First, first look: Minnesota

May, 20, 2011
5/20/11
9:29
AM PT
There are 12 weeks until fall camp begins for the USC football team the first week of August. During each of those in-between weeks, and traditionally later in the week, we'll offer up an early first look at the 12 scheduled opponents for the 2011 season, in chronological order. We begin with Minnesota, who the Trojans will face at home on September 3:

Things have changed for Lane Kiffin's hometown school since the last time the Trojans played Minnesota last September. The biggest change? Tim Brewster is no more as the Gophers' coach, replaced by former Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill.

Kill's also losing one of the program's all-time most productive players in quarterback Adam Weber. It'll be an enormous challenge for Minnesota to stay competitive in the Big Ten in the first year of a new coach's regime, coming off a 3-9 year and with little top talent on the roster.

Past history: Last year's contest between the two schools ended up a lot closer than USC fans like to admit. The final score was just 32-21, a sign both of the Trojans' sputtering offense and inept defense, the first time in the 2010 season both units experienced serious issues.

Until the latter half of the third quarter, USC trailed the game, 14-13. Then freshman receiver Robert Woods returned a kick 97 yards for a touchdown and really started to make a name for himself, giving the Trojans the lead and eventual win. Still, that game was the early precursor to USC's struggles for the rest of the year. Against a team in Minnesota that had lost to an FCS school seven days prior, the Trojans failed to pull away and dominate.

Historically, USC is 5-1-1 against the Gophers, with the Trojans' only loss coming in 1955.

Offense: Minnesota's most talented offensive player is the explosive MarQueis Gray, who spent last season as a receiver behind Weber but came into college as a dual-threat quarterback. He's officially a quarterback again, being converted back to that spot this offseason, but he's yet to secure the No. 1 job. Assuming he does, Gray's running will immediately become a fairly large portion of the Gophers' offense, with talent out at receiver scarce. The best returning receiver there is senior Da'Jon McKnight.

Minnesota also has a stockpile of talent at running back with Duane Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Donnell Kirkwood, each of whom received at least seven carries in the loss to USC last year. The Gophers lose three starters from their offensive line.

Defense: The good thing about going 3-9 last season, if you're a Minnesota fan: the team was young, and young teams don't graduate many players. Nine of the 11 starters off the Gophers' defense are set to return in 2011, including end D.L. Wilhite and cornerback Brock Vereen, the younger brother of New England Patriots second-round selection Shane Vereen. Seven of the top nine tacklers also return.

It's more of a big-play defense this year under first-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. Linebackers Keanon Cooper, Brendan Beal and Gary Tinsley, who led the team in 2010 with nine tackles, will be asked to add more turnovers to the mix and attack the quarterback.

Special Teams/Special Circumstances: Programs under first-year head coaches are hit-and-misses, especially when the head coach is dealing with his first-ever year in a conference like the Big Ten. Kill -- and Kill's offense, more specifically -- had plenty of success in the MAC, but will it translate to the smash-mouth genre of the Big Ten?

The season opener will go a long way, in Minnesota fans' eyes, toward assessing exactly where the program is starting under its new coach. For that reason, this one, airing Saturday, Sept. 3 at 12:30 p.m. PT on ABC, will be something to watch.

That's it for this week. Next week comes a look at the Utah Utes.
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PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler373260313330
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