, the Gophers scored 30 points against NC State in 2000, 29 points against Arkansas in 2002 (which really put the Gopher rushing game on the map), 31 points against Oregon in 2003, and 31 points against Virginia. So for that reason, I think the Gopher offensive will see some success in this game. The Gophers have a senior quarterback and improving group of skill players around him. The loss of tight end Matt Spaeth will hurt, but I think enough other players have stepped up recently to help soften the blow.

Defensively, I'm not as optimistic. History tells us good things about our offense, but it also tells us bad things about our defense. When the Gophers have gone up against good offensive teams in bowl games they've typically gotten torched. They allowed 38 points to NC State in 2000, 30 points to Oregon in 2003 and 34 points to Virginia last year. The Alabama team they held to 14 points was injury depleted on offense, and the 14 points they held Arkansas to in 2002 was against an offense that was nothing to write home about. Unfortunately Texas Tech fits the category of a good offensive team. Their strengths play right into the Gopher weaknesses and I don't see any reason why that will change in this game.

Bottom Line

This is (once again) a chance for the Gophers to turn a corner; to prove that their defense has made strides and that can indeed stop a strong passing team. The problem is I feel like I write this in a preview every time we play a good passing team, and every time it does not happen. Well, here we are again. If the Gophers are to stop the Texas Tech offense it will take a TEAM effort. Players like Willie VanDeSteeg and Steve Davis will need to pressure the quarterback, and the cornerbacks and linebackers are going to need to cover somebody. Playing a loose zone and hitting a guy after he catches the ball is not going to work. If the defense can make a few stops, get a couple turnovers and record a few sacks, then I really like the chances of our offensive scoring enough points to win. Unfortunately history is not on our side and I'm not convinced those things will happen. However, if the Gophers can do that and put together an impressive win against the Red Raiders, it should do wonders for the team heading into next season since they only lose a few key players.

Prediction: Texas Tech: 45 "“ Minnesota 34

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Tag(s): Gopher Football