Friday, November 1, 2013

Minnesota Gophers Sport New Football Team...From One Month Ago

The University of Minnesota hired Jerry Kill to be its football coach in December 2010, and immediately the aura around its football team changed.  Academics became important, character became important, and team became more than a word describing the club the football players belonged to.  Minnesota football was renewed, except for one basic feature: in terms of winning ballgames, it still wasn't very good.

Over two seasons and three offseasons our Gophers changed.  Kill brought in players who weren't especially coveted by BCS level programs and collectively were regarded as the worst sets of recruits in the Big Ten.  To the keen observer, though, these kids as a whole were much better football players than advertised, and the level of smarts, character, and want-to was the highest it's been in many decades.  The team, including former coach Tim Brewster's leftovers, started attending class, became structured in both academics and football activities, and began the process of becoming winners.  The secret bane of all non-powerhouse programs, attrition, virtually disappeared.

We at Twinstalker fell in love.  It wasn't perfect.  There were pink flags that we deep down knew might be an issue, but we were in love.  Certainly the strategy and playcalling of OC Matt Limegrover would improve with better teams.  Certainly the defensive sets would be more appropriate to the opponent.  Certainly Jerry Kill's in-game decision-making would be more sound.  All we really needed was good players, and the were developing.  They were coming.

Yes, we had monitored the program's development closely and determined that 2013 would be the first legitimate winning team under Kill.  This would be the year that our Minnesota Gophers would be a better football team than half of the BCS programs, the year the team would finish in the middle of the Big Ten.  And 2013 would be just the start.  By 2014 the play of the lines would improve, linebackers would be found, and the skill positions would finally be manned with a few playmakers.  Sure, the schedule would also strengthen considerably in 2014 and beyond, but for a team on the rise the challenges brought by the likes of Ohio State should be accepted with eagerness rather than consternation.

So when the season opening kickoff sailed through the air on that hot, late summer Thursday night, we were simply giddy to watch our beloved Maroon and Gold dissect WAC-level opponents through the nonconference season, followed by the Gophers announcing to the Big Ten there was a new team to deal with in 2013.

And then the Gophers ran their first play.  Their first series.  Their first defensive series.  And it was all ugly.  Through four games, most of them blowout scores in the Gophers' favor, the team showed itself to be anything but ready for Big Ten caliber opponents.  The offense was simple and predictable, the line was barely mediocre and getting outplayed in some games, and the defense had issues all over the field, including the secondary, an area thought to be a strength.  Those pink flags we hoped would disappear didn't.  We were distraught.

At that point, prior to the Big Ten opener, we took a few moments to post a comment on the message board expressing how "profoundly disappointed" we were with the Gophers nonconference season.  We critiqued the coaching, and we critiqued the play position by position, and it was a pretty negative piece if you were both blind and hopeful, which it always seems a majority of Gopher fans are.  The replies were littered with you think you're so smart (maybe), you've never played or coached (wrong), and we devote a blog to cutting down a team we're supposedly fans of (wrong).  We received no further apologetic replies, of course, when it turned out everything we said about our Gophers turned out to be spot on versus a very mediocre Iowa team.  The Gophers gave us confirmation of their inadequacy the next week at Michigan.  As it existed at that time, ours was a pretty bad football team.

We naturally wanted to say we "told you so" but those people are beyond hope.  We decided to either drop it or bring it up again if the Gophers turned things around.  Our main contention with the 4-0 Gophers was that offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was primarily responsible for the poor and ugly play.  While we didn't expect him to change, it was a hope we held.  For sure there were other issues, but running a varied offensive attack was at the heart of the solution.  Whether or not Limegrover had it in him was unknown.

We promised Monday that on Tuesday we'd share the thesis we'd posted before Iowa, and then later this week we'd analyze how each issue had evolved or devolved.  Unfortunately, we found the post was no longer available, and we didn't really see the urgency in its recovery.  While it won't be word for word, the issues we brought up are still pretty fresh in our collective mind.

Overall Offensive
The post, as stated, received its shared of stupid replies, as expected, but not nearly as many as similar posts in the past.  Most of the board members there are not morons, those who are are just a bit louder.  Don't just disagree, make sure you cut down the poster sharing his opinion.  In this case, though, there were numerous comments that agreed with the most simple premise: Limegrover was proving to suck at his job.  He was running a basic ten play read-option offense out of the shotgun or pistol set.  The only play that worked consistently was the quarterback keeper.  Anyone who's watch Big Ten football knew that that particlar play in this small offense would not work in the Big Ten, but it would get the QB injured eventually.  That was especially problematic, because the Gophers had one well-rounded quarterback who was going to lead the program turnaround (assuming a more varied offense), and after that there appeared a drop-off.

Out of the I-formation Limegrover was running the power lead, and the offensive line was pushing no one back.  We noticed Limegrover was staying in the middle and to the left, running over his one good lineman, left guard Zac Epping, but that strategy, too, was working only against the poorest of competition.  The passing game was simple, and the array of routes were not allowing the receivers to separate.  We looked at the team's strongest position, tight end, and wondered why Limegrover didn't build a module of plays around their quality junior Drew Goodger or their very impressive redshirt freshman Maxx Williams.

So the offense wasn't working, and it was putting the starting QB, the biggest key to a Minnesota Gopher turnaround, at risk.  Philip Nelson had indeed injured himself in the third game, though the hamstring strain he sustained may have had little to do with the offense.  Mitch Leidner had started the game against San Jose State, and he had performed unevenly.  His throwing left much to be desired, but SJSU couldn't stop the QB keeper, so Leidner set a quirky sort of record for rushing touchdowns.  Since nothing about the play appeared to extrapolate well to the Big Ten, we felt no real optimism from the display.

So what happened when the Big Ten season arrived?  Well, as predicted, the offense just didn't work even at home against the lowliest of Big Ten opponents, the Iowa Hawkeyes.  Nelson made the surprise start, and he looked like a quarterback who was both rusty and had no options.  We're sure many delusional Gopher fan were surprised the team couldn't run the ball against Iowa, when it had done so well against New Mexico St.  There was no offense at all and no hope for the Gopher to win a home game against one of the bottom teams in the conference.  All was seemingly lost, except for one thing.  Limegrover finally woke up.

The offensive coordinator must have been too close to the situation to understand the lopsided wins were in spite of his offensive strategy, not in accordance with it.  That message got through in Big Ten week 2, and the Gophers expanded their playbook for the Michigan game.  It was for this game that another big decision was made: Leidner would make the start over a healthy Nelson.  This decision threw the Twinstalker crew into a tizzy.  Really?  The one hope you have for turning this program around is going to sit on the bench in favor of a freshman who is simply not as talented?  We saw the future, and it was a Philip Nelson transfer.

The Gophers again looked bad against Michigan, and Leidner didn't play a great game, but somehow some hope came out of it all.  Leidner proved to be capable as hopefully a backup, and Limegrover was mixing things up.  Two games later Limegrover is being hailed as an innovative schemer for his game plan against Nebraska, and it looks like he's starting to understand that there exists a difference between Nelson and Leidner.  We've often wondered whether all the preseason hype afforded a mediocre Leidner was more of a message to Nelson, and now we  ask whether a now better-than-mediocre Leidner starting and playing a couple of series each game isn't serving the same purpose.  We'd like to believe there is a plan and that Limegrover isn't simply obtuse to the difference in their talents.

There is no doubt that the Gophers hit Northwestern at precisely the right time and hit Nebraska at a good time, too, but the change in offensive philosophy doesn't need to get the full credit for the wins.  Its importance lies in the future.  Minnesota is unlikely to win games with a one-dimensional offense, and Limegrover seems to understand that now.

We've pretty much laid out our opinions on Nelson and Leidner. One comment we made in the GI post was that we no longer cared if true freshman Chris Streveler lost his redshirt.  If Limegrover was going to use his QBs as he was in nonconference, it hardly mattered whether we had three or four more years of Streveler.  We will just recruit one athletic QB every year; it doesn't take a lot of smarts or experience to run the offense Limegrover was throwing out there.

As for Nelson, it's difficult to distinguish his play from the new offense.  He continues to throw a nice ball, and he is a running threat.  We assume he is the clear-cut #1.  We thought he was doing fine a month ago, and it's proven to be the case.  Leidner at Michigan gave us confidence that he can be a quality backup, something that was never clear, despite the coaches' hype.

Offensive Line
Our GI post stated that the GI faithful were generally way too optimistic about this group.  The recruits weren't highly touted, and Limegrover had shown nothing really in improving them.  We've always stated that the upside of this group is average Big Ten quality, and they weren't close to that in the nonconference season.  Making it extra difficult was the predictable offense being run.

This all proved out in the Iowa and Michigan games, as the offensive line was beaten quite badly in both.  The unit played better at Michigan and still better at Northwestern and versus Nebraska.  The last two games featured opponents with less than top DLs, but we think most Gopher improvements correlate positively with the opening up of the offense, and this is especially true for the offensive line.

We also pointed out two offensive tackle issues.  The first is that right tackle Josh Campion hadn't played well.  Neither had right guard Caleb Bak, but why pick on Campion?  We picked on Campion because so many people confuse general praise with thinking a player is playing well.  Campion is the Ra'Shede Hageman of 2013.  The coaches hype him because they see potential in him.  They're trying to give him confidence, because, as is our belief from watching him specifically on each play, he's just not doing as good a job as you would expect.  At the line he's not much more than a body, maybe in the way but never driving his opponent off the ball or away from the QB.  Since most plays are not run in his hole, his job usually is to get to the second level on a linebacker, and it's here where he almost never makes relevant contact with the defense.  We state this in present tense, because it hasn't changed.

As poorly as we believe Campion had played when we wrote the post, the worst spot on the offensive line was at left tackle.  We remarked that it bodes very badly for the future if one of the redshirt freshmen doesn't take over this season at left tackle.  We didn't have to wait that long, because RS freshman Ben Lauer either started or got the bulk of the playing time against Iowa and has continued to play an important role.  We haven't focused on him too much, but he looks like an inexperienced freshman with some potential.  Another Minnesota kid not recruited by any big schools.

Running Back
Our opinion of the running back situation at Minnesota is that the quality of back recruited here since the Mason days is overall pretty low.  Donnell Kirkwood had other opportunities, but he wasn't a top recruit and the rest of the backs had few BCS options, even Berkley Edwards whose lone commit-able BCS option ended up being Minnesota.  Still, we thought Kirkwood was a very good back and had played very well in limited time.  The other backs, especially Roderick Williams, had done good work.

What has changed?  Well, with his blocking and hard running, we never thought we'd see Kirkwood beaten out when healthy, and it appears that is just what's happened.  Former disappointment David Cobb has come on strong.  His ability to block isn't at Kirkwood's level, but he actually runs better.  One wonders if Kirkwood hard running style hasn't finally rubbed off on Cobb, who is also a powerful runner.  The difference, though, is Cobb's ability to change direction, to find the crease that wasn't necessarily supposed to be there.  His vision has been a large part of what's been lacking in Gopher RBs for some time, and we're very impressed.  He is another reason the line appears to have improved.

Receiver and Tight End
We made three points about the wide receivers: first, the offense was completing discounting the receivers; second, it appeared none of them could get separation, which was likely related to the offense; third, that none of the Gopher wide-outs didn't seem hungry for the ball.  We were personally disappointed that Derrick Engel hadn't distinguished himself against inferior competition.  KJ Maye seemed the only receiver playing well

Limegrover's metamorphosis has made a huge difference for this group.  What we're not sure we completely understand is the disappearance of Maye and the very limited play of Jamel Harbison.  We're never sure of much, but we were pretty confident that Harbison would end up being the best receiver of the group of wide-outs.  We're disappointed to not see him.

Engel, on the other hand, has become this year's AJ Barker, hopefully without the attitude.  He's found separation, and he's going for the ball.  It's amazing the transformation a player can make when the coach finally says "you're important."

We can't stop salivating at what we believe is coming from current true freshman Donovahn Jones.  The kid has an athletic body and speed that screams NFL receiver.  We haven't seen the hands, yet, but we'll guess the positive.

The other positive part of the passing game that has changed, starting with Michigan, is that it is now targeting our best threat, the tight ends.  Williams is a beast, and Googer is very solid.  Sophomore Lincoln Plsec, also solid as a blocker especially, should be a redshirt freshman DT, but what do we know?

General Defense
The concerns here about defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys surrounded his choosing defensive sets that depended on very, very good defensive tackles, and we didn't have any, except for Roland Johnson, who was only on the field half the time.  It also depended on the filling of the LBs against the run, as, very familiarly, the linebackers were usually out of position.  The importance of great DT and LB play is because the DEs almost exclusively go wide and leave gaping holes.  The scheme wasn't working, the WAC-level teams were abusing the defense, and Iowa had to be licking its chops.  Our knowledge of defensive schemes is extremely limited, but we felt we could tell that much.

Sure enough, Iowa, for the second year in a row took advantage of this defense and the lack of playmakers. Even Johnson was buried under the size of the Hawkeye linemen.  Claeys is being outcoached by his Iowa counterpart, though Iowa isn't doing anything different, so Claeys is being outcoached really by the status quo.  Ouch.

While the Michigan game got ugly, it wasn't clear that Michigan was that much better, and numerous factors played into the blowout.  It's hard to pin it all on the defensive strategy.  At Northwestern Claeys got lucky with the Wildcats' top two playmakers being out.  Northwestern became very average, and once the Gophers caught on to the fact that they could stop Northwestern, they did.  While the Gopher defense played well at times and adjusted well against Nebraska, we kept crossing our fingers that the Cornhuskers didn't just keep getting the ball to their very impressive RB Ameer Abdullah.  Nebraska just didn't seem to make good decisions on offense, and their execution was often poor.

We brought up something we really hadn't seen around the parts, certainly under Glen Mason and of course under Brewster.  The Gophers defense seems to have the ability to adjust to what is working against them.  It's not perfect, but it's noticeable, and it's progress.

Defensive Line
We are accused of having something against DT Ra'Shede Hageman, but in our GI post we gave him some credit.  A year ago he had played mostly horrible against nonconference FBS competition and been hyped and praised in spite of doing so.  We noticed this year that he played better against this similar level of competition.  He was making some tackles he hadn't made the year before, and he was getting his hands in the passing lane, which alone made him formidable.   Unfortunately, he was getting blocked way too easily on way too many plays by a lone lineman.

We thought Roland Johnson had played very well.  He was commanding double teams nearly every down, while Hageman got credit for doing so when it occurred rarely.  We weren't especially impressed with the play of Cameron Botticelli and Scott Ekpe, either.  The defensive ends took themselves out of the play often as part of Claeys' schemes, and none of them seem to stand out in getting to the QB.

Hageman, Johnson, and the rest disappeared against Iowa and Michigan, and we thought Hageman would be the greatest hype the college football world has ever seen, but then he showed up at Northwestern and helped to completely disrupt the Wildcats' offense.  It was truly the first time we saw the kid do this, and we've watched and re-watched every game he'd played.  Against Nebraska Hageman had his best game, save for some penalties.  We never look at the present as much as the future, and the penalties were called on amazing plays by Hageman.  They were unfortunate but took nothing away from what he might be becoming.  How much a wounded Nebraska offensive line had to do with this is a question, but we are pretty certain  Nebraska's backup guard should be better than the starter at Western Illinois.  Hageman is making his senior season count, apparently.

Johnson also had a big game against Nebraska and played extremely well.  If you're wondering which one Roland Johnson is, he's the one on the ground in the backfield who just tripped up the ball carrier and has two offensive linemen lying on him.  His size is going to prevent him from playing at the next level, but he sure is fun to watch.

We weren't terribly impressed with the linebacking after the nonconference season, but we commented that Damien Wilson looked really good when he went the right direction.  Despite not always reading the play right or knowing what to do, Wilson was always around the ball.  I graded him relatively highly in spite of his flaws.  Now I feel bad.  He's clearly amazing and the best player on defense, making up for a number of his cohorts on the line and by his side.  His contribution is easily the number one improvement in the team, followed by Hageman's.

The other linebackers did not have an especially good nonconference season.  We weren't especially impressed by new LB De'Vondre Campbell, and seniors Aaron Hill and James Manuel were opportunistic but didn't seem to always make the standard plays, be in in the right position, fill the right holes.  This remains the case, it seems, but middle linebacker Wilson makes up for a lot of the corps' mistakes.

After four games we were bemoaning the loss of Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter, as well as the basic incapacitation of safety turned corner Derrick Wells.  Sophomore Eric Murray clearly had the ability to play at the Big Ten level, but he wasn't consistent, and often when he stuck with his receiver, he risked a penalty by not knowing where the ball was.  Brock Vereen was clearly very good at safety, but Cedric Thompson, now playing every down, was struggling, as were the jucos taking over for Wells at corner.  We were disappointed in this group.

What has changed over the four Big Ten games?  Well, first Murray is better.  He still doesn't look back for the ball enough, but he's sticking with his man more often.  Vereen has been moved back to cornerback.  It might not be his best position, but he's a true football player and possibly an NFLer.  With the safety depth on the team, it is the right move to have him covering the corner.  The group has improved considerably since the nonconference season.

Special Teams
We didn't say much, but we said the kicking and punting were terrible, and that Marcus Jones needed to be taken off the punt team, because he didn't know what he was doing and was dangerous.  The coverage teams seemed good.

A lot has changed, foremost being Jones taken off punt returns.  The punting isn't all that good still, but it's not an automatic criinge.  What is puzzling is what Chris Hawthorne did to his placekicking over the summer.  We were probably a little harsh on him in our GI post, mostly because he hadn't been perfect, and we were still considering how he'd looked in the past.  Four more games has made us realize he's actually not a bad kicker right now.  Not as consistent as we'd like, perhaps, but his kicks look like real field goals kicks and have a real chance, compared to his less powerful ones in previous years.

Extra stuff
We definitely held a negative view of the Gopher team four weeks ago, and they proved us right.  They weren't ready for the Big Ten season.  But we took space at the end of the GI post to comment that the team was extremely well-disciplined.  Penalties were few, mental mistakes were few.  That has continued into the Big Ten season, and further, it's likely part of the reason the team has been able to bounce back from poor play and a head coach leave of absence is their discipline and focus that Gopher teams of the past can match.

Our favorite team isn't a world beater by any means.  Nor is it assured of winning another game this season.  The schedule is tough, but had nothing changed, we would have predicted an 0-4 finish at this point.  Had nothing changed, this could have been an 0-8 season.  We are now fully back on the Jerry Kill bandwagon, after almost jumping off due to Limegrover.  This weekend's game at Indiana is traditionally very difficult, and Indiana is a powerful offensive team.  But no matter what occurs Saturday and for the rest of the year, as long as a coordinator doesn't lose it again, the team is back to improving and ready to break out in 2014.  But have no doubt.  While the Gophers might be considered a better team in 2013, the true turnaround took place in the last month.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Back in Blog; Gophers Post Big Home Victory

The Twinstalker blog took an unexpected leave of absence for personal and family reasons.  Lots of local sports was watched over the six weeks or so, and lots of crabby thoughts developed, but the blog was victim to the lack of temporal resources during that period.  No time!  This week we concentrate on the football Gophers.  Tomorrow's entry will be a comment we wrote at prior to the start of the Big Ten season that proved to be nearly spot on, and then on Thursday we'll dissect that entry bit by bit to determine what is still lacking with our Gophers and what has changed since that piece.  Here's a one-word clue to the latter: Limegrover.  It's always interesting when the problem and solution can be found in the same individual. 

It's a proud time for Minnesota Gophers fans following their favorite team's 34-23 defeat of the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers.  We're not sure there is reason to be excited about this season, but it has certainly been interesting, and there is renewed hope for program cursed on so many different levels.  More thoughts:
  • While the preseason opinion here was that the Nebraska game was very winnable, we consider this victory very important to the growth of the program.  Adding in the poor play and coaching issues that kicked off the Big Ten portion of the schedule, the Gopher win this weekend took on even greater meaning.  Nebraska v.2013 is clearly not a top national team, but the Cornhuskers still boast a top national program.  Nebraska is at a level this year where a good team, which the Gophers have rarely resembled over the past thirty or fifty years, will take them down.  
  • Further, a good team will win these types of games at home, something our Gophers arguably haven't accomplished since, well, the 1981 Memorial Stadium victory over Ohio State. That game was the last time the Gophers defeated a ranked and top national program in Minnesota.  In fact the only home victories over ranked Big Ten teams have been an upset over Iowa a few years back, an early 2005 win against a pretty mediocre Purdue team and a 2000 thumping of a very overrated Illinois squad.  That's adds up to pathetic, and it takes a delusional person to believe that Gopher football has been anything but pathetic.  Losing every big game at home for over thirty years erodes a fan base to a monumental degree.  So no matter how average, injured, or flawed Nebraska is, the importance of the Gophers finally taking such a team down cannot be overestimated.
  • Speaking of flawed, the Cornhusker defense is not one you brag about scoring on.  We've never especially liked Taylor Martinez or the offense he runs, but it is vastly superior to its porous counterpart.
  • We'll address this further on Thursday, but when you have two quarterbacks, one of whom is clearly quality while the other average or mediocre, you play the good QB.  You start the good QB, too, don't you?  We're not talking Nebraska here anymore.  But we will go back to their best feature...
  • He had some gaping holes to run through, but Ameer Abdullah is the real deal and has the look of someone who might play at the next level.  Very impressive.  A clear step down from Abdullah is our own David Cobb, but Cobb is impressing, too.  His vision in finding holes to squeeze through is a trait we haven't seen around here for a while.
  • Ra'Shede Hageman has been criticized a lot here.  It's not really his fault.  He was just a Gopher trying to do his job.  It was the the coaches and media who kept hyping him for doing nothing, and the delusional Gopher fans so wanted to believe it.  We couldn't let that go.  It's true Hageman clearly played better in the nonconference portion of the schedule in 2013 than he did in 2012, but he still didn't play especially well, save for getting his paws up a few times or making a couple plays that stood out in contrast to most plays where he did nothing .  Then he seemed to completely disappear against Iowa and Michigan.  We were shaking our head thinking what a waste when suddenly in the span of the last ten days Hageman became the player fans wanted to believe he was all along.  His facemask penalties take nothing away from what is important here: Ra'Shede Hageman is playing ball now.  Finally.  He's disrupting the opponents' game.  We're all about giving credit when it's due, and it would be remiss to not mention his positive impact after paying so much attention to his weak play for so long.  My guess is he will now be legitimately double-teamed and open things up for his linemates and LBs.  That's been talked about as if were true, but it never has been.  The downside, of course, is that we weren't going to miss him next year, and now we will.
  • The Gophers caught Northwestern at the perfect time.  The Wildcats were a deflated team and playing without its best two players, the two who clearly raised their team to one of the best in the nation.  Nebraska could have been in better shape, too, but these two wins made this statement more than any other: Jerry Kill has laid his foundation of concrete, because a team experiencing the adversity of losing its coach for an unknown length of time, possibly forever, while the coaching of at least one of its coordinators was highly questionable, should not really win both games.  Concrete, not sand.  Not anymore.
  • One thing you could always count on over the years is Gopher teams and individual players tightening up in big games, scared of success, realizing they are Gophers.  The first game we remember seeing this loser mentality was at home against a worse Michigan team in 1987.  It's not often Gophers have had an advantage over a traditional power, but 1987 was a year in which Minnesota was truly the better team.  Poor coaching and poorer execution were responsible for a 30-20 loss that day to the Wolverines, who haven't lost in Minnesota since 1977.  Two years after that disappointing loss the Gophers weren't quite as good but found themselves up 31-0 on Ohio State.  Final: 41-37 for tOSU.  Many years later versus Ohio State Jamal Harris streaked down the field all alone with a blocked field, only to drop it as he got close to the end zone.  Interceptions dropped that would have secured games, punt snaps dropped, fumbles lost...the Gophers found a way to lose.  
  • Of course, nothing beats the three TD 4th quarter lead squandered against Michigan in 2003.  It's arguable, but we think our Gophers could have won the national championship that year had they won that night.  They would have followed it up with a victory against MSU (instead of a flat loss), and the unsuccessful trip to Iowa later that year would have held a different meaning, though the Hawkeyes did stick it to our men.  Still, 11-1 and a conference championship would have been everything we hope for.  What is noticeable about our lads under Jerry Kill is that he has his players thinking they deserve to win.  Rarely have they squandered games where they had leads and real chances.  And that tendency for individuals to make mistakes at precisely the wrong moment?  Mostly gone.  We say mostly because Philip Nelson clearly tightened up on a few late passes that would have cinched the game.  Hey, it's hard to justify beating Nebraska at home after the last thirty years.
  • Minnesota travels to Indiana on Saturday, a trip that hasn't been kind to the Gophers over the years.  Unless we've missed something in our research, Lou Holtz in 1985 was the last Gopher coach to bring home a win in Bloomington.  There's a lot of good feeling surrounding the Gophers right now, but the Hoosiers can put an end to that quickly.  Theirs is a high-powered offense the Gophers will have to play extremely well to avoid a rout.  If our rodent defense puts the clamps down, though, a win is very possible.  Our opinion is much the same as it was prior to the Iowa game: we're not sure what to expect this coming weekend.
  • Friend of Twinstalker Bobby O expressed the opinion a couple of weeks ago that Jerry Kill probably has to go, as much as we all respect the guy.  We weren't as certain, though coordinator Matt Limegrover had us feeling maybe it was time to fold the current hand.  Kill was sick, Limegrover was horrible, and the two are clearly paired together.  It's strange how the landscape can change so quickly.  Limegrover actually does have at least some of the smarts he's been credited with, and the Gophers are now winning.  Bobby O's opinion?  We'll find out.  He's a practical man.
  • Pat Reusse is a great writer, and usually his opinions are sound, though he doesn't always get it.  Jim Souhan is...well, he borders on incompetent.  From stating that an afflicted Jerry Kill must go to determining Glen Mason is the savior for Minnesota football, Souhan plays the fool.  He believes Mason should be brought in, not in a coaching capacity, but as the director of the football program.  The very first question we had when we saw this was: well, if you were thinking Kill couldn't/shouldn't coach, why would you go the Mason route instead of putting Kill himself in that director position?  Certainly epilepsy for an associate athletic director can be tolerated.  Right, Jim?  Personally, if Jerry weren't coaching Minnesota, we'd want him overseeing the program anyway, with our only worry whether or not we have the right coordinators/coaches under Kill.  That worry has been relieved considerably since Limegrover woke up.
  • The essence of tomorrow's entry is how profoundly disappointed we were with what we'd seen of the Gophers in nonconference play.  It was written two days prior to the Big Ten opener against Iowa, and it received the normal backlash of criticism from a few of the delusionals that are loud and can sometimes dominate at when the rational crew isn't posting much.  One such board member commented about what a waste of space Twinstalker was, devoting a blog to cutting down a team we're supposedly fans of.  Part of the delusion, we suppose.  We don't set out to unnecessarily castigate any of our local teams, we want to praise them where appropriate.  But this space isn't about praise, either.  It's about understanding what's real and what isn't, what's being done to undermine our favorite teams' chances, and to speculate what might be the issues at hand and their solutions.  You might not get that all at once.  You might just get a rant, or you might get an entry that is an expression of how disappointed we are.  Because we are fans.  And our goal is to win championships, not just pretend we're good when we're not (see Twins 2001-10, Gophers 1962-present for prime examples).  Fans' responsibility is not to delude themselves, it's to yell loudly, like an ignored child, when the product we pay and cheer for is sub-par.  Unless you're parents of the players.  There's some leeway there.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Gopher Victory Hollow

I will be posting a very detailed account of the Gophers' victory over UNLV on Sunday or Monday.  The plan is to analyze the performance of individual Gophers play by play and grade them in the end.  This process takes about eight hours, so I doubt I can do it more than this once this season, but last year's UNLV write-up on a different site revealed both good and poor play that would continue throughout the year.

As far Thursday night's game goes, here are some initial musings:

  • My thought was that the Gophers needed to beat each of their first three opponents by four touchdowns to demonstrate the real improvement necessary to be a Big Ten factor and have a chance of winning eight regular season games.  I didn't account for a four touchdown difference where it felt lucky to even win.  The offense didn't operate smoothly, the defense still has gaping holes up the middle, and the kicking and punting continues to be shaky.  This win didn't feel good, if you're a smart Gopher fan.
  • Bad kicking and bad punting, and the Gophers still destroyed UNLV on special teams.  I suspect that's not going to be a Gopher trend this year.  I know that UNLV's special teams are abysmal.
  • My cynical nature melts when I think of how lucky this program is to have Jerry Kill at the helm.  I personally think he will have teams that, unlike Glen Mason, will contend for a Big Ten title. But it's becoming painfully obvious the Kill regime has a serious flaw: in-game decision-making.  There are many aspects to this, but most of the decisions are simply the offensive playcalling.  It is my hypothesis that Kill loses more games than he should.  It appears he lost more games than he won when he faced similarly talented teams at lower levels, and his strength is in building the teams.  The good news is that this decision-making aspect is correctable if Kill, Matt Limegrover, and Tracy Claeys are open-minded and admit they can do better.  As for last night, it appeared to me that UNLV was going all-in to stop the run, and sometimes a coach has to abandon his game plan to take advantage of what's being given him.  Yes, Coach Limegrover?
  • Speaking of decisions, whose decision was it to start running Philip Nelson with the game in hand?  If anyone thinks the Gophers can afford an injury to Nelson, they truly don't understand his talent and the mediocrity behind him.
  • I don't think Ra'Shede Hageman is a good defensive tackle.  I've made that clear here and in other fora.  But I have nothing against him personally, and it thrills me when he does something good, as I have this inexplicable love for Minnesota Gopher football over all sports.  Last night he knocked down a pass at the line of scrimmage and then blocked a FG in the 3rd quarter that Martin Shabazz picked up and took to town.  While the block was a bigger play, the pass knockdown thrilled me more.  If he's going to get playing time and isn't going to be able to penetrate, he needs to get those hands in the air.  I should mention that Hageman had a couple other good plays inside, and while I don't think he'll grade out well at DT, he played much better than he did at UNLV last year, when he really did nothing except accept a gift sack after his DL mates chased the quarterback out of the pocket.
  • At first glance the offensive tackle play appeared to be lacking, which I've been saying for some time now.  I will concentrate on this during the video review.  Josh Campion is currently receiving a lot of hype and praise from the coaching staff.  My experience is this is an indication that he's not playing as well as he could, and that the coaches are trying to build his confidence.  I couldn't isolate him more than a few plays last night, but what I saw didn't impress.
  • Jamel Harbison sitting out last night scared the hell out me.  Apparently it was disciplinary and not serious at that.  Harbison is going to be the Gophers' best receiver, and they'll need him.
  • In other receiver news, Isaac Fruechte looked less like the Scarecrow than he did at any time last year.  KJ Maye is going to be a real weapon for the team in the slot, I believe.  He is fast, athletic, can catch the ball, and just seems to know what to do on a football field.  Disappointingly, Derrick Engel got zero separation last night, and I fear that will be a continuing problem.
  • Hmmm...Roderick Williams apparently entered the game as the third option among non-injured RBs.  He got time only after Donnell Kirkwood went down with a sprained ankle (one week or two years, it's still being evaluated).  Williams runs hard, he's tough to tackle, and he's a very effective receiver.  Kill should not be worried about Kirkwood being out, but he is, and that's all we need to know about Williams' pass-blocking prowess.
  • I was glad to see Cole Banham get in the game.  The kid is doing the near impossible, getting playing time where none should exist.  It speaks both to the injury situation and to the level of talent of the Gopher RBs, but Banham is a tough player, a good player.  And while a walk-on tailback shouldn't really be getting any time, my opinion is that his being in the game doesn't drop the talent level much.  That's unfortunate.  I probably wouldn't bring it up if I expected to see him only at garbage time this year.  I don't.
  • Again at first glance, the duo of new starting CBs impressed me last night.  I'll look deeper, but Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun appeared glued to their men.  There were a lot of holes for open receivers, though, and I'll try to determine what or who was responsible for that.
  • Martin Shabazz let UNLV receiver Devante Davis get away from him on fourth down and catch a TD pass from his scrambling QB Nick Sherry.  What happened?  It appeared as if Shabazz was trying to keep his zone as Davis headed to the middle of the field.  I'll be much happier if it's a Shabazz mistake rather than a safety missing his zone assignment.  It's an easy correction.
  • Brock Vereen is a good football player.  I said it when he was at field CB two years ago and being derided by many on Gopher Illustrated.  It's obvious now.  I think he plays at the next level.  The move to safety was a good one, though, as I didn't really think he had NFL corner speed.
  • I am a bit concerned that Kill gave a scholarship to a kicker/punter who neither kicked nor punted last night.
  • I was glad to see Joe Christenson of the StarTribune acknowledge what no one seems to ever seems to want to admit.  The Gophers' seemingly resurgent offense in the bowl game benefited greatly from a really bad Texas Tech defense. I was getting a little tired of reading how the new offense Limegrover implemented was mostly responsible for the huge yardage the Gophers rolled up.  Last night UNLV's defense proved too much for Limegrover and his fancy new offense.  What Limegrover needs is better personnel and better playcalling.  Simple as that.  The former will develop over the next couple years, the latter is in question.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Curious Case of Hypus Prime

It can be argued that the last time there was true optimism from the general Minnesota population for their Gopher football team was Tim Brewster's second season in the fall of 2008.  The team started 7-1 and climbed to #19 in the AP rankings.  After a false start in 2007 the enthusiastic coach brought in what appeared to be one of the better recruiting classes in the nation, according to  Along with Glen Mason holdovers, three key junior college additions led our Gophers to wins over some of the worst teams ever to grace our rodents' schedule.  The team edged a Jerry Kill-led Northern Illinois team, then flattened Bowling Green, Montana, and Florida Atlantic before losing at Ohio State.  The locals then beat three horrible Big Ten teams, including a quarterback-less Purdue squad to gain their seventh and final win.

Except to confused and desperately hopeful fans, the truth was the 2008 Gopher edition benefited from a feather-soft schedule and good share of luck to that point, and our Gophers may well be the worst midseason #19 team ever.  The team, though, was playing with confidence, had perhaps the best receiver in the nation in Eric Decker, and pieced together a solid defense led by new coordinator Ted Roof.  Further, recruiting was going well, at least online with Rivals.  Recruitng genius Brewster had corralled the 16th best QB in the nation in Bloomington's Moses Alipate, the 41st tackle in Josh Campion, 24th RB Hasan Lipscomb, the 35th and 52nd best athletes (Kendall Gregory-Mcghee and Bryant Allen), and a four star juco receiver in Hayo Carpenter.  Further, there was talk the 12th-ranked CB Michael Carter would switch his commitment from West Virginia.  So when the Gophers dropped two home games in a row to fall to 7-3, the mood was still mostly hopeful, especially when one day after losing to a mediocre Michigan squad, the faithful got news that the 6th-ranked tight end in the country decided to stay home in Minneapolis.  Washburn's own Ra'Shede Hageman was going to be a Gopher.

The 6-6, 250 pound Hageman not only chose Minnesota, he chose the U over helmet schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Florida.  He chose us.  Hageman just oozed potential at tight end or, more likely, on the defensive line.  He was big and athletic, a basketball player.  He had room to grow, and he was naturally strong and fast for his size.  Despite the two-game slide at the time, Hageman's commitment represented the high point of the Brewster regime, which unraveled quickly even with a new stadium to celebrate.

Hageman's celebrity, like that of may recruits, slowly vaporized with a redshirt his freshman 2009 season, highlighted only by his move from tight end to defensive end:
''He's a big, physical guy,'' Brewster said. ''He's really shown some natural abilities as a defensive end. ...For us to become an elite defense, which we want to become, you have to take athletes like that and expose them to the defensive side of the ball. We'll see how it works.''
Brewster said the physical requirements for the two positions are similar. ''You want quick-twitch guys who do a good job of getting off the ball and use their hands,'' he said. ''He's shown a knack for doing that.''
The following year as a redshirt freshman, Hageman was again talked up but played sparingly after moving to defensive tackle, and soon after Brewster was fired, he was suspended by interim coach Jeff Horton for academic issues.  Seven weeks later, Jerry Kill became the new sheriff in town, and he challenged all his players to become better people and better students.  Hageman responded positively.

He also looked awfully good on a bus full of undersized, less athletic teammates.  Now nearly 300 pounds of muscle, Hageman impressed all watching and reporting on Spring Practice 2011 as the one Gopher who looked like all those Ohio State guys.  Reports glowed that he was doing well against the Gopher offensive linemen and to watch for him in the fall.  The Gopher fanatics got excited.  I got excited. 

It became clear rather quickly that Kill's first squad in 2011 was overmatched.  The team was well below average at nearly every position on the field.  It could be argued, though, that defensive tackle was one of the few positions the Gophers had some quality.  Seniors Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs were both highly recruited and had played well leading up to that year.  While their season, especially Kirksey's, wasn't dominating, the two stayed on the field.  Their back-ups, redshirt soph Hageman and redshirt freshman Cameron Botticelli, saw little action.  I didn't really notice either too much until the season finale.

The Gophers were having a tough season in 2011, but it was nothing compared to what Illinois was experiencing.  For the last game of the year, the Illini brought a lame duck coach and nothing else to TCF Bank Stadium except ineptitude and mistakes.  The Gophers dominated the game, and I was especially impressed when I saw Ra'Shede Hageman destroy the opposing QB.  Awesome, this is what we have to look forward to in 2012!  And then came the instant replay.  It turns out an Illini guard missed his assignment, and there was nobody to block Hageman.  Oh, well.  Then it happened again.  Again I didn't notice at first, but the replay showed once more a completely unblocked Hageman getting his second sack of the day.  Two tackles, both sacks.  So the extent of his production this day was all due to missed assignments.  Who could possibly misinterpret that?

Apparently those wearing maroon-colored glasses can see whatever they want to see, because the talk of the Gopher internet boards after the game was Ra'Shede Hageman and his destruction of Ilinois.  I made mention that he wasn't blocked on either play and he had no other tackles, a truth that only vilified me amid the rapture.  But, but...I'm watching those two plays as we speak, how can you argue with me?  I pointed out that his one other tackle for loss on the season was also due to a missed assignment by an Iowa guard.  That didn't help me.  My point wasn't that Hageman wasn't going to be good his last two years, it was that we had zero evidence of him making anything happen thus far.  He was a man of opportunity, obviously.  He hadn't played much, and he didn't have any real experience at DT.  Perhaps he'd be decent in 2012.

Spring Practice 2012 brought familiar praise for Hageman.  The moderators/reporters/spectators on Gopher Illustrated tossed out phrases like "man among boys" and such.  The nickname Optimus Prime was thrown about.  I was intrigued and couldn't wait for the season, especially when I read this during fall practice:
No Gopher discussed on the preview show received higher praise than junior defensive tackle Ra’Shede HagemanGriffith doesn’t believe any center in the Big Ten can block Hageman who was outstanding in Minnesota’s final game last season against Illinois and has continued to progress.  “In my mind he’s going to be tough to block for anybody,” Griffith said. 
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys told the Big Ten Network that Hageman, a former tight end, is now understanding the demands of his position.  “There’s not a better athlete in the United States playing d-tackle than what Ra’Shede Hageman is,” Claeys said.  “The more he continues to learn the game, the better off I think he will be.”
I was a little concerned, though.  After all, Griffith was saying Hageman was outstanding against Illinois, and I knew that to be untrue.  I was intrigued, but I was also very suspect.  The 2012 opener against UNLV was coming up, and I decided I would watch the game, then the next day I would re-watch each play in slow motion.  Optimus Prime would be under scrutiny.  I kept an eye on Hageman throughout my initial viewing, and it was soon apparent he wasn't doing anything at all.  On the other hand, newcomer Roland Johnson was creating chaos in the UNLV backfield.  They couldn't contain Johnson even with double teams.  Meanwhile, Hageman wasn't getting any penetration, and while he'd been double-teamed early, the UNLV line soon learned they could handle him with one lineman.  Easily.  On replay, in slow-motion, it was obvious that while certainly "no center in the Big Ten could block him" the one at UNLV sure could.

On pass plays the UNLV lineman naturally backed up 2-3 yards and defended their quarterback.  But while Roland Johnson and DL Wilhite and others were breaking through, wreaking havoc and constantly pressuring the QB, Hageman wasn't close to the play.  He happened to record a sack when his linemates flushed the UNLV quarterback, and the man blocking Hageman still at the point of contact lost our hero, who ran toward the near sideline and nabbed the QB for a three yard loss.  On running plays Hageman was often blown back behind the linebackers or off to the side away from the play.  At first there were double-teams, but that quickly changed, and when the play actually called for a double down on the DT, the extra UNLV lineman would brush off Hageman and go block another.

I was absolutely shocked and figured this had to be evident to the internet boards.  It wasn't.  No one wanted to believe Ra'Shede Hageman had played poorly.  It made no sense to me.  Certainly, this being an away game, they still have it on their DVRs and can watch, right?  Apparently not.  I graded out three players as having really poor performances that night: Hageman, OT Ed Olson, and WR Marcus Jones.  I gave Marqueis Gray a "barely pass," and the rest of the team actually played okay or well, in my opinion.  Well for a team that hadn't bowled for three seasons, that is.

I repeated the effort over the next eleven regular season games and the bowl game.  I watched Hageman get destroyed every week, almost exclusively by one blocker.  His problem was obvious.  When the ball snapped, Hageman nearly stood up, and the opposing lineman would leverage the hell out of him.  This wasn't new to me, as Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys both had said repeatedly he needed to get his pad level low.  What I didn't expect was complimentary comments from the coaching staff about Hageman.  Almost every week.  What the heck?  I can tell the difference between someone playing well and someone getting blown off the line.  So what was going on here?  And that's when I realized all the comments had something in common.  They talked about him glowingly, they avoided talking about his play:
"Ra'Shede has certainly learned how to play defensive tackle," Kill said Tuesday. "His best years are way ahead of him. He's still learning. But he's continued to get better. Athletically, he's gifted; a gifted young man."   --Kill prior to Syracuse
 Yeah, but what about his actual play?  It's okay to say he made some great plays.  You say it about others.  Unless, of course, his play is not actually good.  And then this after Syracuse:
"He could arguably be the most talented defensive lineman in the conference," Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith said of Hageman. "If he plays the way he's supposed to, he has 'first-round pick' all over him. He just has that type of talent. But a lot of the things he does particularly well, when the Big Ten rolls around, might not show up in the stat sheet. So you have to have other guys step up and make plays."
Yeah, but what about his play?  Did you watch him against Syracuse?  I did.  He had an okay day for him, but it was not close to his hype, and it, well, simply was not good for a college lineman.  Meanwhile, Hageman's backup at DT, true freshman Scott Ekpe, had shown some flashes of true talent through the first four games.  My blogging is very sporadic, but my Gopher fandom is constant;  I want to win, I wanted Ekpe in the game.  I didn't need more material for a future blog entry.  Play Ekpe more, I said.

The Gophers still hadn't played a smash-mouth football game, and they clearly weren't as prepared as Iowa in Iowa City.  Iowa had faced a tough Iowa State team already.  The Hawkeyes were ready and made Hageman look like a high schooler.  The poor guy was trying, but the Hawkeyes ran right through him.  It didn't stop there.  Other teams the following weeks dominated Hageman.  He gave top effort throughout the Big Ten season, and the coaches continued to talk about his athleticism and pro potential, but glaringly missing were favorable comments about his play.  Ekpe also struggled as the competition got tougher, but Ekpe isn't being declared one of the best players in the conference.

The previous link, by the way, includes a video which is a perfect example of how Hageman was able to pick up six sacks in 2012.  On this one, the Wisconsin lineman across from him bumps Hageman then leaves him to get out ahead of the screen.  Roland Johnson and DL Wilhite hold up the running back, and the QB has to eat the ball.  Hageman is untouched to the QB after the initial bump.  The other sacks and TFLs  he had in 2012 were almost all either QB scrambles, with Hageman waiting near the LOS, plays like in the video, or simply due to missed assignments.

I don't profess to know everything, but I know when a player is getting beat nearly every play, and Hageman in 2012 fit that description.  I felt bad for pointing it out at the time.  I've got nothing against Hageman or even delusional Gopher fans, but the truth was evident in 2012.  I don't have a link or remember which game, but finally Hageman made a really good play late in the season.  I now figured we wouldn't hear much, because everyone seemed to think he was doing well the whole year.  I was wrong.  Tracy Claeys pointed to the play Hageman made and made it clear on that play that Hageman had done well.  It was the first comment I'd heard all year about his play and not about his potential.  The game escapes me, the exception to the rule doesn't.  I also was thoroughly impressed by one play against Texas Tech in the bowl, where Hageman lined up on the outside and had a chance to take a couple of steps and gain momentum.  He knocked the Tech tackle on his butt and got to the QB, though I can't remember if it was a pressure or the one sack he was credited with that game.  He disrupted the opponent, finally, something I would expect about 20 times a game from a guy who gets as much attention as Hageman gets.

Based on the 2012 season, I didn't even know whether Hageman would start this year.  So you can imagine my surprise when talk of entering the 2013 NFL Draft started to leak.  First off, why would an NFL team want a player who was getting punished nearly every play?  Then I found why:

Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota, DT: The 6-6, 312-pound converted tight end vertical jumped 36 inches this offseason when the Gophers tested him. More impressively, the former basketball standout (he used to play AAU ball against first-rounder Royce White) says he can still do a 360 dunk even though he's well over three bills. "But," Hageman adds, "it doesn't look as pretty as when I was 250."
Ra'Shede Hageman, a former hoops standout, can still do a 360 slam dunk at 312 pounds. (USATSI)Ra'Shede Hageman, a former hoops standout, can still do a 360 slam dunk at 312 pounds. (USATSI)Hageman was a big recruit for former coach Tim Brewster. Then-Gophers hoops coach Tubby Smith once tried to get him to come out for the basketball team, Hageman says. But the big man opted to focus solely on football, where he has blossomed into one of the Big Ten's better D-linemen.He's certainly the most athletic. Not only does he have the 36-inch vert, but he also has bench-pressed 465 pounds and clocked an electronically timed 10-yard sprint in 1.57 seconds. For comparison sake, no DT at this year's NFL Combine jumped higher than 33 inches, and Terron Armstead, the offensive tackle who ran the blazing 4.71 40 at the combine, did a 1.64 in his 10.
Hageman said watching the combine in February has "motivated me to be even get more serious in the weight room." His goals on the field for 2013: play with better pad level, play with more urgency off the ball and not take plays off.
And look at that picture.  Wow.

Still, it's crazy to think any NFL team would want someone who gets beat most plays, right?  I can only imagine the eyebrows that were raised in the coaches' meeting this past winter.  But coaches know they have competing worries here, they got Hageman his NFL evaluation, and, well, this staff is pretty good at being tactful:
"That's kind of the benefit from it," Claeys said. "I think the NFL does a great job with that. They don't push kids to go too early like some of the other pro sports. We're waiting to get that form back for Ra'Shede and see what it says. You've got to do what's best for everybody involved. We'll do it for any player who requests us to come and do it and wants to be evaluated. But Ra'Shede is somebody, when the scouts show up, they've taken a look at."  
This was Claeys' one comment on Hageman for the article.  Nowhere does he say what would obviously be included by Marcus Fuller, that he's a heck of a player.  Because he's not.  So much for the evaluation, Hageman is still here, and the hype of Hypus Prime has gotten worse.  On Friday night the Big Ten Network did its 2013 preview of Minnesota.  Two messages I took from the preview.  One is that they truly expect Minnesota to keep getting better.  They love Jerry Kill.  Second, I got the feeling they didn't put a whole lot of effort into Minnesota, which could have to do with the Gophers being their 10th stop.  They talked about Nelson and Hageman and let the coordinators talk about anything else.  The Hageman talk made me wince:
Got some good offseason news on defense when Ra'Shede Hageman decided to come back for his final season.  Hageman a very athletic defensive tackle, the leader of a defense that improved by leaps and bounds last season.--Gerry DiNardo
 Yes, Gerry, that was a real danger.  Whew!
"Me being double-teamed as much as I hate it is, you know, I'm definitely looking out for the LBs to come down here and make plays, and when that happens, I definitely feel like the LBs are making plays." --Ra'Shede Hageman
All I can say is that I don't want to speak to the camera, so I can imagine others might feel the same way.  It is pretty obvious, though, that Hageman was advised to talk about getting double-teamed.  Or perhaps he was asked about double-team among other questions, and that's the only answer BTN showed. 
"It all has to start up front, and we talk about Hageman really being able to be the mainstay of that defensive line, commanding double teams, forcing people to account for him on the blocking scheme..." --Howard Griffith
He doesn't command double teams any more than any DT would naturally.  There are plays where you double on the DT.  The problem is that with Hageman, the second lineman can slip off to a linebacker.  Or I should say, that was the problem last year.  People hate it when I say Hageman played poorly last year, and they project me as hating him and thinking he can't play well at all..  That's not true.  I think he has the physical ability to play really well.  Just like the coaches do.

And maybe I was too harsh about his 2012 season.  Maybe one more look would give me a different perspective.  After the preview show, the Big Ten Network replayed the 2012 Purdue at Minnesota game.  I decided to track each defensive play for a half and transcribe what I saw here.  Here's what I saw of Ra'Shede Hageman or his backup Scott Ekpe, play by play:

Play 1: From UM 46, pass, single-team, Hageman was the only DL to not have penetration, incomplete
Play 2.: From UM 46, run, double team, Hageman blown back five yards, RB goes 40 yards through his hole
Play 3: From UM 6, run, single-team, blown out five yards, RB hit his hole
Play 4: From UM 3, jumps offsides and knocks down guard, penalty
Play 5: From UM 1, run, double team, runner up middle stopped at LOS, Hageman ends up in end zone three yards away (holdin on PU away from Hageman)
Play 6: From UM 11, screen, Hageman let go, he follows the motion away from the play.
Play 7: From UM 1, play action pass, penetrated and was picked up by a RB.  Can't be sure it was Hageman as I couldn't see the number.

Next series:
Play 1: From PU 11, run, double teamed, pushed back to the 15
Play 2: From PU 14, pass, single team, Hageman blows his guy back into the QB after throw on an incompletion.  Unfortnuately, I'm only guessing it was Hageman, number wasn't visible (and Roland Johnson replaced Botticelli at other tackle, so it could have been Ekpe).
Play 3: From PU 14, pass, no penetration

Next series:
Play 1: From PU 25, run, single team, pushed out of play, run up his hole
Play 2: From PU 36, false start offense
Play 3: From PU 31, run, Ekpe in for him and stands up his man and pushes action toward RB
Play 4: From PU 32, pass, Ekpe doubled and doesn't penetrate, incomplete
Play 5: From PU 32, screen pass, Hageman neither penetration nor close to play

Next series:
Play 1: From  PU 25, pass, Ekpe in, sack by Cockran, Ekpe no penetration
Play 2: From PU 25, run, Ekpe double and not a factor
Play 3: From PU 24, pass, Hageman did something inexplicable, he decided not to rush, not to drop, not to stunt.  He just stood up and ran half-speed avoiding the OL and well away from the play.
Play 4.: From UM 44, pass, single team, no where near the QB

Next series was skipped on BTN
Next series (UM 31, PU 7 at this point)
Play 1: From PU 18, (in with Roland Johnson), pass, single team, only DL to not penetrate
Play 2: From PU 21, sweep, single team, buried in middle of line
Play 3: From PU 28, run, double team, blown out, but at least the two OL stayed with him
Play 4: From PU 29, pitch, single team, taken out of play easily
Play 5: From PU 35, pass, Ekpe in, doesn't penetrate

Except for one play where I can't verify it was actually him, Hageman could just as well not been on the field.  I don't know what happened the one series BTN skipped, but it's basically irrelevant.  Hageman was bad here. Not just bad, but really bad.  Anybody could have been put in his place.  This is what I saw all year, running the video play by play.  I saw him make some tackles when plays broke, when the OL assigned to him didn't know what was happening.  I remember him disrupting the opponent maybe twice all year.  Roland Johnson did that on his first two plays against UNLV.

Meanwhile, Hageman has been named to the Chuck Bednarik, Bronko Nagurski, Outland Trophy, and Rotary Lombardi watch lists.  He ranks 15th in ESPN's top 25 Big Ten players heading into the 2013 season, 11th on BTN.  There's a gap between what I'm seeing and what's being implied.  That much is clear.  There is not a gap, though, between what I'm seeing and what is overtly said.

So I made an hypothesis, and while I don't think I've proven my curious case, it's hard to argue that your favorite guy is doing well when I'm watching him get blown out play after play.  I really hope Hageman has a great senior year and that he gets drafted high and represents Minnesota well.  All I hear is how hard he works and how he leads others to do so and how he's a great teammate.  How can you not cheer for a guy like that?

Sid Hartman ran a quote from Jerry Kill that really sums up this piece.  While he calls others on the line great football players, he does everything but with Hageman:
“There is no question that Ra’Shede Hageman is a phenomenon when it comes to his size, strength and speed,” Gophers football coach Jerry Kill said when asked how he looks at his defensive tackle.
“We need to have him have a great year,” Kill continued. “But I think he is also surrounded with some pretty great football players. Sometimes we forget Cameron Botticelli and Roland Johnsonand Thieren Cockran and Michael Amaefula, those kids. T.C. is 6-6 and about 255-260 now.
“I think our whole defensive line has improved. Part of that has been because of Ra’Shede’s hard work and his attitude. He has had a great, great summer and a great camp. So we look forward to continuing to watch his progress, because if he does what he needs to do and plays well, he’s one class away from graduating and it’s a good story. There’s no question about that.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday Heat Wave

Just some musings today.  As I re-start this blog, I've already missed my first self-imposed deadline of having something Monday morning.  So while I sit here with no air conditioning in what is soon to be 100 degrees, note that my irritation level is a bit higher than usual.

  • Our Minnesota Gophers open their 2013 season versus the UNLV Passin' Rebels on a predicted scorcher of a night as 14 point favorites, according to Bovada.  While I've told everyone to bet their house on the Gophers as 11 point favorites, the new line, the steamy weather, and the lingering shoulder injury to CB Derrick Wells make me feel a little bit queasy right now.  Especially the weather. I want my man-crush QB Philip Nelson to be as comfortable as possible.
  • One player who appears to not be missing the game is Ra'Shede Hageman, who right now is the subject of many interviews and articles, including this fine one from Amelia Rayno.  It is pretty clear that Hageman is a good person, a good attitude, and a good athlete, but is he a good player?  That is the subject of tomorrow's Twinstalker blog entry.
  • There are few teams I prefer to talk about less than the Minnesota Vikings, but then they go make that draft pick a few years back of Superman himself, Adrian Peterson, and my awe knows no bounds.  Last week the angst level was high when my old pal Bobby O and I learned Peterson would play against the 49ers with their league-toughest defense.  The cussing got a little out of control before game time, when we found he was only allowed two plays with no contact.  Our first reaction?  Why did we risk putting AD on a plane?  It could have gone down!  No need to really test that Superman theory.
  • Kyle Gibson was mercifully sent down to AAA Rochester this week.  There's been some speculation that the Twins made the move in part to ensure Gibson's shutdown occurred somewhere where he doesn't accumulate major league time after hitting the limitations placed on his innings pitched this year.  But Gibson already had spent enough time in the minors to not only add another year of highly paid indentured servitude to the Twins, but also enough for the Twins to avoid facing arbitration with him after the 2015 season.  I suspect the main reason Gibson wasn't simply shut down with the Twins was because the team wanted him to have a couple of good starts to think about this offseason.  It had become pretty clear that wasn't going to happen in the majors.
  • Gibson's poor MLB showing this year is somewhat disappointing, because you always want to be wowed by a rookie and have that extra hope you've really got that rotation piece for the next 6-10 years.  The more common scenario, though, is that of a young pitcher getting schooled and having six months to figure out how he can be more effective the next year.  A lot of learning occurs when you're not trying to do the job itself.  Gibson turns 26 in October and while that's old for a top prospect, he's missed time and had to recover from a major surgery.  It can be easily argued the Twins are lucky he had Tommy John surgery while still in the minors.  By the time he's fully recovered, which should be the case in 2014, the Twins will have him tied up for six seasons.
  • It doesn't really matter, but it's sort of a shame that Gibson pitched 51 innings instead of 49.  I can't tell whether I feel that way because I wanted him to have a chance at Rookie of the Year in 2014 or because he would have been cheap to protect on my fantasy baseball team.
  • Gophers hoops coach Richard Pitino has one more scholarship available for the upcoming season, and the plan is to fill it with senior PF transfer Rakeem Buckles from Louisville via Florida International.  Today is eight days from the beginning of classes at the U.  How is it that nobody seems to know whether Buckles will be playing for the U or not?  Here's the kicker:  classes at FIU start today.

Friday, August 23, 2013

High Ankle Sprains

It looks like your Minnesota Golden Gopher football season is over before it even began.  According to Nate Sandell , highly touted (well, locally anyway) freshman Berkley Edwards sprained his ankle Wednesday in practice, and word is out that it is the dreaded high ankle sprain.  Recovery time is expected to be between four weeks and Hillary Clinton taking office.  In reality it's not uncommon for an athlete to miss up to six weeks.

Doomsayers on GopherIllustrated are already calling for a redshirt for the fleet and powerfully-built Edwards, and of course some have resorted to the "we're snakebit" maxim, in spite of the fact that there's not a college football program in existence that wouldn't love a freshman's high ankle sprain to be the worst injury it incurred during fall practice.  Meanwhile, I want to know why, when I played sports in high school and college, I never once experienced another player spraining his ankle high.  Perhaps I should re-phrase that.  Nor do I know if I myself have ever experienced a high ankle sprain.  You would think so, since I've severely sprained one ankle or the other at least ten times, and that doesn't count all the mild sprains I taped up and played through or that ended my day but allowed me back the next.  I've probably sprained my ankle to some degree twenty-five times, and the longest recovery I ever had, even using crutches for a week, was ten days.  I once sprained my ankle on a beautiful top-of-the-key jump shot during a Monday practice my senior year, and while the ball was swishing through the net, I was screaming in pain.  I missed the two games that week, and the coach wasn't happy about the second one.

So either I've never had a high ankle sprain or whatever we called it back in the 80s, or we fought through them more quickly back then.  I remember a high school friend who'd severely sprained his ankle in football practice one week receiving a novacaine shot to play Friday night, even though he hadn't walked for the two days in between.  We must have had the regular sprains.  The scores of people I've seen must of all had the regular sprains.  And then suddenly in the 1990s, we only hear about high ankle sprains.  This makes some sense, I guess, since truly most people who do have regular sprains play through them more often than not.  While I was screaming horizontally on the court or gridiron every time I had a severe sprain, athletes today do the one thing we were told never to do: put immediate weight on the ankle.  Apparently, we were told, putting pressure on the ankle hinders recovery, but in the moment it does allow you to continue playing, and that's today's trend.  I eventually found the cure for my sprains.  I learned to tape my ankles like a trainer would.

So I guess the answer is that we just don't hear about the regular sprains anymore, and that what we now call high ankle sprains we probably had another name for back in the dark ages, back when we thought this was cool.  As I read more carefully, Wikipedia says the high ankle sprain is when one rolls the ankle on the inside.  Ouch!  I can say that because I know exactly what that feels like.  I did that once on a rebound.

I was back in a week.

Join me Monday for my next post.  The Twins are an afterthought these days, so it's a good time to concentrate on Gopher Football.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Twinstalker Re-Debut

I am Twinstalker.  Don't let the E.D. in front of the name fool you.  It's Twinstalker, and I don't care where you split the name, after the n or after the s.  I'm trying, once again, to start blogging.  It's hard, it really is.  It's hard to blog, and it's f'ing ridiculous to blog well.  From the little I've attempted, I've learned a few tidbits that make it easier to try this one more time.  I guess I'll list them in no particular order:

  • Feed the beast.  That's what John Bonnes called it one night over his sixth Guinness at Bryant Lake Bowl. A blog really cannot work without entries.  Shocker, huh?  Sounds simple, but the single most difficult aspect of blogging is finding the time and energy to write what even you consider interesting material.
  • Blog on a set schedule.  Writing an entry every day is extremely difficult, but you need consistency both for yourself and your imagined audience.  Every weekday or specific days during the week is best.  This will be really difficult for me, as I am more apt to get my material from my comments on other blogs, which I read haphazardly.
  • Find your voice.  There are many issues with my first attempts at blogging, but the foremost one for me is that I could never find my writing voice.  In other words, what persona will you take on?  I post on Gopher Illustrated quite often, and my persona there ranges from philosopher to cynic to the anti-fan because, as one example, I've never found anything good to say about Rashede Hageman's play.  But at least it's a voice.
  • Somehow make your blog unique.  The last thing you need to waste your time at is doing something that someone else already does.  Many bloggers are unique simply because they possess the tool of information.  Others do very fine analysis.  I hope I can eventually find that which makes this blog unique.
Mostly what I do here in this blog is find fault with decision-making.  I am an advanced-degreed statistician who has studied game theory, and it blows my mind how horrible the decision-making can be from people around here who get paid millions to make decisions.  Terry RyanRon GardenhireTubby SmithFlip Saunders, and many others have made and continue to make some of the worst decisions one can imagine.  How's that for hyperbole?  It's no coincidence that sports in this town have basically been crap.  Teams that should be competitive are not, teams that are somewhat competitive should be winning championships--I'm looking at you, Twins org c. 2002-2010.  It's hard to believe we've stayed fans all this time.  Some things are changing, though, and when I look at the sports leadership now installed at the University of Minnesota, I get genuinely excited.  They get it now.  There are still likely some issues, but the decision-making from President Kaler to A.D. Norwood Teague to coaches Kill and Pitino is light years above the old regime.  That's a start, and I'm looking forward to a sports renaissance in this town.