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TCU at Minnesota Preview: Frogs-Gophers Part Deux

The Horned Frogs open the season against Minnesota. Will it be a repeat of last season, or will an improved Gopher squad push the Frogs to the limit?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's Note: Be sure to check out the awesome Felts-graphic down below)

Jerry Kill’s excited to play TCU, as he should be. This isn’t a statement of entitlement. The Horned Frogs went 4-8 two seasons ago, and a fantastic, nearly perfect 2014 campaign is a far cry from being bulletproof. It’s why I hate, and sometimes love--but mostly hate preseason rankings; it’s just damn good television.

If Jerry Kill wasn’t being told by Minnesotans at Starbucks that they’d be there, and are excited for a bout against the No. 2 team in the Nation, I’d worried. That mic in the face questioning "are you excited to play the second best team in the country" routine is quite trite, but necessary. Of course they’re excited. Sure, Kill’s over-billing Minnesota’s stadium a bit as the River Plate of the Lake States; but he’s got a point. This is a very losable game for the Horned Frogs. A non-conference game against a team like Minnesota can seem like a drop in the bucket when you’re baited into staring into a Black Friday horizon. The Gophers are baiting into being focused on the present; the gritty underdog who played Ohio State better than anyone else down the stretch.

Minnesota and TCU should both look at this game in vacuum, because by season’s end--as we’ve learned time and time again--narratives change dramatically from Labor Day to Selection Sunday. For both teams, the game is merely a stepping stone. For Minnesota it’s either (1) beating, and upsetting, TCU and making a legitimate run at a Big 10 title, or (2) playing TCU well and still making a mark in the Big 10. For the Frogs it’s either blow everything up early, or begin the path to Arizona that many think you can go down.

Creating a Frogger game, while in good fun, and definitely funny, seems like a little much for a non-conference game. Again, would anyone be as hyped if there wasn’t a No.2 attached to TCU’s name, regardless if it were the same team?Probably not.  This could fall into the "Oh, look at TCU, they’re scared" argument. There is however, a devilish danger in getting wrapped up in the web of stuff like this. Like TCU’s "Sucks to BU" shirt that were made before RGIII and Baylor beat TCU before Labor Day in 2011. Pride typically comes before the fall; and obsession isn’t much different in a game like this.

There are no guarantees in college football, just really strong guesses; one strong guess is that Minnesota will be better in 2014. Another strong guess is that TCU will find a way to be better too.

Gold on the Gophers’ Ceiling

I’d be a huge clown if I came out firing on Minnesota saying that they’re offense can’t do a 180 and become something uniquely kinetic, because I said TCU--with an improved offensive line, an improved scheme, and a consistent quarterback--could do that last year. So to completely write off Minnesota and saying that’s impossible would be unwise. But suspicion isn’t unwarranted. The Thursday gameday atmosphere goes both ways. For Minnesota, it’s an obvious advantage that they get to open the season at home. Not sure if there’s a spot you’d rather play a non-conference, Top-5 team than on your home turf the Thursday before Labor Day. Like we said above, Minnesota is trying to everything they can off the field get into TCU’s heads. Blame the Coens for my inability to take from that state anything more than a friendly grain of salt.

Minnesota’s biggest plus is their defense. Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray, the Preseason All-Big 10 corners should test the Frog receivers thoroughly. Boddy-Calhoun and Murray also lead a secondary unit, that themselves, starts four seniors. The Minnesota defense, however, might give Boykin and the rest of TCU’s offense a little too much time. The Gophers ranked 9th, tied with Iowa, in sacks; and against what may be TCU’s best offensive line in school history, that’s not the greatest of signs. Still, Minnesota’s defense is polished, and run by one of the better defensive minds in college football.

Per Kill, the running game will still be the bread and butter of the offense. David Cobb is gone to the NFL, so now the running game hinges on senior Rodrick Williams and freshman Rodney Smith. It’ll be interesting to see how much the Gophers use their new no-huddle offense in their first game of the season. However, with a receiver corps that’s up in the air, and dependent on freshmen; it’s hard to see the Gophers passing much on Thursday.

Despite the defense, and despite the running game which the offense cuts its teeth on: the game ultimately falls into quarterback Mitch Leidner’s hands. Which, I know, I just said above the Gophers won’t pass much. Still, Leidner had 3 interceptions against TCU last season, and had a completion percentage of under 52% for the 2014 campaign. Minnesota fans will tell you that Leinder’s wildly inconsistent, but when he is on--at least by his standards, he inspires something. Per the Daily Gopher, here are his stats in Minnesota’s losses versus their biggest wins:

In Losses:

@ TCU - 12-for-26, 151 YDS, 0 TD, 3 INT

@ Illinois - 12-for-30, 240 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT

Ohio State - 7-for-19, 85 YDS, 0 TD, 2 INT

@ Wisconsin - 5-for-18, 95 YDS. 0 TD, 0 INT

Missouri - 21-for-31, 258 YDS, 1 TD, 0 INT

In Wins:

@ Michigan - 14-for-22, 167 YDS, 1 TD, 0 INT

Iowa - 10-for-13, 138 YDS, 3 TD, 0 INT (w/ 11 RUSH ATT, 77 YDS)

@ Nebraska - 8-for-17, 135 YDS, 0 TD, 0 INT (w/ 14 RUSH ATT, 111 YDS, 2 TD)

While nothing is jaw dropping from Leidner’s stats, the Gophers clearly play better when he plays better. His feet could also test the TCU defense, as Leidner racked up 600-yds on the ground in 2014; but only 4 of those yards were against TCU.

Minnesota has work to do though. We’re finally over beating the dead horse of where TCU was in 2013 to what they became in 2014; but here, it’s worth repeating. The Frogs ranked 4th in total defense in the Big 12 last season. The Gophers can easily win this game, but they’ll have to be nearly perfect--even with TCU breaking in a new defense. But for a team who only had one loss at home last year, which was by one touchdown to Ohio State, that should still scare the TCUsphere. 

TCU’s R/Evolution

Going back to the Thursday night before Labor Day chatter; that should put a Pavlovian taste of aluminum-foil in your mouth. The cognitive feeling I get from that is playing Baylor opening weekend on National television on the road. The obvious difference is that the expectations for TCU, while they were still high, were completely different than they are in 2015.

Starting two linebackers who’ve never started a game before doesn’t help. But everything said by Patterson is that while the freshman, Mike Freeze--straight outta Graham, Texas--and Sammy Douglas are right now; a far cry from Mallett and Dawson, they faster, and that’s encouraging.

Like we said above, Minnesota runs the ball a lot. Or at least, ran the ball a lot in 2014. 70% of their offensive plays were rushing plays, and 60% of their offensive production came from the run. So no matter how improved Leidner is, I don’t see the passing game being terribly prominent for Minnesota in their first game of the season. But if it is, that’d make me happy. Sure, TCU’s loss at defensive back--Kevin White, Chris Hackett, and Sam Carter--stings, but Denzel Johnson (who’s my breakout player for defense), Kenny Iloka, and the more experienced Derrick Kindred and Ranthony Texada should be a strength for TCU; a lot of it for the same reason as the linebackers--speed, baby.

What D. Johnson brings to the table, as does Iloka, is something that won’t really be seen until possibly the SMU game--with Chad Morris’ scheme--and definitely the Texas Tech game. However, Johnson and Iloka being forced to play man in heavy passing attacks, should keep teams more grounded, surprisingly enough. Even Gary was the first to admit that Sam Carter, while a wonderful field general, was on the slower side. Patterson’s defensive scheme likes to entertain the safeties as pseudo-linebacker; and Kindred thrives in that. And that’s why he should thrive in Minneapolis. Kindred is a big the key to that game; he’ll have to use his experience and balance out Minnesota’s running game, as well as the new passing game they seem to be so proud about.

Last year in Fort Worth, Minnesota ate up the clock (winning the possession battle), and it’s easy to see how: they ran ball about 40 times. In these kinds of games the TCU offense acts like the salt in the wound: scoring fast, and forcing a tired opposing offense to then go back up against a surging defense that’s stuffing the run. Minnesota, again which cuts its teeth on the ground, failed to gain 100-yards against the Frogs last season. Along those same lines, think back to the Peach Bowl. Ole Miss, who ran the ball 39 times, only gained nine yards on the ground. So now, in these kinds of games, a great offense (1) can not only eventually wear down even a really good defense; but (2) in TCU’s case, if a fast offense has a defense that forces, and stuffs the run, that offense is an integral part in wearing their opponents’ offense down to silly putty. So should the Horned Frog defense even reveal itself a fraction of what it was in the Peach Bowl, it’ll inevitably trigger success on offense.

Again--and something that’ll be the same for pretty much every game from now until 2016--it all goes back to the offense for TCU. How often can they score, and more importantly; how quick can they score. TCU’s offense exists in its own universe now. What Meacham and Cumbie built in 2014, should be taken to newer heights in 2014. Just based on experience, and even The revolution has taken over, and now it’s about evolving.

For Boykin, and the arsenal around him, the Minnesota game was a coming out party in 2014. This is was certainly the case for Josh Doctson who lit up SportsCenter, and my YouTube viewing with his Top-10 grab. To take a #HotTake jab at the Big 10 is unfair, because their champion from 2014 was also the National Champion. It’s just different football. If TCU was still running a Big 10-style offense like they did in their first two years in the Big 12, then yeah, Minnesota would have a better chance. TCU runs an offense much faster than anything Minnesota sees, especially on a regular basis. Only one Big 10 team ranked in the up-tempo Top-25--speaking in terms of second per play--was Indiana, whom Minnesota didn’t play in 2014. Encouraging, however if you’re a Gopher fan is that they did play, and beat, the Big 10’s second fastest team in Northwestern.

Quick Intangibles: Like his friend, Gary, Kill always produces teams with a real keen sense on special teams. Whether it’s kickoffs, or the kicking game itself, Minnesota can push the momentum game in their favor with a strong presence on special teams.

Final Prediction: 45-28 TCU

For what it’s worth, I think it’s a pretty tight game in the first half. Leaning towards 24-14 at this point. I just think TCU tires the crap out of Minnesota in the second half. As much as I foresee the Gophers running the ball, I think it just gets worn down in 3rd. The more three-and-outs, or drives close to, means the Gopher defense will be on the field more, and that’s where Meacham and Cumbie are going to get tactical with it. The in-route becoming their version of running the ball and tiring out the Minnesota defense throughout the third should set up a nice display of three, possibly four headed monster--Aaron Green>Kyle Hicks>Trevorris Johnson>Shaun Nixon--in the 4th quarter, leading to the 45 points. Minnesota gets a touchdown late in 3rd, and entertains a few more good drives to make it a ballgame, but Gary’s defense finds a bright spot, and fall into the lucky narrative of forcing a costly turnover.

What I was saying about Leidner is true. I just don’t see him beating a secondary that’ll be faster in 2015, and not to mention a safety corps that has a linebacker mentality ingrained in them to stuff the run. Which, again, against a team that runs it 7 out of 10 times, is encouraging.

The negative of being perceived as a title contender, the reality of being a title contender, is that you’ll go into every game with a target on your back. My heart smiles that there’s a caricature of a Coen brothers Minnesota, full of die hard Gopher fans who are doing some chilling Midwestern voodoo right now.  The exposure is all wonderful; the magazine covers, the ESPN interviews, the general conversation, etc. But the ying to this yang is that there will be stories like this; and as long as TCU stays undefeated, or close to it, teams will try everything--both on and off the field to get into TCU’s heads. As a team that’s been written off,  praised, then written off again, to finally proving their worth in 2014; I don’t think a video game is getting in their head. Minnesota is acting like they’re TCU of 2014. Maybe they are. But the Frogs had to prove they were better on one side of the ball; Minnesota will have to prove both sides. And that’s a tall order for you first game of the season.

No matter. College football is back, and that’s enough to get excited.

Minnesota Preview Infographic