Midseason report: Minnesota

Minnesota’s season has been dominated by the headlines of coach Jerry Kill’s battle with epilepsy. Recently, Kill stepped back to take time to focus on his medical treatment and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has stepped in as acting head coach.

On the field the Gophers showed early promise, going 4-0 in nonconference games, but they dropped their first two games of the Big Ten season by a combined score of 65-20. Against Iowa, the Gophers started quarterback Philip Nelson, but after getting the offense just 165 yards against the Hawkeyes, the Minnesota coaching staff decided to go a different direction by using Mitch Leidner against Michigan. The result was the same as the Gophers lost 42-13, but they accounted for 281 offensive yards and put together some pretty impressive drives.

Their offense is a bit of a conundrum. They rank 11th in the Big Ten in total offense (332.7 yards per game) and last in pass offense (116.8 yards per game), but when the Gophers are able to reach clutch situations, they deliver. Minnesota leads the Big Ten in in fourth-down conversions (6-for-7) and is second in red-zone offense (scoring 21 of 22 times). The problem is that the Gophers weren’t able to get in those positions often enough against Iowa and Michigan to compete for a win.

Minnesota had a bye week last weekend, which could come in handy as their schedule isn’t kind from here on out. They have road trips to Northwestern, Indiana and Michigan State, as well as home games against Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin ahead of them. With a quarterback who can really take command of this offense and gain chemistry with receivers and the offensive line, the Gophers could put together a group that could attack some of those teams. But the deficits are also quite obvious on both sides of the ball, even midway through the season.

Offensive MVP: Leidner took over the offense when the Gophers traveled to Ann Arbor a week and a half ago and while he didn’t pick up a win, he put together a few very successful drives against the Wolverines. In his five games he has averaged a team-leading 127.6 yards per game and his ability to be a running threat provides a spark for the Gophers that they just didn’t have with Nelson. His potential could be enough to help the Gophers pick up two more wins and become bowl eligible this season.

Defensive MVP: Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman’s 23 tackles this season is fifth best on the Gophers, but he has a team leading 6.5 tackles for a loss, one 11-yard sack, three pass breakups and two blocked kicks. His athleticism on the defensive line is crucial for the Minnesota defense. Hageman has focused on getting to quarterbacks and while he hasn’t achieved that kind of success yet this season, he does provide an intimidating presence.