Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It’s snowing here on the eve of the Big Ten Championship Game, but it’ll be perfectly comfortable inside Lucas Oil Stadium, when No. 2 Ohio State faces No. 11 Michigan State.
Indianapolis is about a three-hour drive from Columbus, and it's a little more than four hours from East Lansing. I bumped into a bunch of fans for each school as I was checking into my hotel, so it should be interesting to see what the crowd is like inside the 67,455-seat stadium.
“We’re anticipating 50/50, but I’m hoping a stronger Buckeye crowd will show up, like I’m sure [the Spartans] do,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Can’t control that. But I think it’s going to be a great environment. Really, really excited for it.
HALL WON’T START
Meyer said senior offensive guard Marcus Hall won’t start Saturday after getting ejected from last week’s Michigan game and then throwing a tantrum before giving fans the double-bird salute on his way into the tunnel.
“Very, very disappointed in his actions,” Meyer said. “He paid the penalty for the fight, which is he missed three quarters in a rivalry game. It’s not Marcus. But just really disappointed in his actions after the fight.”
Hall is 6-5, 315 pounds, and his replacement -- redshirt freshman Pat Elfein -- is 6-3, 295.
"I love Pat Elfein," Meyer said. "He's going to have a great career here. A lot of confidence in him."
It’s unusual for teams to go full-contact in practice, especially at this stage of the season, but that’s what Michigan State did to get ready for Ohio State.
“I think you’re trying to put yourself in as many game-like situations – safe, not getting injured, so you can simulate as close to what you’re going to see on Saturday,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think we pushed the envelope there a little bit to try to do that.
“I think our players need to understand, ‘Hey, it’s not touch out there, it’s full-contact. We have to play. There’s no question in my mind that Braxton Miller is the most physical quarterback that we have played this year, in terms of … taking hits and running with power as a quarterback.”
The Gophers think they can build off last year’s bowl game appearance and take another step forward in Year 3 of Jerry Kill’s rebuilding project this season, but beat writers from around the Big Ten are skeptical.
Minnesota is picked to finish last in the Legends Division, behind Iowa, in the poll of 26 writers – two beat writers for each of the 12 Big Ten schools and two Big Ten bloggers from ESPN.com – that was released today by the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Cleveland.com).
The Plain Dealer started this poll in 2011, after the Big Ten conference stopped having writers pick the preseason conference favorite, as most conferences do.
(Note: I was one of the voters and picked the Gophers to finish fifth in the Legends Division, ahead of Iowa, but behind Nebraska, Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State. Iowa and the Gophers finished tied for last in the Legends Division last year with 2-6 conference records.)
Ohio State is a near unanimous pick to win the Leaders Division and the Big Ten Championship Game, which will be played Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. One writer picked Ohio State and Wisconsin to tie for the division title, with the Badgers winning the tiebreaker. Here are the predictions, with total points and first-place votes:
1. Michigan 135.5 (14)
2. Nebraska 132.5 (14)
3. Michigan State 101.5 (4)
4. Northwestern 95.5
5. Iowa 43
6. Minnesota 38
1. Ohio State 155.5 (26)
2. Wisconsin 128 (1)
3. Penn State 104
4. Indiana 74.5
5. Purdue 52.5
6. Illinois 31.5
Need more proof that Minnesota’s in-state high school football talent was down this year?
Rivals.com released its annual report this week, showing the number of scholarship players each state is sending to FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) schools.
Minnesota has seven: James Onwualu (Notre Dame), Keelon Brookins (Wisconsin), Malik Rucker (Iowa), Jack Cottrell (Boston College), Chris Wipson (Gophers), Tyson Reinke (Kent State) and Jackson Wilson (Air Force).
For comparison, the state of Wisconsin produced 24 FBS scholarship players this year, Iowa had eight, and Idaho had seven. So Minnesota and Idaho were tied.
Last year, Minnesota produced 17 FBS signees, and 10 of those landed with the Gophers, including Philip Nelson, Jonah Pirsig, Isaac Hayes and Andre McDonald.
In 2011, Minnesota had 11 FBS signees, so maybe the number will bounce back again next year. The Gophers already have a verbal commitment from Jeff Jones, a four-star junior running back from Minneapolis Washburn.
According to Rivals.com, one of every 124 high school players in Florida signed an FBS scholarship this year. In Minnesota, it was one of every 3,403 players.
Last week, Chip Scoggins wrote about the effect Minnesota’s talent deficit is having on the Gophers, and here’s my story explaining why the Gophers signed just one scholarship player from their home state this year.
As for the possibility that Big Ten teams will drop FCS (formerly Division I-AA) opponents from future schedules, Michael Rand weighs in here on how that might impact the Gophers and FCS programs from the Dakotas.
Update: An e-mailer made a terrific point that bears mentioning here. Minnesota has produced a ton of players who've been a big part of the recent success at St. Thomas, North Dakota State and Minnesota-Duluth. The Rivals.com report focused on players heading to FBS schools, but Minnesota's contributions to those other programs shouldn't be overlooked.
Gophers WR/DB recruit Nate Andrews has flipped his commitment from Minnesota to Florida State, according to AL.com.
Andrews is rated a three-star recruit by Rivals.com and committed to Minnesota in late-November. He's from Fairhope, Ala., and reportedly had interest from Alabama and Tennessee, among others.
Chip Scoggins told me a few weeks ago that Andrews might make a good column if he indeed stuck with the Gophers with all those southern schools recruiting him. Scoggins has followed Minnesota's recruiting for years and seen this many times.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Andrews apparently visited Florida State last weekend and notified Minnesota's coaching staff of his decision today.
"It's done," Fairhope coach Adam Winegarden told AL.com, a conglomerate that includes The Birmingham News. "He's going to Florida State."
NEW MEXICO STATE COACH BOLTS FOR NFL
One team on the Gophers 2013 schedule is suddenly looking for a new head coach.
New Mexico State coach DeWayne Walker left his post to become an assistant coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars, overseeing defensive backs, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News.
Walker, 52, actually lettered for the Gophers in 1981. He was the defensive coordinator at UCLA for three years before becoming New Mexico State's head coach in 2009.
The Aggies went 4-9 in 2011 but fell to 1-11 last year, so this move wasn't surprise. McKinley Boston, former Gophers athletic director and now the AD at NMSU, named offensive coordinator Doug Martin interim head coach and plans to conduct a national search.
The Gophers play at New Mexico State in their second game of the season, on Sept. 7.
TUSLER FLIPS, TOO
Bridgeport Tusler, the Star Tribune's Metro Player of the Year, has already decommitted from Northern Iowa and committed to South Dakota State, according to our David La Vaque (via Twitter).
And yes, as a newbie to these college football recruiting wars, I can officially say my head is spinning.
There's an interesting column on espn.com today that details the new rules that have been proposed for next season, all of them dealing with safety. (The NCAA is currently receiving feedback from member schools about the rules, and will be voted upon next Tuesday.)
The rule sure to be most controversial is one that matches last year's NFL rule change -- moving kickoffs forward by five years, to the 35-yard line. But the colleges are adding a twist that the NFL doesn't have, one that it hopes will cut down on the number of kickoff returns even more. Under the new rule, touchbacks would be placed at the 25, rather than the 20.
The impetus of this, of course, is to reduce the number of kickoff returns, which produce more violent, high-speed collisions -- and thus more injuries -- than any other play. It seemed to work in the NFL, so colleges are quick to move in that direction, too. Minnesota's opponents downed only eight of the 58 Gopher kickoffs they received, one of the lowest rates in the Big Ten. By contrast, Purdue's senior kicker Carson Wiggs produced 23 touchbacks in 89 kickoffs.
Other changes include protecting punt returners from devastating hits as they catch the ball, and requiring any player whose helmet comes off during a play to sit out a play, just as if he had been injured.
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