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August 9, 2012

Opponent Breakdown: Minnesota

As the 2012 season approaches, BroncoBlitz.com will break down each opponent in the order they appear on WMU's schedule. Next up: a road non-conference matchup with Minnesota.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2011 in review

3-9 overall (2-6 Big Ten)

Postseason: None

While former Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill's first year at the helm of the University of Minnesota's football program could hardly be considered a success, there were certainly flashes of hope in an up and down 2011 season. The 3-9 record the Gophers posted was the same mark as 2010, but fans were encouraged by an overall positive trend as the season went along.

After a surprisingly close 19-17 loss to start the year at USC, Minnesota struggled in the next few weeks, losing to New Mexico State and North Dakota State and narrowly beating Miami (Ohio) before the wheels came off completely in a 58-0 rout at the hands of Michigan. Blowout losses to Purdue and Nebraska followed before the Gophers started to get things together.

Week 9 saw Minnesota pulling an upset over Iowa, 22-21, and the Gophers were largely competitive the next three weeks before ending the season on a high note by slamming Illinois, 27-7. The performance over the last five games of 2011 has the fan base heading into 2012 with higher hopes.

Coaching


Much like Illinois, Minnesota features a coach that will have a lot of familiarity with Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit's system. Jerry Kill led Northern Illinois for three seasons, going 23-16 (18-6 Mid-American Conference). His time in DeKalb culminated in a 10-3 2010 season, with a MAC Championship and Humanitarian Bowl win. The Huskies were 2-1 against WMU in that span, including a 38-3 rout of the Broncos at Huskie Stadium in 2009.

Kill has also served as head coach at Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State and Southern Illinois, compiling an overall head coaching record of 130-82 in his career. He is notable for suffering from seizures in recent years, which was discovered to be caused by kidney cancer. His cancer is now in remission and he is believed to be in good health.

Kill's career has been marked by a series of jobs in which he turned around struggling programs. It's taken him various lengths of time to do so, but he has won big eventually at every stop. Whether he can do so with one of the Big Ten's historically lower-tier programs remains to be seen.

Passing Game

Key departure: WR DaJon McKnight (760 yd, 4 TD)

Key returnee: QB MarQueis Gray (50.7%, 1495 yd, 8 TD/8 INT)

Make no mistake: this offense is going to be the MarQueis Gray show. Plenty more will be said about the dynamic senior when we get around to the running game, but for Minnesota's offense to be truly successful, Gray will have to improve throwing the football.

Gray moonlighted at both quarterback and wide receiver as a freshman and sophomore, including a sophomore year in which he had 42 catches for 587 yards. Last year, he was handed the keys to the offense as the quarterback and certainly had mixed results through the air. At times, like in the Michigan State game (287 yards, 3 TD), he was effective passing and kept the Gophers in the game. Other times, like against Wisconsin (6-of-14, 51 yards), he was simply a liability. Again, his performance passing, even if only to keep the defense honest, will decide whether the Gophers are a good offensive team or simply an enigma once again.

The loss of DaJon McKnight from the receiving corps won't help matters. Much like A.J. Jenkins of Illinois, McKnight was the man for the Gophers through the air. He accounted for an astonishing 42.1% of the team's receiving yards, and although the rest of the receptions were spread widely, no other pass catcher even hit the 200 yard mark. Devin Crawford-Tufts (156 yards in 2011) and Marcus Jones (142 yards) are probably the top two contenders for the starting two spots at wideout, but with eight underclassmen in the 11 man receiving corps, it isn't easy to predict who will get snaps in 2012.

Western Michigan's pass defense should enter this game with confidence. The secondary would appear to be the strongest part of the Bronco defense at this stage, and Minnesota's receivers don't appear to pose a major threat. Expect the Broncos to challenge Gray to put the ball in the air by leaving the secondary on somewhat of an island in an attempt to take away his running option. Much of this game may hinge on whether his passing ability has significantly improved since last season.

Running game

Key departure: Duane Bennett (639 yd, 3.8 ypc, 3 TD)

Key returnees: MarQueis Gray, (966 yd, 4.9 ypc, 6 TD) Donnell Kirkwood (229 yd, 3.6 ypc, 3 TD)


The flashy part of Minnesota's offense comes on the ground, and it's not because of the running backs. The Gophers lose their top rusher from 2011 in Duane Bennett, but Bennett's 3.8 yards per carry are replaceable. Their ace in the hole is once again MarQueis Gray, who brings a dangerous element to the Gopher offense not unlike Michigan's Denard Robinson did last season. Gray, at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, has speed and power and is extremely difficult to bring down. WMU's undersized defense will have to contain and gang-tackle to consistently keep Gray from gashing them.

In the backfield, Minnesota will have to search for a feature back. Donnell Kirkwood is the leading returning rusher at the position, but he is more of a power back and may not be suited to take the every-down role. The Gophers hope that junior college transfer James Gillum, from Mississippi's Gulf Coast Community College, can provide that look. Gillum was a three-star Rivals.com recruit, but his ability is still somewhat unknown and the position is certainly a question mark coming into the season.

Minnesota also returns five players with some starting experience on the offensive line, although two regular starters did graduate. There is a lot of shuffling to be done on a young line that struggled in 2011, but it is expected to improve in the upcoming year.

We will know much more about WMU's ability to handle the Minnesota rushing attack after the September 1 meeting at Illinois. The Illini's Nathan Scheelhaase is not quite the dynamic runner that MarQueis Gray is, but he does bring a similar threat. WMU had mixed results against running quarterbacks in 2011, but stopping the zone read and jet sweep was a major problem and has been an emphasis this offseason. Expect Minnesota to hammer those plays until the Broncos show an ability to handle them.

Run Defense

The Gopher rushing defense, to say the least, was not good in 2011. Opponents averaged about 186 yards per game last season, placing them 11th in the 12 team Big Ten in the category. Compounding matters this year is the loss of both starting defensive tackles as well as middle linebacker Gary Tinsley, who tragically passed away in April due to an enlarged heart. This means the Gophers will have to field an all new middle of the defense.

Given the struggles last year, this is not certain to be a bad thing, but it's extremely difficult to predict whether Minnesota can expect an improvement in this department. Both starting outside linebackers do return, and Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper combined for 160 tackles and 11 tackles for loss last year.

Whether or not Western Michigan can take advantage of a depleted and struggling run defense remains to be seen. It isn't unheard of for a MAC team to run successfully on Minnesota, but WMU's running game has certainly not been a strong suit of late. If nothing else, the front seven of the Gophers will be less dominant than most BCS schools WMU faces, giving them an opportunity to create some balance on offense.

Pass Defense

Minnesota's pass defense was not much better than their run defense last year, with the 2600 yards given up placing them 10th in the conference. Worse than that was the almost complete inability of the secondary to create turnovers; the team finished with an abysmal four interceptions for the entire season. Astonishingly, only one of those picks came in a Big Ten matchup. That is simply not going to get the job done.


The Gophers got a bit of luck when the NCAA approved a sixth year of eligibility for cornerback Troy Stoudermire. Stoudermire, a Dallas, Tex. native, started at receiver for his first two seasons before converting to defense as a junior. He was beginning to come into his own as a senior, grabbing two of the team's four interceptions within the first four games before going down for the year with a broken wrist against North Dakota State. The secondary never really recovered from the injury.

Stoudermire will need to do a lot this year, though, for a secondary that returns no other starters. Another three-star junior college transfer, Martez Shabazz, will add depth at cornerback, but the Gophers will still have to mix and match young and inexperienced players to fill in the gaps at safety.

This is quite an opportunity for Alex Carder and Western Michigan. Carder will be one of the better quarterbacks this secondary will face, particularly early on. If the receivers are in the swing of things by the Week 3 matchup, it could be a long day for the Gopher defense.

Special Teams

Placekicking was a bright spot in 2011 for Minnesota, as Chris Hawthorne hit on 6-of-9 field goals with a long of 47 before suffering a leg injury halfway through the season. He gave way to Jordan Wettstein, who proceeded to make all six of his attempts including a 51-yarder. Both return in 2012, and will battle in camp for the starting role.

Punting was more of a struggle, with rising junior Dan Orseske averaging just 37.0 yards per boot and the punting game finishing 11th in the conference.

The Gophers' return games were average, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in kick return average and eighth in punt returns.

Overall Outlook

Western Michigan is 0-3 against Minnesota all-time, but all three games took place in Minneapolis between 1975 and 1977. Much has changed since then, and this is one of the Broncos' best opportunities in some time to notch a win over a Big Ten school.

Although WMU did grab a BCS win over UConn in 2011, they haven't defeated a Big Ten opponent since beating Illinois 23-17 at Detroit's Ford Field in 2008. Since that game, the Broncos have lost seven straight against the conference.

Bill Cubit now stands at 2-9 overall against the Big Ten. This season provides two reasonable opportunities to notch wins against the top conference in the region, and the game in Minneapolis is the better chance of the two. WMU matches up reasonably well in every facet of the game and should be expected to move the football against the Gophers. The Broncos' chances of winning this game are likely to come down to their ability to contain MarQueis Gray in the pocket.

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