After the 63-21 waxing that Minnesota applied to Toledo in the opening game, one would've guessed that a matchup vs. D-1AA Illinois State would've been equally lopsided. In a surprise though, the Redbirds came out and gave Minnesota all they could handle. Minnesota's heads did not seem to be in the game, and it showed. There were plenty of mistakes to go around by almost every unit on the field, but in the end Minnesota's firepower on offense was enough to overcome the lackadaisical play.
Starting QB Bryan Cupito came back down to earth a little bit against Illinois State. The numbers weren't horrible (10-22 for 204 yards and 2 TD's), but it was easy to tell that Bryan just was not as comfortable as he was against Toledo. One area that he really seemed to struggle in was his command of the offense. There was several times where there were 8 or 9 guys stacked in the box and Cupito didn't seem to make an attempt to audible out of was would often times be a running play doomed from the start. But then again, Minnesota appeared to have had a very plain game plan; not throwing in a lot of trickery or variety. That aside, Cupito didn't commit any major physical mistakes, so it's kind of hard to get too tough on him. As far as his passing went, he was mostly off and on. I saw a few balls that shouldn't have been thrown, and with a little better defense would've been interceptions. Bryan continues to show that he can throw a nice ball though. When the receivers were open, he did a decent job of putting the ball where it needed to be. Cupito did look good the one time he scrambled for a first down, so maybe this is something we'll see in the future rather than settling for throwing into tight coverage.
Per the usual, Gopher running backs Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney turned in impressive statistical performances. Barber had 18 carries for 149 yards and 2 TD's (8.3 avg), and Maroney had 18 carries for 141 yards and 1 TD (7.8 avg). Maroney's highlight was definitely the 80 yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter. He made a nice adjustment at the line, broke left and outran everyone on defense on his way to the endzone. The only bad thing about that though is if you take away the big 80 yard run, Laurence only had 61 yards on his other 17 carries. Again, you have to wonder if the vanilla offense had anything to do with this. There were several times where Laurence was met by 2 or 3 redbirds as soon as he got outside where the play was doomed from the start. Overall, Maroney just never really got going in this game. Getting back to Barber, he was the more steady of the two and had what I thought was the best game of anyone on the team. Marion made a lot of tough runs that helped steady what was sometimes a stagnant Gopher offense. The one big blemish for the running backs was definitely the fumble on the one yard line by Justin Valentine. Justin had made a nice run up until he was stripped, and you can bet that the freshman will not let that happen to him again. As a unit, I thought the running backs did pretty well given the amount of 8 and 9 man fronts they faced.
Wide Receivers / Tight End
For the most part, it was a pretty quiet day for the Wide Receivers. Jared Ellerson led the way with 6 catches for 61 yards and one very nice TD catch. Jared continues to present himself as the leader of this group and should easily top his totals for both yards and catches from last year. Ernie Wheelwright came up big again with a 79 yard TD catch, his only reception of the night. For the year Ernie has 3 TD's on 3 catches. The only other receiver with a catch was Jakari Wallace. Wallace had 2 catches for 28 yards, but his best catch was a TD that was taken away from him on a Mark Setterstrom holding call.
Getting to the point right away, Saturday was worst performance by the Minnesota offensive line since 2002. With a few exceptions, pretty much nothing went right. The game got off to a bad start with Rian Melander left the game with a hip injury in the first quarter. He did come back in, but eventually left the game again and did not return. His status for Saturday vs. Colorado State is not being disclosed. With Melander out, the line really got out of sync. Right tackle Joe Ainslie moved over the left tackle and the results were less than stellar, as on the first play Ainslie was flagged for a false start. That shakeup also seemed to affect Mark Setterstrom, and the left side of the line struggled all day long. There were a couple of bright spots however. Greg Eslinger as usual was able to do this thing, leading the way on a couple of sweeps. Brandon Harston also turned in another nice performance. As a group, the run blocking was ok, but was often times over matched going up against the 8 and 9 man fronts. Pass blocking was not very good. Though Cupito was sacked only once, he was forced from the pocket several times and for the game he was pressured way more than he should've been given the talent of the Redbirds front four.
It's hard to ague with the end result of 37 points and 504 total yards, but when you take a closer look at how it was accomplished it suddenly becomes pretty ugly. The offense did produce two big plays back to back with the 80 & 79 yard touchdowns. But take away those two big plays, and you realize that the offense had a lot of problems putting together the consistent drives that we've become accustomed to. There were many more 3rd & longs than we usually see, a lot of penalties, and most of the time things just looked out of sync. The injury to Melander did hurt, but the Gophers have enough veteran linemen that they should've been able to overcome that, especially against a team the caliber of Illinois State. But like most Gopher fans, I'm really hoping that the Minnesota offense was just 'holding back' and not getting very complex with their formations this week. If that's the case then we can probably settle our nerves and look forward to Colorado State. Either way, this will be a big game for the Gophers to re-establish their powerful attack.
The defensive line of Minnesota seemed to be on the verge of possible sacks several times, but Illinois State's game plan countered this nicely by having their QB throw a lot of quick passes and go out on several rollouts. Darrell Reid once again showed some ability to get by his blocker, but only a few times did it end up translating into direct pressure on the QB. What would've been really nice for our DL would've been tighter coverage by our secondary. With a few exceptions, the run defense turned in by the front four was very solid. For the game, the Redbirds rushed for only 108 yards on 30 carries. If you take out the 43 yard rush from Johnson (in which the LB's & DB's missed tackles), Illinois State would've averaged only 2 yards per carry. If the defensive line can just find a way to break loose on disrupting the quarterback, they'd be in the running for the top defensive line in the conference.
There's really not a lot (relatively speaking) to be upset with in the play of the linebackers. As a unit, the linebackers didn't really have a lot to do compared to the other positions. The defensive line did a pretty job bottling up the run, but the linebackers did do a pretty good job in support. On some of the Redbird's longer runs, there was a missed tackle or two or a guy out of position, but this was probably the least of the problems the Gophers had on D. In passing situations the linebackers didn't really excite me. Here again there were some times where they were caught out of position, especially on some of the Redbirds screen passes.
There were a lot of forgettable moments by everyone in the defensive backfield. In particular, Trumaine Banks and Ukee Dozier turned in pretty weak performances. Both corners were routinely picked on by the Redbirds QB, and many times it just looked as though they were overmatched. Again, Minnesota opted to play pretty lax coverage. This enabled Illinois State to complete several shorter passes. But what really hurt was the terrible tackling after the catches. Just about everyone had their share of misses, and this turned several routine plays into big plays for Illinois State. The Redbirds were also not afraid to straight up challenge the Gopher D-backs on fades and lob passes, and most of the time the results, either via completion or penalty, went in favor of the Redbirds. I would still like to see Minnesota get aggressive in their coverage and let the corners see what they can do. If you are going to allow the short passes, you MUST tackle the ball carrier to limit the gains, and too many times yesterday this just didn't happen.
There are not a lot of positives to find from Saturday's performance. Not only did the Gophers give up yards, they also gave up points. What makes that even worse is that it happened against a 1-AA team. The lack of fundamentals in tackling and mental mistakes are extremely troublesome. Perhaps in hindsight this is what the Gophers needed. Coming off of the impressive performance against Toledo, it would've been easy for the defense to get a little too confident. If there was any of that going on, it definitely isn't there anymore. Hopefully this will inspire the defense to a great week of practice and re-motivation for a good Colorado State offense.
The most disappointing performance (relatively speaking) of all to me was that of the Special Teams. Coming into this year, special teams figured to be one of the strong points of the Gopher squad, but that certainly hasn't been the case so far. Starting with a penalty on the opening kickoff, going onto a 10 yard Rhys Lloyd punt, continuing with a missed extra point, lingering with another kickoff going out of bounds, and finally ending with a roughing the kicker penalty (that sustained a Redbird drive and lead to a TD), there were SEVERAL mistakes on special teams that are usually avoidable. One thing the coaches can be happy about was Lloyd's first FG of the year; a 40 yarder. Another positive was another great performance by the kickoff coverage team. You can just sense tenacity in this unit when they are tearing down the field, and so far things are much improved in this department. Getting back to the negatives, Rhys Lloyd did boom a 52 yard punt, but for the day he had only a 34 yard average. The return games continue to struggle somewhat. Well, maybe not struggle, but they're not yet back at the level they were last year.
After the elation experienced following the big win against Toledo, just about NOBODY expected the lack luster performance that the Gophers turned in Saturday. You can live with physical mistakes, but what has to be the biggest concern for the coaches was the lack of focus and the mental mistakes made by everyone. Blocked XP's, False starts, missed tackles, kickoffs going out of bounds, missed blocking assignments and unsportsman like penalties following TD's are just some of the things the coaches will be very eager to fix this week. I really believe that this game will be good for Minnesota in the long run, but that doesn't excuse such a disappointing performance from such a veteran team. But, the good thing is that we got the win. We did get a couple of big interceptions, and as usual the running game came out big in the end. With Rutgers losing to 1-AA New Hampshire a week after beating Michigan State, it's a reminder that no game is a gimmie. So from that perspective you must give the Gophers at least some credit for coming up with a 16 point win.
Overall Grade: C-