Colorado State travels to Minnesota this weekend to complete a home-and-home series. To get a closer look at the Golden Gophers football team we chatted with TheDailyGopher.com.
1. The Mountain West has played Minnesota over the past few years with Colorado State last year and San Jose State the years prior, and it seems the offense has shifted from a heavy run game to more of a balanced attack. Is this due to Tracy Claeys taking over as head coach last year, or a talent issue. What is expected offensively for the Gophers?
The Gophers have relied quite a bit on the running game the last several years, often to their detriment in big games. Up until last season, when quarterback Mitch Leidner took a big step forward, the passing game had been anemic, even non-existent at times.
Minnesota rode running back David Cobb in back-to-back 8-5 seasons in 2013 and 2014, but were never able complement that rushing attack with an adequate passing game. Fans will point to the slow development of Leidner and lack of explosive players at the wide receiver position as the reason for that, but last season it was a banged up and underdeveloped offensive line that plagued the offense. Head coach Tracy Claeys and new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson want a more balanced attack, and they believe they have the talent in place to do that.
Having a senior quarterback certainly helps, and freshman Tyler Johnson is an emerging star at wide receiver to go along with senior Drew Wolitarsky. Tight end Brandon Lingen and wide receiver Rashad Still are typically key cogs in the passing game, but both are currently out with injuries.
2. What difference would it make to the offense if Minnesota gets running back Shannon Brooks back in the lineup?
To be honest, I don't know if it would make a substantial difference, because the Gophers have been blessed with a crowded backfield of capable running backs. Redshirt sophomore Rodney Smith and JUCO back Kobe McCrary have both stepped up with Shannon Brooks on the sideline to start the season.
The two have combined for 379 rushing yards and five touchdowns after two games. Smith was a known commodity coming into this season, but McCrary made his case with a monster performance against Indiana State in Week 2. I'd obviously prefer to have Brooks in the backfield -- as long as he is 100 percent -- but Gopher fans have no reason to be concerned if Smith and McCrary are carrying the load on Saturday.
3. Colorado State is starting true freshman Collin Hill at quarterback in his first road start, so what will this defense do to attempt to confuse Hill?
The Gopher defense will try to crank up the pressure on Hill as best they can. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel has placed added emphasis on not only sacks but putting the quarterback on his back, and the results thus far have been a mixed bag.
The defensive line has been inconsistent in terms of disrupting the passing game -- freshman defensive end Taiyon Devers leads the team with two sacks, both recorded against Oregon State -- so expect to see Gopher linebackers rushing off the edge, in particular sophomore Julian Huff and freshman Kamal Martin.
With starting cornerback KiAnte Hardin and back-up cornerback Ray Buford both suspended, the secondary will be a bit short handed if the Rams spread the field. So it will be interesting to see how the Gophers utilize a young and inexperienced corps of defensive backs.
4. Who is the most dangerous player on this Minnesota team?
If healthy, that player is Shannon Brooks. He is a threat to score any time the football is in his hands. He is a tough, physical runner who thrives on contact, and he will litter the field with bodies on his way to the end zone if he finds open space. Outside of Brooks, I'd have to go with senior cornerback Jalen Myrick.
He is the fastest player on the team and if he gets his hands on the ball, look out. He'll return punts and kickoffs, but Collin Hill would do well to avoid throwing the ball where Myrick can catch it. Otherwise he is looking at a possible pick six.
5. What is your game prediction?
Colorado State took Minnesota down to the wire last season, so I doubt the Gophers are going to take the Rams lightly. But the 2016 Rams appear to be a downgrade from the 2015 Rams, especially after being dismantled in the season opener by Colorado.
The Gopher offense took a big step forward against Indiana State -- albeit, against inferior competition -- but I think Minnesota will build off that against Colorado State, especially after a bye week to work out a few kinks. The defense got called out for taking their foot off the pedal in the second half against Indiana State, so I think they'll come out strong on Saturday. The Gophers win 38-14, with the Rams sneaking in a few fourth quarter touchdowns to close the margin a bit.