Notebook: Kill targets safety as a position of focus during bye week
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A mistake-filled 31-13 loss to Iowa on Saturday has given the suddenly stumbling Gophers plenty to contemplate as they enter their bye week.
"I think our football team got an education in the first half at Iowa, got shell-shocked a little bit," coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday during the weekly Big Ten coaches teleconference.
After traversing the nonconference schedule without blemishing their record, the Gophers received a reality check of sorts thanks to Iowa. A flurry of defensive errors and a sputtering offense all combined together to allow the Hakweyes to outgain the "U" 328 yards to 75 in first half alone.
The Gophers recovered strongly enough defensively to hold Iowa to only 47 yards and zero offensive touchdowns in the second half but could not get themselves out of a 24-0 hole.
Kill is in no way panicking about what happened in Iowa City. After all, the Gophers remain 4-1, having already eclipsed their win total from a year ago. But the loss brought to the forefront defensive shortfalls that will have to be addressed if the Gophers intend to rebound when their season resumes with an Oct. 13 homecoming match-up against Northwestern.
Add in a few nagging injuries and it makes it a good time for a break.
As the Gophers did last season, they are using a stripped down, back to basics approach in the bye week. Preparations for Northwestern won't start until Sunday. Until then, Kill is scaling back slightly on the length of practices - the players will have Friday and Saturday off -- but upping the focus on correcting technique issues.
"We'll do exactly the same thing. We won't go much off of what we did last year," Kill said. It's a great time when you're in the off-week to clean things up fundamentally."
The Gophers hadn't faced a team this season with the Hawkeyes' physically aggressive potential in the run game. And it showed in the first half. The defense struggled to stop Iowa's big-bodied fullback Mark Weisman. He hammered the Gophers up front on Saturday, keeping the defensive line and the linebacker corps reeling as he ran for 177 yards.
But Kill pointed to the weaknesses that sprouted at safety and in the secondary as one of the primary areas in need of correcting in the week ahead
"When you play a run football team you've got to have a safety in the box that is going to make plays," Kill said. "We just missed some tackles in that spot. If we don't do that we're in much better shape."
Fronted by the emergence of sophomore safety Derrick Wells, upgraded play in the secondary has been a major reason for the Gophers' success this season. Wells, who would be a likely choice for the team's defensive MVP so far, leads the Gophers in tackles (36) and owns two of their seven interceptions.
Wells stumbled at Iowa, however, missing a number of tackles he had been making in the first four games. Botched tackles plagued the rest of the secondary as well. Weisman was getting downfield field at frequent rate, which put increased pressure on the Gophers' defensive backs to make stops. Until Kill was able to refocus his team at halftime, those stops didn't come.
Wells' struggles and the letdowns in the secondary that resulted were proof that the Gophers don't have the depth at safety and cornerback to withstand too many shortcomings or injuries.
The unit took an additional hit Saturday with junior safety Brock Vereen not yet fully healed from tweaking knee in practice three days prior. Kill opted for the cautious approach. He used Vereen only as a nickel back, keeping him from being brought into the box as an extra run stopping option.
With an extra week to recover, Vereen is expected to be back to full strength against Northwestern. Cornerback Martez Shabazz, out for the last three games with a dislocated right toe, is also projected to be available.
• Kill was hesitant to criticize sophomore quarterback Max Shortell for his three interceptions at Iowa, placing the blame more on the Gophers' wide receivers.
"Max has been put into a tough situation. We wouldn't be 4-1 without his performance ... In the Iowa game, we just didn't do a good job at executing," Kill said. "He had three interceptions, but really all three of them could have been prevented if we'd done the right thing on the other end of it."
Shortell labored to get into rhythm with his receivers in the first half as he completed three of his first 12 passes before finishing 20-of-33 for 197 yards and two touchdowns.
• Starting Quarterback MarQueis Gray's return date remains in question. Gray had seemed to be progressing quickly after severely spraining his knee and ankle on Sept. 22 against Western Michigan, but Kill said Sunday that Gray has since "leveled off a bit."
As of Sunday, Gray was still limited to only light jogging and select drills with team trainers. The Gophers estimated Gray would likely need four to six weeks to recover. That projection has held up. Until Gray can show more progress, he will be marked as highly questionable to play against Northwestern. Kill is hoping the bye week will help matters.
"This is a real critical week for us. We need MarQueis to get healthy," Kill said.