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Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Early look at Minnesota Golden Gophers

By Josh Moyer

Every day this week, NittanyNation will continue taking a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Minnesota.

With Jerry Kill at the helm, the Golden Gophers are poised to become bowl regulars -- and could become one of the bigger surprises in the Big Ten this season.

Minnesota was 3-9 in 2010 before Kill took over. Then the former Northern Illinois coach equaled that record in 2011 before doubling the win total in 2012. It's Year 3 for Kill now, and this third year is the one in which Minnesota could take off.

Kill loves to run the ball, but his hopes are inextricably linked with sophomore quarterback phenom Philip Nelson, Minnesota's Mr. Football in 2011 who received recruiting interest from the likes of Nebraska and Wisconsin. Nelson experienced a rough rookie campaign, but Minnesota's hopes for a breakout season are tied to just how much he can improve this season.

Minnesota isn't a lock on the Nittany Lions' schedule. Not anymore. It's a wild card, and it's one PSU can't take for granted.

When: Time TBA on Nov. 9 at TCF Bank Stadium
Last season: Minnesota (6-7, 2-6 Big Ten); lost Meineke Car Care Bowl vs. Texas Tech, 34-31
Series history: PSU 8-4-0

Philip Nelson
Philip Nelson will need to improve from his freshman season if Minnesota hopes to have a winning record in 2013.
Biggest question marks: Big things are expected out of Nelson. But can the player who tossed eight picks to eight TDs last season step up and guide the offense? And, better yet, whom is he going to throw to?

Two of Minnesota's top three receiving targets are gone. And Isaac Fruechte is the leading returning wideout -- and he caught 19 balls for 256 yards last season. That's not very encouraging.

On defense, two junior college players will take over starting roles at linebacker and Minnesota will have to continue a pass rush without its top defensive end in D.L. Wilhite. These are two question marks, but not clear weaknesses. The juco 'backers are talented enough that some believe the position might be slightly better than last season, and seven of eight other defensive linemen return.

Strengths: The trenches. The entire starting offensive line returns, and there's enough depth here to make any B1G team envious. Eight offensive linemen return with some starts under their belts, and a healthy Ed Olson will be the anchor here. He's 6-foot-7, 309 pounds and a four-year starter.

As already mentioned, Wilhite graduated -- but there's plenty of other returning defensive linemen. The leader now of this unit is now clearly DT Ra'Shede Hageman, who's 311 pounds and managed to find the quarterback as often as Deion Barnes last season.

On offense, the running game will set the tone and dictate just how much the Gophers will have to rely on Nelson. There's a good 1-2 punch here, although Donnell Kirkwood is the workhorse and will get the brunt of the carries. Rodrick Williams is a versatile, 235-pound back who will back him up and is capable of playing receiver. These two can wear a defense down, especially one like PSU without a lot of depth.

Who to watch: Nelson. The ground game is Minnesota's bread-and-butter, but Nelson's performance will determine whether opposing defenses are just able to stack the box and key in on the run. If Nelson can make this offense anything more than one-dimensional, the Gophers have a shot at being the surprise of the Big Ten.

Nelson was just a rookie last season, and bumps are expected in that first season. But there are no excuses this season. He should have time to throw behind a tough offensive line, and this passing game could be the only thing holding Minnesota back from winning a bowl game.

What you might not know: Minnesota made national news last season when leading receiver (and walk-on) A.J. Barker announced on Twitter he was quitting the team. He ripped Kill for abusive behavior, for allegedly questioning his attitude when he was injured and also accusing an assistant of calling him a slur because of his religious beliefs.

He transferred to Houston but, right before classes began, he was arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession. He was never offered a scholarship at Houston, and he's not currently listed on the Cougars' roster.

In eight games for Minnesota last season, he boasted 30 receptions for 577 yards. Fruechte was the No. 2 receiver and didn't have half as many yards despite playing in 12 games.

Early prediction: PSU 24-17. The Nittany Lions rely on the running game to get it going and win in a good, close game.