Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gopher O-Line, MarQueis & Tolzien are Keys to the Game

Happy October. We're enjoying a monsoon here in Minneapolis to start the month, and hopefully this crap clears up for Saturday. If you haven't listened to the pod yet 1) shame on you and 2) shame on you. Listen to the pod and you can hear our preview of the game, but let's expound on it further here.

On paper the Badgers look like the better team, or at least like they'll have a better chance of winning. Yes, they haven't played as tough a schedule as the Gophers, and no, I don't think Wisconsin would have beaten California either, but Bucky just looks like a more complete team through four weeks. Their defense has gotten better every week (or has it? Hmmmm), and while the secondary remains a question mark, they were good enough to beat two good taems in Michigan State and Fresno State. Offensively their running game is coming together and we expect John Clay to continue to pile up the carries and the yards in tradional Wisconsin fashion (they ran 50 times last week in the win over the Spartans).

The surprise so far for the Badgers has undoubtedly been the play of junior quarterback Scott Tolzien, who was a distant third on the depth chart heading into the spring of 2009, yet played so well in practice he was named the starter for opening day. All he's done in his first four games is complete 66.7% of his passes for 884 yards, 8 TD's and a Big Ten-leading 164.3 QB rating.

He's been really, really impressive with one major caveat- he's done it all at home. This is going to be Tolzien's first ever start on the road, and while Wisconsin fans (including the boys at Bucky's Fifth Quarter) will tell you that TCF Bank won't be a factor because "it's no Camp Randall and it's only 50,000 people" I can't wait for Gopher fans to prove them wrong. The Bank WILL be a factor Saturday, and it's going to be loud when Wisky has the ball. I really, really hope Bielma and the rest of the Badgers continue to talk and think and believe the new home field's not going to be a factor and it's not going to bother them at all. Please, by all means, keep thinking that. I cannot wait for the first time Tolzien's going to be faced with a big third down and the place will be going nuts to the point he can't hear and he's going to think "Holy *%&! I didn't expect this!!" TCF Bank stadium is certainly no Camp Randall, but it's much better than the Metrodome and a sea of 50,000 Maroon and Gold fans is going to be MUCH louder than the Badgers are going to expect.

How Tolzien handles the noise and a real road atmosphere is the key for the Badgers offense. They're going to run, and run a lot, but whether Tolzien can make the Gophers pay for bringing defenders up to stop the run is going to be the difference. He certainly has weapons in receivers Isaac Anderson and Nick Toon, and the best tight end in the conference in Garrett Graham. But it all comes down to Tolzien. If the Gophers can stop the run then Tolzien's not good enough to beat them by himself. And if they can get pressure on him and rattle him a bit early, then even better.

For the Gophers, the more I've read and studied, the less worried I am about this game. Maybe I'm putting too much stock in last year's close loss, but think about this: with a VERY similar team to last year (we have 18 starters back from that squad), a team that for that game was missing Eric Decker, Duane Bennett and Kevin Whaley, the Gophers led 21-7 at the half and were in it until the very end. Both teams are improved from that time, but I really like our chances. For one, the defense is going to be improved from last year, as well as last week. The secondary was awful but I know that the players are going to be ticked off and the coaches are going to fix whatever coverage problems they had against Northwestern. Losing Cedric McKinley to suspension is a big, big loss but in a rivalry game where the Gophers are underdogs AT HOME and are having to hear all week about good Wisconsin is and how little of a factor the new stadium is going to be, they're going to be really fired up.

Offensively, I laugh at the Wisconsin people who are saying "Michigan State and Minnesota have similar offenses, and since we stopped the Spartans last week we'll stop the Gophers." First off, Michigan State racked up 486 yards of total offense. Three weeks ago Fresno State put up 468. You can argue all you want about how the Michigan State game was pretty much over and they got some cheap yards at the end of the game, but 391 yards passing is a lot no matter when they get it.

I've also heard and read Badger blogs claiming they're going to stop Decker because they stopped Blair White last week. Really? You're going to look at the first four games and say White is even in the same solar system as Decker has been? White's a nice college receiver, but he hasn't been the focal point of every defense he's played so far. He's not in Decker's class. Not even close. For the first four games defenses have been geared to stop Decker and yet he still gets his catches, yards, and touchdowns. He has 12 more catches and 150 more yards than White, and all of this while Decker has played against better competition and against defenses focused on stopping him. The Badgers secondary is certainly no better than Northwestern's, and is definitely no better than Cal's, and if Decker can wrack up catches against them then he's going to do it against Wisconsin too. So I have zero worries there.

As for the running game well...ok yeah, I'm worried. They got back on track and looked like a real offense with Bennett and Kevin Whaley gashing Northwestern on the ground last week, but I'm not sold on Northwestern's front seven being any good. At least not yet. I'm hoping it's an improvement and that we'll see them continue to pick up yards and first downs rushing because as much as I like the matchup of Decker vs. the Wisconsin secondary we cannot beat Wisconsin, or anyone else for that matter, as a one-dimensional passing offense. Establishing the run is going to be the key to a Gophers victory Saturday, and I don't care what the configuration is on the offensive line and who's starting, but those five and the tight ends HAVE to move the Badgers off the line and open some holes for the Gophs running backs and The Man Crush MarQueis Gray.

Oh yeah, about Mr. Gray- he's going to be unleashed. You're going to witness the Gopher's wildcat formation go from all run to a dangerous passing option. Expect Gray to run the ball a few times early, then when the time is right and Wisconsin brings the safties up, look for him to fake a hand off, drop back, and fire a ball downfield, most likely to a wide open Brandon Green. I was critical of the coaching staff the first two weeks for the lack of creativity, but after watching them open up the playbook and their bag of tricks against Cal, the vanilla offense the first two games was obviously by design. Last week against Northwestern we saw even more of Gray, but they still didn't let him throw. Again, I believe this is by design.

In the biggest game of the year for the Gophers (the winner of this game has an inside track to a coveted top four finish and a New Year's Day bowl) at home against the hated Badgers, a fired up crowd dominated by maroon and gold is going to witness the coming out party for one MarQueis Gray- that is, if the offensive line gives him, and the rest of the backfield, the chance. If they do, and the Gopher rush can get to Tolzien, I'm loving the Gopher "upset" on Saturday.

1 comment:

Gopher Bandanna Guy said...

Outstanding take. Really enjoyed the read thru. I'm new to the world of blogging, but I'll definitely be checking back with yours.

I'm piecing together a Gophers blog myself, check it out sometime, I'd appreciate any feedback you might provide!