Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly column that tours football topics in our state from preps to pros. You can find all the previous FAM columns right here. — Chip
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PHILADELPHIA — Kevin O'Connell's blueprint was a mystery until a week ago. Nobody could say with certainty how his offense would look or function, or how he intended to employ Justin Jefferson and a collection of skill players because the Vikings' rookie head coach kept everything locked down in the preseason.
The curtain was raised against Green Bay, allowing every team on the schedule a chance to see O'Connell's plan in action.
"Now there's real tangible evidence of some aspects of what we're doing that can be game-planned," O'Connell said last week. "But in the end, if you've built it the right way, it's one of those things where I like to think that our offense is evolving week to week."
That evolution needs to happen quickly because Monday night the Philadelphia Eagles clearly had a better plan than the Packers did. Now O'Connell, his staff and players must make necessary adjustments after a disjointed 24-7 loss on Monday night.
The Eagles completely disrupted the offense's timing with an aggressive plan that resulted in 11 pass breakups, three interceptions and seven quarterback hits.
Jefferson took responsibility for Kirk Cousins' first interception on the opening drive of the second half, saying he needed to run a better route. The other two interceptions belonged to Cousins, who looked rattled as the offense stumbled.
One area that deserves attention is Adam Thielen's lack of involvement through two games. Thielen had only three catches for 36 yards on four targets in the opener. He was not targeted in the first half Monday night as the Vikings fell behind 24-7. He finished with four catches for 52 yards on seven targets.
"There's a lot that goes into that [lack of targets]," Thielen said. "The first thing I do is go look myself in the mirror and watch the film to see what I could have done better to get open."
Jefferson has been targeted double digits in both games for a total of 23, which is the proper distribution for a No. 1 receiver. But O'Connell and Cousins must find ways to incorporate Thielen more inside game plans while still prioritizing Jefferson's role.
"Kirk trusts [Thielen] inherently, and we have to find ways to continue to get him the ball within the rhythm," O'Connell said.
An overly cautious D, and a rattled Cousins
Traveling back from Philadelphia, a few thoughts linger as I reflect on that dud of a performance:
- Why did defensive coordinator Ed Donatell have his secondary sit back in such soft coverage and allow Jalen Hurts to pick them apart? The Vikings made it way too easy on Hurts and his receivers by repeatedly giving big cushions. Hurts completed his first 11 passes and finished 26 of 31 for 333 yards. Vikings defenders played on their heels from the start.
- O'Connell has talked about helping Cousins play with a "quiet mind." That performance last night looked like the opposite of a quiet mind. Cousins had that skittish look again that we have seen too many times previously when he feels pressure.
- I felt the secondary was the team's No. 1 concern going into the season, and that was reinforced last night. They look vulnerable in that area — in talent, depth and experience — and the Eagles took advantage of it.
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Since his freshman year, Stillwater High's Max Shikenjanski has had his mind set on playing college basketball, following in the footsteps of his father, Jim, the former Gopher center.
Now he's not sure which path his athletic career will take in college — basketball or football.
Shikenjanski, who has committed to play basketball at The Citadel, received a preferred walk-on (PWO) offer from Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck at Saturday's game against Colorado.
Shikenjanski is a strong-armed, mobile quarterback who has guided Stillwater to a 3-0 start.
"I've grown up a Gophers fan my whole life," Shikenjanski said Sunday. "When he offered me a preferred walk-on [spot] at the game, it kind of felt surreal. It's been a dream of mine, so it felt great."
But now he faces a tough decision.
Shikenjanski said he's still committed to The Citadel, but he told the coaches there about the PWO offer to let them know that he is giving it serious consideration.
"I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing, playing football, and hopefully make a decision within the next few weeks," he said.
The start to his senior season has been excellent. Shikenjanski has passed for 1,063 yards and 12 touchdowns while completing 69.5% of his passes. He has thrown only one interception.
"With the amazing wide receivers that we have and our offensive line that gives me a bunch of time to throw the ball, I couldn't ask for a better offense," he said.
Shikenjanski averages 32 pass attempts per game. The offense caters to his ability to make smart decisions and keep plays alive with his athleticism. His feel for the game in eluding a pass rush to extend plays stood out when I watched him in person two weeks ago against East Ridge.
"Obviously, anyone can have a strong arm, but it's how you use it and how you look downfield and move around the pocket," he said.
A three-sport athlete growing up, Shikenjanski didn't have a favorite sport. "I liked whatever was in season," he said. "I loved anything that I was playing."
He drew more interest from colleges in basketball, so he figured that would be his choice. Recruiters from Midwest football programs at different levels made contact, including the Gophers, but St. Thomas was the only school to offer him a spot.
That changed this weekend when Fleck extended a PWO offer and told Shikenjanski that many players who start their career as preferred walk-ons eventually get put on a scholarship.
His family has held season tickets for Gophers basketball "for as long as I can remember." Shikenjanski plans to take a few weeks to decide if the family's ties to the university will include football, or if he will stick with his original decision to play basketball at The Citadel.
"Whatever I choose to do, I'm super excited," he said. "It's a tough decision. I know a lot of people wish to be in this position, so I'm grateful for everything. I'm just going to talk to my family and hopefully make the best decision for me. It's definitely a big one, but I know I'll make the right decision."
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- John Michael Schmitz: Gophers center continues to show why he's one of the best at his position in college football. Schmitz cleared wide running lanes that helped Mohamed Ibrahim rush for 202 yards and three TDs vs. Colorado.
- Jariel Lopez-Barrera: Augsburg linebacker returned two fumble recoveries for touchdowns of 73 and 29 yards in a win over Martin Luther.
- Ron Johnson: Former Gophers star wide receiver was inducted into the school's M Club Hall of Fame. Johnson finished his career with a number of receiving records in program history.
- Riley Schwellenbach: East Ridge receiver caught four passes for 141 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Hopkins.
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He said what?!
"Last year we got romped, and that's the truth. I hated that. We wanted this game bad. They are a great team, and we knew that if we were going to beat them, we'd have to play angry and get after it." — Eden Prairie lineman Will Sather after his team atoned for a blowout loss to No. 1 Lakeville South last season with a 21-6 win.
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Numbers to know
- 178: Total yards of offense for Lakeville South in a big-school showdown with Eden Prairie. The Eagles defense smothered Lakeville South's potent Power-T rushing attack, limiting the Cougars to 136 yards rushing.
- 553: Season rushing yards by Southwest Minnesota State's Jesse Sherwood, which ranks second nationally in Division II.
- 154.7: Rushing average per game for the Gophers' Ibrahim, which ranks second nationally in FBS.
- 1,122: Passing yards for Bemidji State's Brandon Alt, which leads Division II nationally.
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Kevin O'Connell took responsibility for the loss Monday, saying "I don't think I did enough in-game." The Vikings had sloppy execution, but the Eagles looked better prepared on both offense and defense.
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Grab your popcorn
Two games are popcorn worthy this week:
First, the Gophers had no trouble against three overmatched nonconference opponents, winning by a combined score of 149-17. P.J. Fleck's team gets its first big test — and its first road game — Saturday at Michigan State in the Big Ten opener. This game should tell us a lot more about the Gophers. Kickoff is at 2:30 on BTN.
Locally, No. 2-ranked St. John's plays at rival Bethel, No. 20 in Division III, on Saturday at 1 p.m. Both teams are coming off their byes. Bethel quarterback Jaran Roste suffered a left arm injury in the first quarter of the season opener and missed one game. He is practicing this week and his availability will be a game-time decision.
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An important 48 hours for …
The Gophers wide receiver position group. News that senior Chris Autman-Bell suffered a season-ending leg injury on Saturday is a tough blow. Autman-Bell is their best receiver and a respected leader in the locker room. Everyone will have to pitch in to fill that void on the field. Dylan Wright is the team's most physically gifted receiver, and he needs to provide more consistency and not just occasional flashes of superlatives.
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A FAM FINAL WORD
Adversity is an unavoidable part of football. Teams encounter bad performances, injuries, tough losses, you name it. The key to overcoming those things is the response. The Gophers lost one of their best players to a season-ending injury. The Vikings laid an egg on Monday night. Undefeated high school teams lost their first game. The overarching objective for all those teams this week: regroup.
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Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota. I'll publish this each Tuesday morning in time for your lunch-hour reading. I appreciate feedback so please reach out anytime.
Chip (@chipscoggins on Twitter)