clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Q&A With Minnesota’s The Daily Gopher

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers travels to play Big Ten West opponent Minnesota for the first time ever this weekend and it will be a difficult matchup. The Golden Gophers have a strong defense and this is their homecoming game, so spirits will be running high for the hosts. Coming off a convincing road win at Maryland, head coach Tracy Claeys has Minnesota at 4-2 in his first full season on the job.

I was fortunate to speak with Blake Ruane from SB Nation’s Minnesota blog, The Daily Gopher. He touches on how the fan base views their team midway through the season, how Tracy Claeys is settling in as head coach, what to expect from backup quarterback Conor Rhoda and more. Time to dive in.

What was the consensus among the fan base regarding the expectations for Minnesota football entering this season? Have they changed after a 4-2 start?

Expectations were relatively high coming into this season, considering the soft schedule and the amount of returning talent. Most Gopher fans believed Minnesota could even be a contender in the Big Ten West. But dropping back-to-back games against Penn State and Iowa to open conference play delivered a harsh dose of reality. If the Gophers can take care of business against Rutgers, Illinois, and Purdue in the coming weeks, they'll be in good shape heading into a final stretch that includes Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road and Northwestern at home. But the offense will need to make serious progress in the next few weeks for Minnesota to have a chance against those final three Big Ten teams. They haven't looked the part of a Big Ten West contender up to this point, but there is a lot of season left. We'll see how things shake out.

Jerry Kill seemed to be a popular head coach at Minnesota. How disappointed was the fan base in losing him and what were the initial reactions to Tracy Claeys taking over after serving as defensive coordinator the previous 3+ seasons. What is the long term ceiling for the program with Claeys as head coach?

Jerry Kill having to resign at midseason due to health issues was heartbreaking to say the least. He was arguably one of the most successful football coaches that Minnesota has had in years. I don't know if you saw clips from his final press conference, but it was difficult to watch, because clearly he was walking away from something that he loved. But he really had no other choice. It was a sad situation all around. But I think most Gopher fans were onboard with allowing Tracy Claeys to take the helm. He has worked wonders on the defensive side of the ball since arriving at Minnesota, and he earned a lot of respect when he was willing to shake up the offensive coaching staff after taking over for Kill.

The jury's out on how high the ceiling is for this program with Claeys as head coach. It's important to remember that this is his first year as a head coach at any level, so growing pains are to be expected. I think a lot of Gopher fans have been frustrated with the lack of discipline on both sides of the ball. This team has yet to put together a complete performance, and deficiencies both in terms of talent and execution at various positions have cost the Gophers at times in games. If the Gophers finish 6-6 or 7-5, I'm sure there will be fans calling for his ouster after failing to take advantage of the soft schedule. But is there a proven head coach or coach-in-waiting out there who would be a surefire upgrade over Claeys? I'm not so sure.

Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner missed last week's game against Maryland due to a concussion. Conor Rhoda started in his place and the offense was run heavy in beating the Terps by multiple scores. With Leidner declared out this weekend, how different will the Minnesota offense be with Rhoda behind center?

Not much different from what you saw against Maryland, I think. I was not all that impressed with Conor Rhoda last week, but he proved to be a serviceable substitute with Mitch Leidner on the sideline. He wasn't asked to do too much, and he avoided turning the ball over. Expect more of the same this week. Rhoda is very inexperienced, and his abilities as a quarterback are suspect based on the small sample size we've seen thus far. He was uncomfortable in the pocket and didn't have very good timing with any of his receivers. It'll be interesting to see if the coaches ask more of him on Saturday now that he has his first collegiate start under his belt. But don't expect him to come out and throw for 250 yards. If the Gophers are able to let loose their rushing attack again, I'm sure he'll be perfectly comfortable in a game manager role.

Please describe the running styles of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and how they have fared overall this season?

Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are the best weapons the Gophers have at their disposal on offense. Smith is a patient and elusive runner who has added an element of toughness to his game this season. He has been the workhorse on offense for the first half of the season, and is the favorite between the two Gopher running backs to reach 1,000 rushing yards by the end of the season. Brooks is a physical runner who thrives off contact and can score from anywhere on the field. But Smith has also improved that part of his game after busting a 70-yard touchdown run against Maryland last week. Brooks missed the first two games of the season with a broken foot and has gradually worked his way back into the mix to split carries with Smith. They're an exciting duo, and considering both are sophomores, the future is bright at running back for Minnesota.

Minnesota's defense is ranked 18th in S&P+ midway through the season. What is their strengths and style of play, as well as please name a few key players that Rutgers fans should be aware of?

The last two weeks, the Gopher defense has been much improved. Suspensions and injuries took a toll during the first four games of the season, and the defense was uncharacteristically susceptible to big plays, especially through the air. But the return of sophomore cornerback KiAnte Hardin has made a huge difference in the secondary, along with the emergence of freshman defensive back Antoine Winfield, Jr. The Gophers have also been blessed with an embarrassment of riches at linebacker, where senior Jack Lynn leads a very talented linebacker corps. Junior linebacker Jonathan Celestin will be all over the field after being an impact player the last two weeks while starting linebacker and defensive leader Cody Poock has been sidelined. Freshmen linebackers Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin have also emerged as key contributors on defense. It's a unit that has an exciting blend of experienced upperclassmen and talented freshmen and sophomores.

The weakness is along the defensive line. The Gophers have struggled to muster much of a pass rush, and that has led to frustrating problems at times, especially when the quarterback is able to escape the pocket and extend plays. The defensive line has improved somewhat the last two weeks, but the level of competition might also be a factor there.

For the Rutgers fans traveling out for the game this weekend, please recommend some fun place to visit, as well as good game day activities?

One of your fans actually posed this very same question to us back in August! Our commenters over at the Daily Gopher were kind enough to offer up a few suggestions that you'll be able find here. There is no shortage of places to be around the stadium and elsewhere in Minneapolis, especially if your interests include food and beer.

If you're interested in getting a preview of both the men's and women's basketball teams, an open scrimmage is being held at Williams Arena immediately following the football game. Admission is free, and the Barn is worth a visit, in my opinion.

I hear that Mall of America is nice, as well. Big, but nice.

What are your thoughts and prediction for Saturday's first ever meeting between Minnesota and Rutgers?

It's hard not to be confident considering how Rutgers has fared against Big Ten competition up to this point. And a midseason quarterback change for the Scarlet Knights does not exactly bode well for that offense. But I do think that Minnesota's toothless passing game with Rhoda under center will keep things closer than they otherwise might have been. Ultimately, the Gopher defense will keep a tight lid on the Scarlet Knights offense and both Smith and Brooks will eventually find the end zone. I predict that Minnesota celebrates their Homecoming with a 31-10 victory over Rutgers.

Thanks to Blake for giving us great insight on the Minnesota football team ahead of Saturday’s game. You can follow Blake on twitter here and to read more on this week’s opponent, check out our friends at The Daily Gopher. To read my answers to Blake’s questions on Rutgers, click here.