By GEORGE THOLE — Stillwater Gazette
Popular second-year Gophers football coach Jerry Kill (130-82, 18 seasons) is hoping for at least a 6-6 season and a bowl game.
The Gophers (3-9) were ranked on the bottom last year with Indiana (1-11) in the Big Ten by the so-called experts and the bad news is they don’t play each other again this season. The nonconference schedule is such that if Kill and company can bag two Big Ten wins again like they did 22-21 over Iowa (7-6) and 27-7 over Illinois (7-6), they might be on their way to a bowl game.
Minnesota should be able to get off to a 4-0 start without stubbing its toes like they did versus less-than-mediocre New Mexico State (4-9) 28-21 and the always tough FCS national champion North Dakota State Bison (14-1) 37-24.
Opening up with UNLV (2-10), a team ranked 118th in the nation, should get the Golden Gophers off to a good start. Next comes a good FCS opponent in New Hampshire, followed by MAC foe Western Michigan (7-6) led by quarterback Alex Carder, a talented 3,873-yard passer.
I believe that Syracuse (5-7) provides the biggest nonconference threat, however, with a dozen starters returning, including QB Ryan Nassib and top receiver Alex Lemon.
Looking at the Big Ten, you know we will have our hands full with Michigan (11-2), who ripped us 58-donut last fall, and you can’t count on Wisconsin (11-3), who ripped the Maroon and Gold 42-13 at TCF last year to turn over the Axe in Madison. Michigan State (11-3), which the Gophers played tough in a 31-24 loss, and Nebraska (9-4), a 41-14 winner over Goldy, are other teams with better talent.
The rest, although much improved if you tuned into the Chicago press conference aired on the Big Ten Network, are beatable. I’ve never been impressed with Illinois (7-6) or Purdue (7-6), but I do like coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats (6-7).
I’m looking forward to that Oct. 13 clash with Fitzgerald and the purple at TCF. Northwestern will be improved on the starting defensive line, which includes former Ponies star Brian Arnfelt (6-foot-5, 305 pounds).
The Gophers will no doubt be better than last year’s outfit, if for no other reason than they have a full season of the new regime under their belts and a quarterback in MarQueis Gray (6-4, 245) who proved he can win late in the season.
For any offense to succeed, you need linemen (jumbos, hogs, whatever) to function. Mahtomedi’s Ed Olson (6-7, 305, Jr.) at left tackle playing alongside his sophomore brother Tommy Olson (6-4, 295) at left guard intrigues me. Another Minnesotan that looks solid to me is Irondale’s Jimmy Gjere (6-7, 325, So.).
Gray had problems turning the ball over and finding open receivers, but he has the ability to turn bad plays into big ones. He is a 50-percent passer, but doesn’t have experienced receivers heading into camp. Brandon Green, Marcus Jones and Devin Crawford-Tufts of Edina are returning players who have the quicks.
JUCO recruit James Gillum, who rushed for 2,240 yards during his two-year stay at a community college in the south, might be just what’s needed. Let me repeat myself, the o-line is the major factor here, sports fans.
Defense had more downs than ups, giving up 409 yards per game in 2011, and Kill has said many times that the Gophers will stress speed over size on this side of the ball. They get just that with cornerback Troy Stoudemire, who is the top kickoff return man in the Big Ten. Junior strong safety Brock Vereen is also back in the fold.
Minnesota is expecting a big year from former Minneapolis Washburn all-stater Ra’Shede Hageman (6-6, 300, Jr.) at tackle and end Mike Amaefula (6-2, 245, So.). The starting linebackers from a year ago in the persons of Keenan Cooper (6-0, 220, Sr.), Edina’s Mike Rallis (6-2, 240, Sr.) and junior James Manuel (6-2, 215). Rallis looks like an All-Big Ten type to me.
It appears that coach Kill and his staff have the Gophers headed in the right direction — a 6-6 or better season is not an unrealistic expectation.
The Big Ten Thole Poll: 1. Wisconsin; 2. Michigan; 3. Michigan State; 4. Ohio State; 5. Nebraska; 6. Iowa; 7. Purdue; 8. Northwestern; 9. Minnesota; 10. Penn State; 11. Illinois; 12. Indiana.
In the huddle
Junior defender Joe Balder ’09 of St. John’s University was selected to the 14-member men’s soccer team which went 1-2-1 against top U-22 club teams from San Paulo and Rio de Janero on a trip to Brazil this past spring. The former Stillwater ace started all 17 matches for the Johnnies and finished the 2011 season with two goals and three assists. St. John’s finished 9-8 overall last fall. Balder was joined by three Johnnies teammates on the USA DIII All-Star team that competed in Brazil…. Ponies all-state golfer Cassie Deeg was chosen the Most Valuable Player by the state runner-ups. This marks the fifth time in her six-year varsity girls’ golf career that she has received this honor. I have to believe that no other SAHS athlete can make the same claim — in fact, I know darn well that she is the only one. Deeg’s all-state teammate Hailey Boner was selected MVP as a sophomore in 2010. It’s well known that Deeg will continue playing at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and Boner will take her talents to Fargo and North Dakota State University. Deeg is also the recipient of the Phil Parizino Award named for the avid Stillwater golfer and Ponies fan. Erin Thiets and Alex Zeuli rounded out the Ponies’ top four and also made the all-conference team. Cassie’s sister Amy was MVP in 2006, the year before Cassie was honored for the first time…. If you think Minnesota’s institutions of higher learning are having problems, check the University of California system. There are 116,000 university employees in that state retiring soon and that will likely triple the number of people collecting UC pensions. Now this comes at the worst time possible because the state is making huge cuts already. According to the Associated Press, UC employees can collect benefits at age 50 and max benefits (up to 100 percent) by age 60. UC pension costs are currently $240 million per year, but could reach $500 million in three years. Ouch!…. Sorry to see the passing of Bayport good guy Dave Speich earlier this month…. The Rose Bowl game has the longest continuing sellout streak in college football dating back to 1947…. finis
Today’s rumination #578
Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all in the present.
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George Thole retired as head football coach at Stillwater after the 1999 season. He ranks among Minnesota’s top coaches in history with a 285-69-2 record (.805 winning percentage), including four state titles and two state runner-up finishes among 22 championship seasons. He co-authored (with Jerry Foley) “Coaching the Veer Offense,” second edition. His column appears Thursdays in the Gazette. To contact the hall of fame coach e-mail: [email protected]