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July 30, 2013Follow @JohnVeldhuis
After a long break for the Big Ten media days, we're starting to wrap up the Beat Writer Knows Best series. The Badgers will take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers in their penultimate game of the regular season, and my bet is that this game will be one of the most interesting the series has seen in a while.
For one thing the Badgers will obviously be breaking in a new coaching staff when the team packs up Paul Bunyan's Axe for the five-hour drive to Minneapolis. We should have a good idea of what the Badgers can and can't do in their first season under Gary Andersen by then, and it will also be interesting to see what Andersen brings to the table in his first game as part of a long-standing grudge match.
But on the western side of the Mississippi, things seem to be looking up in Dinkytown. The Gophers finished 6-7 last season, but even reaching bowl eligibility in Jerry Kill's first season seems like an accomplishment. Aaron Johnson from GopherIllustrated.com was kind enough to give us the scoop on the Golden Gophers, and his answers to a few of my questions are included below.
The Gophers obviously made it back to the postseason last year in their second year under Jerry Kill. But even though they lost to Texas Tech, I'm guessing you'd consider their season a success, right? Considering where the Gophers have been in the last year?
Aaron Johnson: I think going in to the year, Gopher fans and those who critique Gopher football would have said that at a minimum they needed to go to a bowl game. With the non-conference schedule they had, you're thinking 4-0 going in to the Big Ten schedule. The home game against Syracuse as the year went on looked like a better win, especially with the way the defense played. They did what they needed to do. They went 4-0 in the non-conference, and then they got the two wins in the conference that they needed to get to that bowl game. I was probably more impressed with them and how they played in that bowl game than in almost any other game that year. I think they really showed in that bowl game what Jerry Kill wants out of his team. I know it was a tough loss for Kill and the team.
Offensively, what should we expect to see out of the Gophers? Obviously it's nice for the Gophers to return a starter at quarterback and their offensive staff as well. What do you expect to see out of that unit this year?
AJ: I think that's correct. When you look at the fact that Phillip Nelson made his first start last year in Camp Randall, he got to start the last six regular season games and a bowl game. A lot of people initially second guessed the decision and wondered why they would burn that redshirt. But now you fast forward to 2013, and everybody knew last season that Nelson would be the starting quarterback for this season. But now instead of a deer in the headlights freshman, he's got seven college starts under his belt. So I think that decision was a great one, especially for what they want to accomplish in 2013.
I think you need to see more of Nelson that you saw in the Purdue game. He struggled [at times] last year as a true freshman, but I thought he showed enough in certain situations where you could tell he'll be the quarterback of the future. I think you should expect to see Nelson taking control of this team.
How about on defense? Obviously Ra'Shade Hageman looks like a monster, but do the Gophers have the other pieces in place to get to a point where the defense can support the offense?
AJ: That's the question. I know a lot of Gopher fans go 'well this guy is good, and this guy is going to be our starter,' but being good when you're comparing them to other Gophers is one thing. Being a Big Ten quality defensive player is another thing. That's all over the field. You've got Hageman, and he has a chance to completely explode, and solidify himself as one of the best defenders in the Big Ten. Now he's got to do it on the field. But to do it, he needs help. Big Ten offensive lines will double-team him, and we might not hear his name so much this year. He's going to need help, and he's going to need other players to step and prove that yeah, they can start for the Gophers, but they can start and prove that they are Big Ten caliber players at every position. Going 4-0 in the non-conference and 2-6 in the Big Ten, that's good enough for year two, but in year three or four or five it's going to get old.
People make a lot of hay about how Jerry Kill's teams make a big jump in year three of the rebuilding project. But obviously Minnesota is going to be harder to turn around than Western or Northern Illinois. Do you think the Gophers can make a third year leap, or will they have to wait a little while longer than that?
AJ: That's a great question, and I know a lot of Gopher fans are looking forward to this third year. I think in year three this will be his best Gopher team. But making a big jump in year three at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois is not the same as making a third year jump at Minnesota in the Big Ten. I mean, let's be honest. Winning in Minnesota in the Big Ten is a lot harder than winning at a high level at Northern Illinois in the MAC. The program he took over at Minnesota, as far as degree of difficulty, is the hardest job he's had so far. So he went 10-3 in year three at Northern Illinois, but I don't think anyone expects the Gophers to go 10-3 this year. I think when you look at the schedule, another 6-6 season or 7-5 season maybe looks like treading water, but I think that's continuing to make progress.
And I think getting back to a bowl game is crucial, because I don't know if you've looked, but in 2014 and 2015 they get hit really hard by the schedule. In 2014 and 2015 their two cross over games are Michigan and Ohio State. It's going to be tough. You'd think Kill will have to mimic year two, because 2014 and 2015 look tough, and he might want to get to seven or eight wins [this year], because if he takes a step back in 2014 and 2015 and they don't get to a bowl game, it will be tough.
This is just something I'm curious about, even it's a bit of a morbid curiosity. How much of a leash do you think Jerry Kill has with the new administration? Personally I think Kill is the man for that job, but I have my doubts that the patience will be there if they hit a rough patch.
AJ: That's a tough question to answer, because I don't think anyone expects Minnesota to not do well under Kill. What if he goes 4-8 in 2013 and 3-9 in 2014? Will there be a 2015? That's not good, so everyone is sky high now on Kill, but that might not be the same. I think right now, Kill's approval rating is very high, and I think that's warranted. I think Kill is what this program needs. He's a builder, he's a no-nonsense guy, he's not looking for an are code at a 'helmet school.' Jerry Kill is Minnesota's best chance for a Barry Alvarez. It's just unfortunate at what happened on the schedule at 2014 and 2015. It's almost like, 'Ok, you're going to have to toughen up and take a few body blows.' Maybe you get to six wins in one of those years, and then in 2016 the nine game conference schedule comes. You add Maryland and Rutgers, but I think you've got to make hay in 2013 to see 2016.
So what do you think, where do you see the Gophers finishing this year? Is this the year they can win back Paul Bunyan's Axe from the Badgers?
AJ: I think it's 13-0 to be honest this year.
You're a bold man.
AJ: I'm sorry, 14-0, with the national championship game.
But to be honest, yes, I think this is a bowl season. UNLV, at New Mexico State, Western Illinois, and San Jose State, stop me when you think I'm talking about Wisconsin's schedule. There's some sneaky games on there. I think it's just like 2012. You go 4-0 in the non-conference, and then you go in to the Big Ten and your winnable games, outside of Indiana, are at home. Iowa is at home. And if there's a time for Minnesota to get that axe back, it's this year. Nobody knows more than Minnesota how rough year one of a coaching change can be. If they're going to get the axe back, it's going to be this year. And that's game 11, so there's a lot of things that can happen between now and then.
Thanks again to Aaron for taking some time to talk about the Gophers. You can read more of his work at GopherIllustrated.com.