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.
Just in time for the close of the 2012 season, the Gophers have finalized their 2013 football schedule.
With the final details ironed out, New Mexico State has returned to Minnesota a signed contract for a two-game series with the Gophers, executive associate athletic director David Benedict confirmed Tuesday, and the deal, along with a formal announcement, awaits only Norwood Teague's signature. A preliminary version of the contract called for each home team to play the visitor approximately $200,000, making the home-and-home deal a financial wash.
The contract calls for the Gophers to face the Aggies in Las Cruces, N.M., next Sept. 7, with New Mexico State making a return trip to Minneapolis on Sept. 14, 2014. Those dates replace Minnesota's originally scheduled meetings with North Carolina, a contract that was cancelled earlier this year by Teague, Minnesota's athletic director, at the request of Gophers coach Jerry Kill. Minnesota paid the Tar Heels a settlement of $800,000 to cancel that contract.
The Gophers will be trying to avenge a loss when they travel to Aggie Memorial Stadium next September; New Mexico State defeated Minnesota 28-21 in TCF Bank Stadium last September, the teams' only meeting. The Aggies are 1-9 this season, and 0-5 in the Western Athletic Conference, a league that will drop football after this year. The Aggies' athletic department is run by former Gophers athletic director McKinley Boston.
Linebacker Brendan Beal suffered another knee injury Saturday at Nebraska, coach Jerry Kill said, and is definitely out for Saturday's game against Michigan State. Beal has already missed two complete seasons after tearing ligaments in his knee, and Kill said he sat with the junior linebacker in the locker room after the game Saturday. Kill said he is praying for Beal -- "That kid has been through so much," the coach said -- but he believes the injury is serious.
Marcus Jones, another player who has missed time following knee surgery, also re-injured his knee against the Huskers, Kill said, but that injury is not believed to be as serious.
Offensive lineman Mark Lenkiewicz suffered a knee injury as well, but Kill described his status as "questionable" for Saturday.
And defensive tackle Roland Johnson is definitely out after injuring the ACL in a knee Friday night -- during the team's non-contact walk-through. "When you have guys getting hurt in a walk-through, it's not a good day. Not a good week."
MADISON, Wis. -- The Gophers aren't bringing Paul Bunyan's Axe home with them, not with that gaping hole in their run defense. But after Saturday's game, they have to feel better about their chances of capturing it over the next three years.
That's because Philip Nelson mostly lived up to his billing as the Gophers' quarterback of the future, showing poise and skill in his first college action, despite Minnesota's 38-13 loss to Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium. The 19-year-old freshman threw a pair of touchdown passes, but also a pair of interceptions in a debut that was at once intriguing and frustrating.
The frustrating part was due to the defense, which for the third straight week, was bludgeoned by a Big Ten running attack. Badger tailback James White scored three touchdowns and Montee Ball two, and both eclipsed 150 yards as Wisconsin pulled away in the second half. It's the ninth straight year that the Badgers have won the Battle of the Axe, equaling the longest winning streak ever in the 122-game series. Minnesota won nine straight games in college football's most-played rivalry from 1933-41.
MarQueis Gray was healthy enough to play the entire game at wide receiver, and he caught two passes for 13 yards. But his ankle injury, and a lingering injury to backup Max Shortell, opened the opportunity for Nelson, the state's Mr. Football last fall at Mankato West High.
Despite playing behind an offensive line that was missing tackle Ed Olson and guard Tommy Olson, Nelson grew more comfortable as the game wore on, and had Minnesota within 14-6 at halftime and 24-13 in the fourth quarter.
White had touchdown runs of 14, 34 and 48 yards, while Ball had scoring romps of 14 and 44 yards.
Doesn't a week off, right in the middle of your profession's busiest stretch, sound like a welcome reprieve?
It doesn't to Tracy Claeys, not after watching the Gophers' 31-13 loss in Iowa.
"When you play like that, then you don't play the next week, it's miserable," said Claeys, the Gophers' defensive coordinator. "I've had a miserable off week. I know we're better than that, but you've got to wait two weeks, and everybody is talking."
And what is everybody saying? "Everybody thinks we fell off the edge of the Earth," Claeys said.
What's frustrating to him is how magnified a run of mistakes in the second quarter became, how the Gophers allowed a competitive game between two fairly even teams, in his estimation, to turn into a blowout. Iowa's first three possessions encompassed 15 plays -- 12 of them gaining fewer than four yards, and six for no gain or a loss of yardage. The second play of the game was a 45-yard completion on a botched coverage, but even then, the Gophers forced the Hawkeyes to settle for a field goal.
"I wasn't disappointed with the way we came out of the gate. They ran a little trick play type of route that we hadn't seen, but we tackled it and held them to a field goal. That's what I'm used to," Claeys said. The Gophers forced Iowa to punt away its next two possessions, and there was no inkling that the game would turn lopsided.
But over the next dozen plays or so, the defense made one awful play, one ugly mistake, after another, turning a three-point tug-of-war into a four-score laugher.
"Plays 1-15, we didn't play bad; we just gave up that one pass. But then plays 17-28, we hit a stretch in there that wasn't good," Claeys said. "It's frustrating as hell, because all of a sudden, the game's over -- 24 (straight) points. You're trying to catch up from 24-0. Because of that little swing in there, you (bleeped) it away, and I think we're better than that. So it's very frustrating."
After allowing three points on the first three possessions, seven bad defensive plays from that point in the game to halftime -- six of which gained between 20 and 47 yards, after the Gophers had not allowed a 30-yard gain all season -- handed Iowa three consecutive touchdowns, and essentially the game.
Claeys said he's not sure what happened there that allowed the roof to cave in. The attitude seemed good, the players didn't stop trying. Coach Jerry Kill credited it to momentum, that Iowa fed off its loud sellout crowd and just got on a roll. But the mistakes were simple ones, Claeys said, and the solutions as well.
"During that stretch, yeah, I don't like it, the kids don't like it, because we didn't play very well," Claeys said of all the big gains. "We mis-fit three plays (left gaps undefended), we missed tackles on four, and on one play, we got our eyes in the backfield," allowing the Hawkeyes to pull off a flea-flicker for a touchdown.
The players looked for schematic adjustments at halftime, but Claeys said there weren't any to make -- the solution was just to execute better. "And in the second half, Iowa got 50 yards (actually 46) and they were running the same damn stuff," the defensive coordinator said, noting that the Hawkeyes didn't score an offensive point after halftime. "If you tackle well and get where you're supposed to be, we're good enough to play. ... But because of those eight plays, we fell off the end of the world. So I'm ready to play again, quite frankly."
Claeys said he doesn't blame fans for being disgruntled about the Iowa loss, even after four victories to open the season. But he and the coaching staff have taken care to make sure that the defense doesn't get discouraged.
"We watched those plays as a defense. I don't want 12 plays to define us, because we're better than that. I believe that," Claeys said. "I don't want perception to become reality. Everybody's all, 'Because of one game, they ain't worth a damn. They ain't worth a damn. But we played pretty good defense, we really did, except for those eight plays. I mean, we're capable of a lot better, we really are."
Jerry Kill was particularly lively and upbeat at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, which is probably no surprise given the Gophers' 1-0 record.
The coach said he noticed the same attitude in his players, too, during last Thursday's 30-27 triple-overtime win in Las Vegas. Even when UNLV took a lead on Minnesota, even when the Rebels scored touchdowns on their first two overtime drives, the Gophers never developed a "here we go again" feeling on the sideline. "Last year, that's all I saw," Kill said.
The Gophers had a good practice on Monday, he said, and are well along in preparing for Saturday morning's home opener against New Hampshire. They lost receiver Jamel Harbison to a knee injury during the game, but the Gophers came through the game otherwise healthy.
We'll have more coverage of the Gophers in Wednesday's Star Tribune.
By PHIL MILLER
I'm roughly halfway to Las Vegas as I write this, and there are roughly a dozen passengers on this flight wearing Gophers gear, including a couple of familiar faces from the sidelines at practice.
(Brief aside: The effects of the drought gripping the Midwest and Rocky Mountains are plainly evident when you fly over the country; every lake has a ring around it where the water used to be.)
Later flights today and tomorrow will undoubtedly have a lot more. For Minnesota football fans looking to build a vacation around a Gophers football game, probably no game in several years has been more anticipated than this one. No offense to West Lafayette or East Lansing, but there are a few more things to do in Las Vegas when the game is over.
That's why it's hardly a surprise that the university sold out its allotment of 3,000 tickets, Jason LaFrenz, the university's assistant athletics director for marketing and ticket sales, said last week. There will be a relatively large contingent of Gopher fans in Sam Boyd Stadium tomorrow night. I'll be watching for maroon-and-gold in the casinos the next two days.
"I know that we've got a huge following going out. I've got all kinds of emails and phone calls and good luck (messages)," coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday. "We had a huge following when we went out to USC. There's not a question about how passionate our fans are -- we've just got to make sure we put a good product out there."
Fans who traveled to Los Angeles and Las Vegas these past two years don't have much to get excited about for the foreseeable future. And truthfully, considering the downtrodden history of UNLV football, even this game wouldn't be a particularly big draw if the Rebels didn't play in Las Vegas. (There is added intrigue to the game, given that it's the opener, but that's changing, too; the Gophers will open at home for at least the next four years.)
Next year, the Gophers will visit Chapel Hill, N.C., for the last non-conference road matchup with a BCS-level opponent for awhile.
Kill, who explored canceling the contract with the Tar Heels earlier this year, has made it clear that the Big Ten schedule is difficult enough without adding extra hurdles during September, so the Gophers have joined the rest of major college football by sticking to home games against lesser conferences. It's nothing unique to Minnesota, far from it; but as a college football fan, it's a shame that the practice of playing your peers around the country is dying out.
The trend means no road games at all for the Gophers in September 2014, and trips to Colorado State in 2015 and Miami of Ohio in 2016. Admittedly, Fort Collins, Colo., is beautiful and I always enjoyed covering games there, but it's not like playing USC, is it?
Kill joked last week that he'd prefer to play 12 home games, and he's practically getting his wish this year. Once the Gophers arrive home from Las Vegas early Friday morning, they won't leave the Central time zone again this season. It's the first time since 1961 that they have no games on the schedule in the Eastern time zone.
Of course, that season ended with a game two time zones away -- in Pasadena on New Year's Day. I'm guessing that's a road trip that Kill would approve of.
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