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What to watch for: San Jose State poses early key test for Gophers

by Nate Sandell, 1500ESPN.com Updated 13 months ago | 1034 reads

Who: Minnesota Gophers (3-0) vs San Jose State (1-1)
When: 11 a.m. Saturday.
Where: TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,805)
TV: ESPN 2
Line: Gophers by 3.5
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (3rd season, 12-16). San Jose State -- Ron Caragher (1st season, 1-1).
Series: 1-1
Last meeting: Back in 1992, Jeff Garcia made sure Jim Wacker's tenure with the Gophers got off to rough start as the eventual 11-year NFL veteran quarterback captained a 39-30 San Jose State victory.

Injuries: Gophers' full injury report can be found here.

State of affairs

Setting aside any jabs you may have about the caliber of opponents the Gophers have faced so far, the fact remains they have passed an initial test of getting to Week 4 with an unblemished three-win record.

Even though they struggled for a full half against Western Illinois, the Gophers rebounded when needed, despite coach Jerry Kill suffering an epileptic seizure at halftime and watching their starting quarterback go down due to injury.

The competition level now slowly begins to ramp up. A critical opportunity at a second straight 4-0 start is at stake for Minnesota.

San Jose State at a glance

On paper, the Gophers' nonconference schedule is arguably the least formidable in the Big Ten. But Saturday's match-up has been the one game continually circled as Minnesota's biggest early season challenge.

With a quarterback in David Fales who has slowly gained nationwide attention, San Jose State quietly put together an impressive 11-2 season last year. Expectations are cautiously high now for the Mountain West newcomer. The Spartans have had an extra week to prepare since having their eight-game win streak ended by Stanford on Sept. 7.

Spartan to watch

Senior QB David Fales

One of the nation's top quarterbacks has surprisingly taken root at the forefront of San Jose State's offense. Fales' 72.5% completion rate last season was the highest in the country. Another strong year -- he passed for 4,193 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2013 --could earn him a coveted spot in the 2014 NFL Draft.

However, Fales has only been average in his first two games this season, connecting on 60% of his passes for 441 total yards (45-of-75, one interception).

What to watch for from the Gophers

Measuring stick

Three games in, what do we know about this year's Gophers? Apart from areas of potential, the answer is not that much.

That will begin to change on Saturday. How they perform against San Jose State will provide a legitimate sample size from which to debate the Gophers' trajectory this season.

A high-level of attention has been thrust back on Kill after his most recent episode in his battle with epilepsy. From a strictly football point of view, the Gophers still have much to prove on offense and have a defense that is awaiting its first hefty challenge. How they handle all of these elements will be a key gauge of the type of team Kill has.

Leidner time

With starting quarterback Philip Nelson still recovering from a sore hamstring, redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner is projected to make his first career start. This is a major chance for Leidner, who was strong in just over two quarters of work in relief of Nelson last week - 105 yards passing, 64 yards rushing.

Now can he handle the heightened spotlight of a starting role?

Nelson has the experience advantage and has been solid with his feet this season, but the offense has lacked consistency. A breakout performance by Leidner could change the Gophers' long-term outlook under center.

Leidner was asked to pass only eight times last week, completing seven of those throws for 105 yards. For a team without that hasn't much of a passing attack to speak of, the Gophers have to start proving they can find a level of consistency through air before Big Ten play kicks into gear.

Slowing down Fales

Aside from a few lapses, the "U" defense has gradually strengthened in the first three games. Ranked third in the Big Ten in scoring defense (18.7 ppg), the Gophers had seven tackles for losses last week, including three sacks. But the quick passing attack of Fales and the Spartans poses match-up problems they haven't experienced yet.

"The ball gets out so quick," Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said of Fales. "You may think you've got him sacked and a little flick of the wrist and the ball gets out. It's a concerning part, them keeping the ball away from us, just throwing all the short stuff."

However, Minnesota won't have to contend with Fales' top target. Noel Grigsby, San Jose State's all-time leading receiver, did not travel with the team after injuring his knee in practice earlier in the week.

Need to get going early

The Gophers' tendency to start slow has to be addressed. In three games, they have been outscored 12-6 in the first quarter, usually taking until their fourth offensive series to start finding a rhythm. The margin of error for sluggish openings will continue to narrow as the year goes on.

Minnesota's defense has usually been able to set an early tempo, but it is time the offense start reciprocating.

Calling it

Gophers 20, San Jose State 17

The San Jose State passing attack could cause problems for the Gophers, especially early on. But if the Gophers' offense, under the guidance of likely starter Leidner, can sustain drives on a semi-consistent basis, Minnesota is going to have a chance to capitalize in what could be a tightly contested fight into the fourth quarter.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
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