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The Minnesota Golden Gophers And Glen Mason Territory

Jerry Kill's program reclamation skills are now working full-speed in the Twin Cities. Can Coach Kill not only restore Minnesota to Glen Mason levels, but beyond?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Back in my blogger infancy, i coined a term called Glen Mason Territory to describe when a coach achieves at a higher-than-normal level at a given school (probably a second-tier BCS program that hadn't won in a while before he showed up) but cannot ever break through to the next level; he keeps making bowl games and winning, say, 6-8 games a year, but fans begin to get impatient.  The crazies begin to start yelling things like "settling for mediocrity!" on talk radio and message boards, season ticket sales begin to fade, and even the rational fans in the base (the SBN readers, naturally) begin to start wondering if a change is needed.

Minnesota's own plight with Glen Mason Territory shows its no-win nature.  Changing coaches is the scariest, most dangerous thing you can do in college football.  The only reason most recent top coaches are at their current schools is because the last coach hired at said school wasn't very good ... meaning most of the top schools are 1-for-2 in their recent coaching hires.  Bob Stoops replaced John Blake, Mack Brown replaced John Mackovic, Nick Saban replaced Mike Shula, Jim Harbaugh replaced Walt Harris, and Urban Meyer replaced Ron Zook.  Voluntarily making a change should only be done when you absolutely know your current coach is not going to deliver; you could make the mistake of replacing a coach who wins seven games a year (which is what Glen Mason did over his past eight seasons) with one who wins four.  There is no easy, correct decision when you reach Glen Mason Territory.

So now, four years after Minnesota replaced Mason with Tim Brewster, they have replaced Brewster with former Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill.  A likable man with a violent name, Kill was coaching at Webb City High School in Missouri 20 years ago.  Since then, he won big at Saginaw Valley State and rebuilt both Southern and Northern Illinois, and now he moves up to the Big Ten.  He comes from a working-class background, sports a working-class 127-73 career record and fought off kidney cancer, in working-class fashion, no doubt.  He is an "up by your bootstraps" coach with a story that is easy to admire.  Now ... can he win in Minneapolis?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 77
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep at Middle Tennessee 24-17 W 33.4 - 38.9 L
11-Sep South Dakota
38-41 L 29.1 - 46.9 L
18-Sep USC 21-32 L 18.1 - 30.8 L
25-Sep Northern Illinois 23-34 L 32.5 - 30.2 W
2-Oct Northwestern 28-29 L 30.3 - 36.1 L
9-Oct at Wisconsin 23-41 L 32.7 - 31.9 W
16-Oct at Purdue 17-28 L 15.7 - 37.1 L
23-Oct Penn State 21-33 L 22.7 - 31.8 L
30-Oct Ohio State 10-52 L 19.2 - 35.7 L
6-Nov at Michigan State 8-31 L 16.7 - 25.1 L
13-Nov at Illinois 38-34 W 30.0 - 29.2 W
27-Nov Iowa 27-24 W 31.8 - 15.3 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 23.2 89 33 98
Adj. Points Per Game 26 69 32.4 101

After a brutal 1-11 season in 2007, Tim Brewster's program began to look like it might be coming together to some degree.  The Gophers reached bowl eligibility in back-to-back seasons, going 13-13 in the process.  Not good, but an improvement.  Then, 2010 happened, and ... the less said, the better.  The players evidently began losing faith in Brewster, the Gophers lost to another FCS team, and despite growing a hair more competitive, they began the season 1-6. Brewster was summarily let go.

The Gophers won the final two games under interim coach Jeff Horton, and the defense improved ever-so-slightly as the season unfolded, but 2010 was more-or-less a lost season, and now Kill starts with a blank slate.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 54 69 48
RUSHING 61 61 66 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 51 84 33 56
Standard Downs 68 79 71 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 33 50 17 26
Redzone 86 78 82
Q1 Rk 86 1st Down Rk 67
Q2 Rk 58 2nd Down Rk 57
Q3 Rk 46 3rd Down Rk 41
Q4 Rk 37

The offense really wasn't the problem for the Gophers in 2010.  It wasn't particularly good, but it wasn't the problem. A milquetoast run game combined with an all-or-nothing pass attack to create a perfectly average offense.  There were traits that made Minnesota unique, of course -- solid offensive line play, drastic differences between explosiveness on standard downs and passing downs, etc. -- but none of that really matters with a new staff in charge.  What we want to know is, how will Minnesota's personnel fit into what Jerry Kill and awesomely-named offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover want to attempt?

Here is Northern Illinois' offensive footprint from last season:

While Minnesota was almost precisely at the national average when it came to run-pass ratios, Northern Illinois skewed quite a bit toward the run.  Quarterback Chandler Harnish attempted ten carries per game, so some of the run plays were probably intended to be passes, but NIU really did seem to prefer running the ball.  This suits Minnesota's personnel relatively well.  It appears former blue-chip quarterback MarQueis Gray will be given every opportunity to shine; like Harnish, he is an impressive athlete with running ability -- he rushed for 110 yards last season in addition to the 587 receiving yards he racked up while then-senior Adam Weber lined up behind center.  He was a renowned dual-threat quarterback in high school, and he will get every opportunity to prove himself in this offense.

An extra pair of threatening legs in the backfield could do good things for the returning Minnesota running backs as well.  DeLeon Eskridge has been mostly forgettable in his time in the Minnesota lineup; he rushed for just 3.6 yards per carry and an Adj. POE of minus-13.1 last season, which suggests that an average running back would have compiled much more than his 698 yards on the ground.  He and Duane Bennett, an interesting receiving threat who ended up with 529 rushing yards (4.3 per carry, -5.1 Adj. POE) and 319 receiving yards at season's end, are both back, though it probably wouldn't bother Gopher fans if one of three redshirt freshmen were able to crack into the rotation.  Gray's improvisational abilities could also help when it comes to breaking in a line that returns only two starters.

Other tidbits:

  • Two receivers deserve mention: 1) Wideout Da'Jon McKnight was rather explosive last year, racking up 750 receiving yards at a 15.6-per-catch clip and catching a decent-for-a-big-play-guy 54% of the passes thrown at him. 2) Tight end Eric Lair averaged 13.5 yards per catch as well, a pretty high number for a tight end; he caught only 59% of the passes thrown at him, but the deeper routes probably explain that. Gray was the third primary target last year, but unless the plan changes rather drastically, he will only be running routes on trick plays this year.
  • Beyond the run-pass ratios, Northern Illinois also played at a slower pace than Minnesota in 2010 despite having one of the better offenses in the MAC.  Expect Kill to utilize a slower tempo at Minnesota, too; as discussed previously, it's a good underdog strategy in that it limits opponents' total plays, and it is probably safe to say that Minnesota will be an underdog quite a bit this year.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 90 61 104
RUSHING 67 30 87 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 110 102 110 26
Standard Downs 67 36 84 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 115 113 117 118
Redzone 74 51 79
Q1 Rk 91 1st Down Rk 65
Q2 Rk 92 2nd Down Rk 96
Q3 Rk 53 3rd Down Rk 108
Q4 Rk 113

Few teams had larger splits between their ability to defend the run and pass than Minnesota; they were thoroughly mediocre against the run (quite efficient though prone to big-play breakdowns) and simply horrid against the pass.  Like Kansas State yesterday, the Gophers routinely suffered passing downs breakdowns and allowed all-but-finished drives to continue.  The line held up pretty well against the run but couldn't even pretend to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks (or to put it another way, they wreaked no havoc), and it appears that blitzing wasn't particularly effective.  They also didn't get their hands on the ball too many times.

This was a rather poor defense, in other words.

Despite the strong Run D, opponents ran on Minnesota all the time, likely because they were so often up big (seven of the Gophers' nine losses were by double digits).  NIU faced the opposite situation -- opponents threw quite a bit on them -- but in all, the only major differences between Minnesota's and NIU's footprints are that NIU blitzed more, or at least, they blitzed more successfully.

Minnesota's interior line was a relative strength last season.  Two of three primary tackles return for 2011; the underrated Jewhan Edwards (11.0 TFL/sacks) is gone, but Anthony Jacobs (6.5) and Brandon Kirksey (5.5) return.  But any gains the tackles prevent will be minimized without an improved pass rush, and ... I'm not sure where they're going to find that without blitzing with abandon.  D.L. Wilhite is probably the most accomplished end on the roster ... and he had 2.5 TFL/sacks last year. Yuck.

Other tidbits:

  • While there is a specific void on the line, the linebackers could be great.  Gary Tinsley (68.5 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks) returns, as do Keanon Cooper (54.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks), Mike Rallis (30.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT in nine games) and Spencer Reeves (18.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks).  If Kill and company do decide to blitz a lot, these linebackers might be up to the task, even if they're more built for stopping the run.
  • Safety Troy Stoudermire put together the team's most in-depth stat line in 2010: 32.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, an interception, five passes broken up, six receptions, 114 yards, one touchdown, two punt returns for nine yards, and 29 kickoff returns for a healthy 27.2-yard average. I'm pretty sure he left the field at some point, though one cannot be sure.  As far as I can tell, he will probably be sticking to defense and returns in 2011.

Minnesota's 2010 Season Set to Music

Since 2010 was basically a lost year, how about ten "lost" songs?  (And I can't wait for next year, when I get to look for ten "kill" songs.)

"I Got Lost," Dinosaur Jr.
"I Think I Lost My Headache," Queens Of The Stone Age
"I Was Lost," Wiley
"Lost," Pat McGee Band
"Lost And Found," Atmosphere (a Minneapolis product!)
"The Lost Brigade," Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
"Lost Cause," Beck
"Lost Coastlines," Okkervil River
"Lost In The Flood," Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
"Lost Our Way," Fighting Gravity

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's
Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 72
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 39
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +2 / +1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (5, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +3.7

During Brewster's tenure, Minnesota's offense and defense seemed to improve and regress in a zero-sum way.  The offense got worse in 2008, and the defense got better.  The offense got better in 2010, and the defense got worse.  The Gophers were without either direction or identity.  Looking at Jerry Kill's track record, then, this appears to be a great hire.  "Directionless program" is right in his wheelhouse.  Whether he can recruit well enough to advance Minnesota beyond the 7-8 win ceiling they typically hit with Glen Mason is obviously still unknown, but he knows how to build identities and win totals for floundering football programs.

Kill inherits a team that has recruited relatively well through the years (at least compared to their win totals), that returns a lot of starters (particularly on defense), and that should benefit from a regression to the mean in the YPP category.  If MarQueis Gray takes to the new offensive system, then the Gophers could make some interesting things happen.  If Gray thrives and Minnesota discovers a pass rush ... well ... actually, let's stick to realistic if's.  There probably isn't much hope for the defensive ends.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: the key for Minnesota's 2011 season will be ... a fast start!  (This has been the key for just about every team previewed in the last two weeks.)  After a trip to USC, Minnesota has the opportunity to plow through New Mexico State, Miami (Ohio) and North Dakota State before beginning conference play.  "Opportunity" doesn't always result in wins, of course, but these are the easiest games on the schedule, and any chance of six wins goes out the window if Minny starts less than 3-1.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.