Glen Mason, the former Gophers football coach and current Big Ten Network analyst who called the Gophers’ 30-23 season-opening victory over Oregon State last week, said that when you look at all the crazy things that happened in the first week of college football, the Gophers simply have to be happy to walk away with a victory. And he doesn’t believe a difficult opener means all that much in the grand scheme of the season.
And while Mason believes Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State are the class of the Big Ten, the Gophers have one thing going for them: They don’t have to play any of those three.
“I think the Western Division is up for grabs,” Mason said. “I think most of the real powerful teams are in the East Division. There’s no clear-cut leader. I mean, almost everybody thinks that Iowa is the team to beat in the West, and I wouldn’t argue with that. But in saying that I think any team, I think Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and even though they lost their first game, Northwestern could give Iowa a run for their money.”
When you look at the Gophers schedule, you notice they have only two opponents that are currently ranked: No. 16 Iowa at home on Oct. 8 and No. 10 Wisconsin on Nov. 26. That’s why Mason believes that it doesn’t matter how the Gophers got to 1-0, but simply that they got there.
“Any way you look at it, you come away with a victory in your first game and you have to be happy,” Mason said. “I think the great Tracy Claeys would think there’s a lot of upside to that team. Offensively, not having Shannon Brooks had to be a downer. But they’re going to have to be more consistent throwing the football. Mitch Leidner is going to have to be more consistent. I think he has the ability to do that.”
Leidner on the run
While there were several aspects of Leidner’s QB play that Mason believes the senior will improve upon, the most important thing for Leidner and the Gophers is that he is looking healthy after surgery on his left foot.
“Leidner is healthy, looks a step faster this year,” Mason said. “But I don’t think they want to feature him as a runner. He’s going to have to be a more consistent passer.”
Against Oregon State, Leidner had as many carries, 13, as pass completions. He finished with 76 yards and two touchdowns rushing compared to 130 yards and no TDs passing. Leidner’s yards per carry, 5.8, was higher than his yards per pass attempt, 5.0.
While Leidner is a good running quarterback, Mason believes his health is so vital to the Gophers’ season that Claeys and his staff will work to lessen his carries going forward.
“I don’t think they want to [have him run]. He’s a good, powerful runner, but he’s going to take a lot of hits,” Mason said. “He’s not a guy who’s going to make a lot of guys miss, he’s just a strong runner.”
Looking for upside
The Gophers’ struggles in several phases of the game — including three player ejections, two awful snaps and a muffed punt return — were evident, but Mason also saw a lot of things he liked.
“I thought [running back] Rodney Smith looked really good,” Mason said. “I was impressed with the defensive end, the freshman [Tai’yon] Devers. I think on defense they have the ability to run.”
So overall, in Mason’s opinion, while the first game was a big ugly and definitely below expectations, he said all Gophers fans need to do is look around, and they will see that several teams had a similar opening experience.
“There’s a lot of teams that made a lot of mistakes,” Mason said. “A lot of teams around the country, most people didn’t think LSU would lose to Wisconsin, Mississippi State wouldn’t lose to South Alabama, Arkansas wouldn’t struggle against Louisiana Tech and so on and so forth.
“College football is a little bit different because there is no exhibition season. You have to come out of the blocks playing well.”
Dozier on fire
Maybe the greatest early-season turnaround by a Twins hitter in recent memory was Justin Morneau in his 2006 American League MVP season, but what fans are seeing from Brian Dozier is as close to that kind of performance as you’ll get.
In his first 54 games in 2006, Morneau hit .235 with 11 homers, 38 RBI and 26 runs scored. Over his final 103 games that year, he hit .364 with 23 homers, 92 RBI and 71 runs. He posted a .616 slugging percentage and 1.031 OPS over that stretch. It led to Morneau being the first Twins player to be named AL MVP in 29 years.
Dozier won’t win MVP honors this year because the Twins are so atrocious, but his numbers are perhaps even more amazing.
Through the end of May, Dozier was hitting .202 with five homers, 17 RBI and 21 runs scored in 46 games. His slugging percentage was .329 and his OPS was .624.
Since then he has hit .314 with 34 homers, 75 RBI and 73 runs with a .694 slugging and 1.069 OPS. Those numbers are unparalleled in baseball over that stretch.
• Here’s an interesting note on new Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford: His late grandfather on his mother’s side, Oscar John Esser, is a native Minnesotan, born and raised in New Ulm, where he played football, baseball and basketball. He got his undergraduate degree at St. Thomas before getting a law degree at the University of Miami. Esser died Aug. 20 at age 89 and his memorial was held in Oklahoma City last Friday, which might explain why Bradford was there when the Vikings traded for him Saturday.
• Twin Cities Orthopedics doctors operated on the shoulder of Gophers tight end Brandon Lingen, who is expected to face Indiana State on Saturday.
• The Detroit Lions snagged two local players cut by the Vikings for their practice squad: former Gophers/Caledonia High School wide receiver Isaac Fruechte and former Bemidji State/Spring Lake Park tight end Brian Leonhardt. On the Lions active roster is Zach Zenner, the former South Dakota State/Eagan running back who had 17 carries for 60 yards as an undrafted free agent last year before landing on injured reserve because of broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung.
• Chaska’s Ross Travis, who played basketball but not football at Penn State, made the Kansas City Chiefs as a tight end. The 6-7, 235-pound Travis spent part of last season on the Chiefs practice squad and is wearing No. 88, the same number worn by former Kansas City superstar tight end Tony Gonzalez. “It makes me work that much harder, wearing a number that so many people take pride in around this area,” Travis told the Kansas City Star. “It’s a lot to live up to and it really just reminds me how much I’ve got to work.”
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org