By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Minnesota Golden Gophers beat the teams they were supposed to in 2009, but that was about it. After grinding out wins over
Syracuse (23-20 in OT) and Air Force (20-13) to start the season, Minnesota
suffered a 35-21 setback to No. 8 California on September 19th.
Over the next several weeks, the Gophers alternated wins and losses. They
knocked off Northwestern (35-24) and Purdue (35-20), but fell to Wisconsin
(31-28), No. 14 Penn State (20-0) and No. 19 Ohio State (38-7). A wild win
over Michigan State (42-34) on Halloween provided some hope for a strong
finish, but that would not be the case. The very next week, the Gophers lost a
heartbreaker at home to Illinois (35-32). And after slipping by South Dakota
State (16-13), Minnesota closed its schedule with a 12-0 loss to 13th-ranked
The Gophers earned a second straight trip to the Insight Bowl, but fell to
Iowa State in an uninspired 14-13 final.
OFFENSE: Once upon a time, Minnesota's rushing attack perennially ranked among
the nation's elite. In three years under coach Tim Brewster, the Gophers have
shifted away from the ground-and-pound, and have opened up the passing game.
Last year, they ranked 111th in the nation in rushing offense (99 ypg), but
also ranked just 75th in passing offense (207 ypg) and 100th in scoring (20.92
ppg). Enter new co-coordinator Jeff Horton, who tutored No. 1 overall NFL
Draft pick Matthew Stafford with the Detroit Lions last year.
Senior quarterback Adam Weber is in top physical shape, which wasn't the case
a year ago.
"Last year he had surgery prior to the season. And I don't think he was as
effective as he would have liked to have been," coach Brewster said of Weber,
who completed only 52 percent of his passes and finished the year with 15
interceptions and 13 touchdowns. "And I think in large part a lot of it had to
do with his physical condition. But he's in great physical shape. He's our
captain. He's our leader."
Still, Weber won't have star wideout Eric Decker around to catch passes any
longer. In addition, the Gophers struggled to gain yards on the ground last
season in their first year running a pro-style offense. Duane Bennett led the
team with only 376 yards last year as a sophomore. The offensive line is an
experienced unit, but one that wasn't very consistent a year ago.
DEFENSE: Gone are nine starters from a defense that wasn't particularly
imposing last year. Brewster said he is very much looking forward to the
challenge of sorting out the roster and finding out who he can rely on.
"We've got a very young defensive football team," Brewster said. "But it's a
very talented defensive football team. The competition is what's going to make
us great. So as we move forward, we'll have competitive situations through the
Brewster called his defensive line, which will feature four new starters, one
of the most talented defensive lines he's been around. Junior tackles Jehwan
Edwards (6-2, 333) and Brandon Kirksey (6-2, 295) are the anchors. Redshirt
freshman Ra'Shede Hageman and sophomore D.L. Wilhite will be counted on to
provide pressure at defensive end.
Sophomores Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper emerged at linebacker with strong
springs, while junior Gary Tinsley takes over in the middle. Safeties Kim
Royston and Kyle Theret are the only two returning starters on the defense,
but Royston is recovering from two broken bones in his left leg, and Theret
was suspended indefinitely for a drunk driving incident.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Troy Stoudermire has the inside track at kick returner after
averaging 24.6 yards per return in '09. Receiver Brandon Green looked solid
while handling punt return duties in the spring. At kicker, Eric Ellestad is
back for his senior season after making 13-of-17 field goal attempts and all
31 extra points a year ago. Punter Dan Orseske was redshirted after being
diagnosed with mononucleosis, but he is back healthy and ready to pick up
where he left off, averaging 44.6 yards on nine punts.
OUTLOOK: Having played virtually every snap for the past three seasons, Weber
provides a steadying presence at quarterback. However, he needs to really step
up his game if the Gophers are to take a step forward. Can coach Horton work
his magic with Weber and get him back to the type of player he was in 2008? If
not, look for athletic sophomore MarQueis Gray to possibly take over the job
at some point.
The running game averaged a mere 3.0 ypc in 2009, and that won't get it done
this year, either. The Gophers must navigate a very tough schedule in order to
earn a third straight bowl bid. A September 18th showdown with USC presents a
big early-season test. The final five weeks won't be a picnic, as the Gophers
will take on Penn State and Ohio State at home, followed by road bouts at
Michigan State and at Illinois, before closing out the year at home against
Iowa. If the Gophers haven't secured six wins before that stretch, it will
certainly be an uphill battle to become bowl eligible.