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.
Hello, and welcome to my new blog.
I’m Joe Christensen, the new Gophers football beat writer for the Star Tribune. I swapped places with Phil Miller, who is moving to the Twins beat this year, joining La Velle Neal.
I’ve spent the past 15 years covering Major League Baseball, including the past eight at the Star Tribune. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it became tougher and tougher to be gone so many nights with a wife and two young kids at home.
Last summer, I went to my editors requesting a change, and I don’t think it could have worked out any better. College football always has been a passion of mine, dating to my time covering Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily in 1994.
After graduating from the University in 1996, I covered prep football for Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise. And later, during my time on the Dodgers beat, I had chances to cover USC, UCLA, as well as the Rose Bowl. That said, I’ve got a lot to learn before I’ll consider myself an expert on college football.
While covering baseball, I viewed my Around the Majors blog as a chance to take the readers along for the ride. I’ll post breaking news here, when something happens with the Gophers. And I’ll work to bolster our coverage with bonus items that I find interesting or amusing along the way.
Thanks for stopping by. You can also follow along on Twitter -- @JoeCStrib.
Only 41,062 tickets were sold to the Gophers' game against Purdue last Saturday, already the smallest crowd in TCF Bank Stadium's four-year history, and it looked like there were several thousand no-shows, too. It's a shame that so many Gopher fans missed the most impressive victory of the season so far.
But Jerry Kill said Tuesday he knows who is to blame for such a dispiriting turnout: He is.
Well, sort of. It's not really his fault that the Gophers don't draw well, but it is his responsibility, he said, for making sure that changes.
"If we continue to win, that place will be packed out and we'll have to build on to it," Kill said at his weekly news conference. "If you don't win, that's the way it is. ... It's our job. It's not our fans -- I'm not going to blame anybody. We've got to put a good product out there. That's what I was hired to do a year and a half ago, and that's what we'll do."
Kill said he has been heartened during his tenure here to discover that there are plenty of enthusiastic fans out there, and that negative opinions are offset by positive ones.
"There are a tremendous amount of people that have stuck by the program," Kill said. "There's enough passion in this state, and enough passion in this room. We start winning games, and expect it every week, and all of that stuff will come."
While Kill was praising Minnesotans who has supported him, his boss was trying to keep discouraged fans from abandoning the program. Athletic director Norwood Teague last week wrote an explanation for his and Kill's decision to cancel a two-game series with North Carolina and pay an $800,000 termination fee to do it.
Over the weekend, Teague sent a letter via email to season-ticket holders, hoping to reassure those who were especially critical of the decision. Kill, Teague and the athletic department received dozens of complaints about the North Carolina series, and Teague acknowledged that the move wasn't well-received. But "I also want to personally assure you that even if we don't always agree on decisions," Teague wrote, "I will always be guided by the best interests of athletics and the entire university community."
The controversy is a matter of tactics, not strategy, Teague said.
"While we may not agree on every decision, I have heard broad agreement that rebuiding the Gopher football program is a priority, not only for the team and its fans, but also for Gopher athletics and the university," Teague wrote. "I will continue to work closely with Coach Kill to implement a plan that builds a winning tradition that inspires pride, fills the stadium with fans, leads us to bowl games, attracts top student-athletes, and generates revenue."
In an effort to create a loud and electric atmosphere for Saturday's game against Syracuse, the Gophers' only night game at TCF Bank Stadium this year, Minnesota put more than 5,000 upper-bowl tickets on sale shortly after last Saturday's victory over Western Michigan.
Gopher fans apparently know a bargain -- the tickets were snapped up by Monday evening.
There are still tickets available to watch the Gophers try to improve to 4-0, but all in the better reserved sections, priced between $40-90. Assuming those tickets move by game time, it could give the Gophers their first sellout of the season.
And nobody is rooting for that more than Jerry Kill. The coach emphasized how much the fans at TCF Bank Stadium helped his team on Saturday -- and that's with a mediocre crowd that the university announced as 44,921 tickets sold, but looked like several thousand fewer, certainly a smaller crowd than one week earlier against New Hampshire.
In discussing the Gopher defense's stand on Western Michigan's final possession, Kill said, "To be honest, I think the crowd had something to do with it."
The Broncos, apparently having communication problems, were penalized five yards on first down for having five men in the backfield. After a sack and a short run, they faced third-and-18.
"The crowd was tremendous on third down," Kill said. "If we're on the road, that may be a little bit of a different story."
Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder's pass was broken up by Michael Carter on third down, and receiver Jaime Wilson was stopped short of the first-down marker on fourth down, cementing the Gophers' victory.
Carder "was trying to check (change) plays. I can't tell you how important it is when that stadium is loud and it's third down, how tough that is on the quarterback," Kill said. "Everybody's calling plays on the line of scrimmage right now. Communication to get 10 guys to do the right thing is not easy."
Better get used to those 11 a.m. kickoffs again.
BTN announced its TV schedule for September on Thursday, and the Gophers' home games against New Hampshire on Sept. 8 and Western Michigan on Sept. 15 are morning starts, something the Gophers avoided at TCF Bank Stadium last season.
Along with the Oct. 13 game against Northwestern, that means Minnesota has been relegated to the early starts in three of the four home games announced so far. The exception is Sept. 22 against Syracuse, which will kick off at 7 p.m.
Last season, six of Minnesota's seven home games began at 2:30 p.m., a result of Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi lobbying the conference and its network for relief from the morning starts, which make it more difficult for fans to tailgate. But the policy only lasted one season.
In addition to a pair of road games -- a 10 p.m. CDT kickoff at UNLV on Aug. 30 and an 11 a.m. start at Iowa on Sept. 29 -- the Gophers now know the start times for the first half of their 12-game schedule. Most of the remaining games will not be assigned kickoff times until 10 days before each game, as the Big Ten's TV partners slot the games into their schedule. Minnesota's opener in Las Vegas will be televised by CBS College Sports, and the next three games will air live on BTN.
A few quick notes from the Gophers football spring game Saturday, which signals the end of the spring practice season for Minnesota:
*Quarterbacks: MarQueis Gray looked sharp on most of his passes, completing 4-of-8 passes for 62 yards while competing for the Maroon team, which technically took home a 3-0 victory over the Gold team in the 50-minute scrimmage. The crispest offensive play of the day might have been Gray's early 35-yard hookup with Brandon Green. ... Sophomore Max Shortell was 4-for-10 for 68 yards and ran for 30 more. He directed an impressive late drive that ended with a missed field goal. ... Freshmen Philip Nelson (0-for-6) and Mitch Leidner (0-for-2) did not complete a pass. The passing game overall often looked disjointed, though it's not entirely surprising.
Said coach Jerry Kill: "We divided up our receivers evenly. ... Today, there was a ball, an inch, a foot, two feet here or there, and we didn't make a play. But I think that can all get corrected through repetition in the summer."
*Kill was impressed by the team's speed in the secondary and singled out junior college transfer Martez Shabazz, who had a pass breakup and two tackles. "We've got some guys in the secondary who can run, and we're a little bigger in the secondary," Kill said.
*JoJuan Harper led all running backs with 44 yards on the ground. Donnell Kirkwood had 25 and sophomore Cole Banham had 24 on eight carries.
*The Gophers made just one of three field goal attempts, but Kill chalked much of that up to rotating in less experienced holders.
*The announced crowd was 3,512. The weather was overcast at the 11 a.m. kickoff and light rain developed late.
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