by Dallas Jackson - 12/09/2005
Minnesota: 7-4 (4-4) 4th Big Ten
Virginia: 6-5 (3-5) 5th ACC-Coastal
Friday December 30, 2005 Noon
When Minnesota has the ball:
Minnesota scored the most points of any team in the Big Ten, averaging 36.2 ppg. The Gophers also averaged 218 yards passing and 280 yards rushing on the season. So it is no stretch to say that Virginia has their work cut out for them.
The attack starts on the ground as the Gophers have two running backs eclipsing 1,000-yards this season. Laurence Maroney was the big name back, gaining 1,355 with 10 touchdowns on the season, while Gary Russell went under the radar, gaining 1,045 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns. As a team they average 50 rushing attempts per game, with a 5.5-yard average. That is much a credit to the two runners as it is to the mammoth offensive line.
The passing game, while unheralded, is effective. The Gophers throw the ball just 26 times per game, complete 56 percent of their throws and have no receivers with more than 40 receptions. However, junior QB, Brian Caputo can beat you with his arm and he will have plenty of time to pick apart a zone, as his line has allowed just three sacks all season.
Virginia is known for their defense and intense play under Coach Al Groh, and this season was no different. The Cavaliers surrendered just 22.5 ppg this year, but give up a ton of yards. The bend but don't break defense may have worked against the likes of UNC, Temple and Duke, but it will not work against a juggernaut offense in Minnesota.
The defense will need to step up and create penetration to throw off the rhythm of the Gopher offense. The player that I am calling out is Kai Parham, a junior linebacker for the Cavaliers. He will need to establish a physical mentality and presence that the rest of the defense can rise to. Parham led the Cavaliers in tackles, tackles for a loss and sacks, and will need to be the same great player in this bowl game for Virginia to be successful.
When Virginia has the ball:
Virginia was fifth in their conference in scoring with 26 ppg, but was held under 20 in four games, including just five points in a loss to UNC. The Cavaliers have no offensive leader to turn to in key situations. They used a committee of four RBs, all with more than 50 carries and less than 600 yards, to make up the running game this season. They had moderate success as the team finished in the middle of the ACC in almost every rushing category.
The passing game was also not a beacon of light. Marques Hagans, who came into this season rated as of the best quarterbacks in the conference, has not been the dynamic playmaker that Virginia expected. His 13-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio has hurt the team in several key situations. At only 5-10 he has a lot of passes knocked down, and does not have the scrambling ability that other athletic quarterbacks have.
When your offense scores 36 ppg and you still have four losses it speaks to the level of your defense. Such is the case in Minnesota. The Gophers give up 28.5 ppg and more than 400 yards on defense and they have yielded 35 points or more five times this season. The defense has only forced 12 turnovers all season (6 INTs and 6 fumbles) and it has not been able to get off the field allowing opponents to convert 44 percent of third downs. The defense is led by undersized senior safety John Pawielski. This player -- only 5-10 -- led the team in tackles this season. For most players this would be a remarkable achievement, but when a defensive back is your leading tackler that means that opponents are getting to the second level on the ground and hitting a lot of passes through the air. Minnesota will need to bring the defense that allowed just 18 points to Michigan State and leave the one that allowed 52 to Iowa at home.
Minnesota has made all of their field goals inside of 30 yards, going 7-for-7, but has made just half of them beyond 30, going 6-of-12. Not too good when you consider they play indoors.
The punt game for Minnesota is average. A 39.6-per-punt average is good, but they allow more than 10 yards per return and have had one punt taken back against them. However, they also have a punt block for a touchdown on the season.
The return game for the Gophers is solid. Averaging more than 10 yards per punt return can change field positions, as well as more than 20 yards on kick returns. Neither squad has had a return go for six, but a punt return of 53-yards set them up nicely as well as three kick returns for more than 40 yards.
The Gophers do not cover kickoffs especially well. They should have enough practice as they kicked off more than 65 times, but have allowed two kicks to be returned for touchdowns, including a 100-yard return. Virginia has a good special teams unit. Kicker Conner Hughes has made 19-of-22 attempts, and is 5-for-6 beyond 40, including a successful 50-yard kick. He has only missed one of his last 16 attempts.
The punt game is lacking as there is hardly any hang time behind Chris Gould' kicks. He averages 39 yards per punt, but has only one fair catch in 50 punts. He has had a dozen kicks downed inside the 20, but does not turn field position over very well.
The return game for Virginia has outperformed their opponents all season. They average 4.5 yards more per kick return than opponents and have a long of 63 yards. The kick coverage team is excellent, allowing just 19 yards per return, and having an average starting field position of the 20, including 37 touchbacks.
Neither team wants to be at this bowl. It is the Gophers third trip in four years to Nashville. It has been rumored that Coach Glen Mason will be releasing his country album soon and he is making yearly tour stops.
Minnesota had high hopes for this season and with a strong and athletic offensive line, they truly expected to be in contention for one of the Big Ten's top two bowls. They will come out and perform, at least on offense, and should make for some entertainment as the first bowl of that Friday.
Virginia has been a crap shoot all season as they stun Florida State then put up five points versus North Carolina. The offense has yet to truly find a rhythm and QB Marques Hagans is to fault, but he will look to end his career on a high note with a victory.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's football picks service.