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.

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Posts about College football

Northwestern's new football facility will push Gophers even further behind

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: March 14, 2014 - 10:46 AM

The Gophers just fell another step behind in college football's arms race. The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Northwestern has received the green light to build "the multipurpose lakefront facility that football coach Pat Fitzgerald says will be a 'game-changer' for his program."

From the story:

Donations have poured in despite the Wildcats' 5-7 record last season. Sources said construction of the two-building complex will begin by early 2015 and should take about two years to complete.

The school will announce Friday, the Tribune has learned, that it is launching a new fundraising campaign and that Mark and Kimbra Walter have donated $40 million to be used for athletics and law school scholarships. Mark Walter, a graduate of NU's law school, is the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

NU officials have been tight-lipped since unveiling plans for the project in September 2012. The price tag for the facility on the shore of Lake Michigan is likely to exceed the original estimate of $220 million.

This project was first announced in September 2012, but there are new renderings, and quite frankly, they are stunning. The Chicago Tribune reports that the cost likely will exceed the original $220 million estimate.

Last July, Gophers AD Norwood Teague unveiled a $190 million plan to drastically upgrade the school's athletic facilities, including new practice facilities for the football and basketball teams. Teague has since said that the school is close to announcing the results of a fundraising feasibility study, and he keeps saying he feels good about it. But it's been relatively quiet.

ESPN commentator Dan Dakich, a former Bowling Green coach and interim head coach at Indiana, said on Thursday’s broadcast of the Gophers-Penn State game that Minnesota can’t afford not to build a facility. Dakich called Minnesota high school basketball the nation’s best-kept secret, and said there “are Minnesota kids all over Division I.’’ Dakich said if Minnesota finally builds a practice facility comparable to other Big Ten schools and starts keeping top in-state kids at home, the basketball program could take off.

Last December, the Big Ten Network's Gerry DiNardo held nothing back in his assessment of Minnesota's football facilities. Here's an excerpt from that story:

DiNardo tours the entire Big Ten twice each year — during spring practice and preseason camp — giving him a firsthand look at what the Gophers have compared with their competition.

“You can make a case that they’re 12th of 12 [teams] when it comes to resources in the conference,” DiNardo said. “Facilitieswise, it’s not even close.”

By that, DiNardo means the indoor practice facility, weight room and nutrition areas. He said it’s nice for Minnesota fans to have 5-year-old TCF Bank Stadium but notes that players spend about 10 days per year there, counting spring practice. They spend almost every other day on campus in the training facilities, and those aren’t helping recruiting, DiNardo said.

“A prospect wants to know where he’s going to go every day,” DiNardo said. “Training table, for example: I often see at Minnesota they eat in the hallway, and it’s food with Bunsen burners underneath.”

The Gophers do indeed hold their training table with catered meals inside the entryway to the Gibson/Nagurski Practice Facility. It’s a high-ceilinged room filled with Gophers memorabilia — a nice place to visit, but hardly a dining room.

“When [recruits] go to Nebraska, by way of example, when you walk into their training table, it looks like a restaurant,” DiNardo said. “I mean, it is decked out. Wisconsin just built brand new facilities. They have juice bars — it’s a kitchen, it’s a restaurant.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Fitzgerald had this to say on National Signing Day:

"A lot of other universities have made the decision just to do the stadium. We've put the priority on student-athletes with a 365-day facility. We already have everything we need to win, but now we'll be able to compete facility-wise with anyone in the country."

Vereen getting set for East-West Shrine Game on Saturday

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: January 17, 2014 - 4:52 PM

Outgoing Gophers senior Brock Vereen will get another chance to perform before NFL scouts on Saturday, when he plays in the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The game will be televised on NFL Network, with the kickoff at 3 p.m. Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch and Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston are among the other standouts who'll be there.

Vereen, a first-team All-Big Ten defensive back, is a potential late-round pick. His brother, Shane, is a running back for the New England Patriots.

"Coming into college, I think it’s safe to say most players have aspirations to play at the NFL level," Brock Vereen said last month. "I’ve been fortunate enough to see Shane go through his whole process, and I think the biggest thing I’ve taken from that is whether you’re the first pick or a free agent, all you need is an opportunity.

"So I’m not worried about when I’m taken, if I’m taken. As long as I can get a chance I know I’ll make the most of it."

Note: Gophers defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, a potential first-round pick, is gearing up to play in the Senior Bowl, on Jan. 25 in Mobile, Ala.

O'Brien promoted to Senior Associate Athletics Director

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: January 13, 2014 - 4:40 PM

The Gophers announced today that they've promoted longtime director of football operations, Dan O'Brien, to Senior Associate Athletics Director overseeing the football program and facilities.

O'Brien, who has been with the athletics department since 2008 and worked closely with head football coach Jerry Kill for the past three years, moves into the role vacated by David Benedict, who has moved on to become chief operating officer at Auburn.

"We are extremely excited for Dan to take on his expanded role within the Athletics Department,” Gophers AD Norwood Teague said in the press release. "His work with the Gopher football program speaks for itself, and his more than ten years of experience as Director of Athletics at both Hamline and Concordia Universities will be a welcome addition to our current staff.”

To fill O'Brien's role as director of football operations, Kill promoted Adam Clark, the Gophers director of player personnel.

Stats help explain Gophers turnaround

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: November 18, 2013 - 4:08 PM

My assignment for the Tuesday paper was to write about the five biggest reasons for this year's Gophers football turnaround. Look for that later in tonight's first editions.

Meantime, I looked up a bunch of Gophers stats, comparing this year to last year. In no particular order, here's what I found:

Category: 2012/2013

Average time of possession: 31:03/33:23

Philip Nelson’s passer rating: 104.4/141.6

Turnover margin: -2 (22 committed, 20 caused)/+6 (9 committed, 15 caused)

Points scored per game: 22.1/30.7

Points allowed per game: 24.7/23.4

Yardage allowed per game: 358.6/380.8

Yardage gained per game: 321.4/367.9

Rushing yardage per game: 151.9/218.5

Leading rusher: Donnell Kirkwood 73.7 yards per game/David Cobb 94.2

Fourth down conversions: 7-for-16, 44%/11-for-14, 78.6 %

Penalty yardage per game: 50.2/36.4

Net punting average: Christian Eldred (primarily) 34.2 yards per punt/Peter Mortell 38.1

Field goals: Jordan Wettstein 14-for-22/Chris Hawthorne 12-for-15

Saturday's college football viewing guide with the Gophers on a bye week

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: November 15, 2013 - 11:40 AM

The Gophers have a bye Saturday, but they’ll have their eyes on two Big Ten games.

INDIANA AT WISCONSIN (11 a.m., ESPN2)

Line: Badgers by 23

Why it matters to the Gophers: Wisconsin is their next opponent, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Hoosiers can give the Badgers a scare at Camp Randall. A Wisconsin win would make the Badgers and Gophers both 8-2 heading into their Nov. 23 showdown at TCF Bank Stadium.

There’s an outside chance “ESPN College GameDay” would come to Minnesota for that game, though the more likely draw that day would be Oklahoma State at Baylor. As GameDay host Chris Fowler tweeted (@cbfowler), “Minnesota fans campaigning for 11/23 @CollegeGameDay: Root for Texas S'day. And TX Tech. And WIS. The November grid is interconnected!”

Texas is a 3-point underdog at home against Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech is a 27-point underdog against Baylor in a game played in Arlington, Texas.

MICHIGAN STATE AT NEBRASKA (2:30 p.m., ABC)

Line: Spartans by 6

Why it matters to the Gophers: This game will have a direct impact on Minnesota’s Legends Division Title chances. If Michigan State (5-0 in the Big Ten) wins, the Gophers (4-2) would need the Spartans to lose the following week at Northwestern (0-5) before Minnesota visits Michigan State on Nov. 30. If Nebraska (4-1) wins, the Gophers will be right in the hunt. At that point, Minnesota could claim the division title with wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State – and one Nebraska loss to either Penn State or Iowa.

It’s already been a storybook season for the Gophers. On Saturday, things could get even more interesting.

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