Coming into 2004, the talk around the Minnesota football team was that the defense would be much improved from last year's. So far, they have yet to impress most of the college football world with their defensive unit. After holding a potent Toledo offense to 406 yards on 59 plays, the team suffered a blow giving up a staggering 480 yards on 89 plays to lowly Illinois State. If the Gophers hope to have any success defensively against Colorado State, their pass defense has to step up their performance.
Colorado State Backfield vs. Minnesota Linebackers
Many fans thought Colorado State would have a huge void at the quarterback position after losing Bradlee Van Pelt to graduation. Despite the doubts, this season the Rams have been led offensively by their signal caller, Justin Holland. He is still fairly inexperienced, having started only three games in his career. However, his production this year has been quite good. In their first game against Colorado, Holland threw for 403 yards and 2 touchdowns in a losing effort. He rallied his team from a 17 point first half deficit and almost led the team to a victory, driving the team down to the 1 yard line before time ran out. He has had problems with interceptions, however, throwing 4 against Southern Cal and 1 against Colorado.
The Ram running backs have been almost an afterthought for this offense, combining for just 138 yards on 47 carries this season, a meager 2.9 yard average. Senior Marcus Houston and junior Uldis Jaunarajs get most of the carries, though junior Tristan Walker has 8 carries in this young season.
The Minnesota linebacking corps has been led thus far by Terrance Campbell and Kyle McKenzie, who have recorded 11.5 and 10.5 tackles, respectively. Against Colorado State's aerial offense, the linebackers will not have to worry so much about their run stopping as their pass coverage. The game for Illinois State should have been a wake up call for these players and coaches, and against the Rams I would expect to see more blitzes from the linebackers in an attempt to hurry Justin Holland's passes.
Colorado State's running game has been nonexistent this season, so don't expect a lot of yards on the ground. If the Gophers play the pass like they did against Illinois State, Justin Holland could have a field day, throwing for anywhere between 300 and 500 yards. However, if Minnesota can get pressure from blitzing linebackers and good pass coverage over the middle, the amount of short to mid-range passes should be contained.
Advantage: Colorado State
Colorado State O-Line vs. Minnesota D-Line
The Colorado State offensive line is young (two juniors, two sophomores, and a senior), big (they average 307 pounds), and has been spotty at best so far. They have allowed 5 sacks through two games, though one of those games was against one of the best defensive fronts in the nation, USC. They have not been able to open adequate holes for the running backs. However, as they play more and more together, they are bound to get better. Though Minnesota is not Southern Cal, they will bring a formidable defensive line into Fort Collins.
Darrell Reid, the emotional leader of the Gopher defense will look to get into the backfield early and often and upset the timing of the Ram passing game. It will be up to Reid and fellow defensive end Eric Clark to collapse the pocket on Justin Holland, though the play of defensive tackles Anthony Montgomery and Mark Losli to disrupt draw plays, something which they weren't able to do against Illinois State.
Minnesota certainly has the advantage in this match up on paper. Colorado State has not been playing well this season, and the Gophers are out to prove that, finally, they can get pressure on a quarterback. However, this is still the same Gopher line that has been struggling to disrupt plays in the backfield for the past few seasons. If the Rams offensive line can provide Justin Holland with just enough time to read the defense and find the open man, then they will have done their job.
Colorado State Receivers vs. Minnesota Secondary
This should be one of the most crucial match ups in the game, pitting a great receiving corps against a secondary which has had its share of problems. For Colorado State, it starts and ends with junior David Anderson. Anderson has scorched opposing defensive backs for nearly 300 yards, averaging over 16 yards per catch. Another threat from the Rams will be redshirt freshman Johnny Walker. The converted running back has 140 yards and a touchdown in two games.
At the tight end position, Matt Bartz is looking to garner more recognition after finishing with as honorable mention All-Mountain West in 2003. He has the Rams only other receiving touchdown this year, though he hasn't been used as much as head coach Sonny Lubick would probably like. Bartz has caught a paltry 3 passes for only 21 yards so far this year.
Lining up opposite these receivers will be a Minnesota secondary which remains a question mark. Though cornerback Trumaine Banks leads the Gophers with 12 tackles, his penalties and problems with footwork must improve if he hopes to stay with the talented Ram receivers. On the other side of the field, Ukee Dozier hopes to continue his solid play so far this season. Dozier leads the team with three pass deflections and also has one of the team's two interceptions. Yet, Dozier will likely have the task of defending David Anderson, no small task. Big hitting safety John Pawielski and steady performer Justin Fraley will look to contain the deep passes, something which is crucial against an aerial offense like Colorado State.
The Gophers will have to improve their pass coverage and their penalties if they want to disrupt the Colorado State receivers. This is the one area of the game where Colorado State seems to have a distinct advantage over Minnesota, and the one area which could determine whether this game will be a shootout or a fight to the finish. Judging on their performance so far this season, I don't see the Gopher secondary shutting down anyone for Colorado State.
Advantage: Colorado State
Minnesota will have its hands full against such a talented Rams offense. Fortunately for the Gophers, they have already played one pass heavy team in Toledo. That experience cannot be discounted. However, their inability to slow opposing passing attacks is a huge red flag for this game. Justin Holland should have no problem picking apart the defense for over 300 yards. The difference maker will be turnovers. If the Gophers can get turnovers in the first half and break the game open, the pressure will be on Colorado State to score quickly, thus forcing them to call less short passes. Unfortunately for Gopher fans, this defense will be in a lot of shootouts this year.
Overall Advantage: Colorado State