Welcome to the maiden voyage of Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly examination of the state's football scene, from preps to pros.
There is much to discuss with the Gophers and Vikings, in particular, after a pair of performances that exposed real concerns, and we will get to that in a minute. But the goal of FAM is to unearth stories that touch all of Minnesota football, and this week's top story represents that spirit. Thanks for reading. — Chip
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Grand Rapids High quarterback Andy Thomsen had one final play in a preseason scrimmage on Aug. 28. He kept the ball on a run and was tackled in what his coach thought was a routine play.
"It looked like a football play I've seen a thousand times," coach Greg Spahn.
Everyone who knows Thomsen, a North Dakota State commit, marvels at his toughness so when he was slow to get up and then walked off the field hunched over, leaning to one side, "we knew as parents that something was wrong," his dad Shannon said.
Thomsen passed a concussion test on the sideline. A family friend who works in the medical field talked with Thomsen by phone after he got home. Thomsen noted that he was having trouble hearing in his left ear, which prompted an immediate trip to the emergency room.
Per COVID protocols, Shannon waited in the car while his wife, Tresa, went inside with their son. An hour later, Tresa texted her husband to come inside, that the prognosis was serious. Shannon thought maybe a broken collar bone.
Doctors in Grand Rapids had sent the CT scan to a Duluth neurologist who told the family that Thomsen needed to be flown by medical jet to the Twin Cities for surgery at Hennepin County Medical Center.
He had fractured his C6 vertebrae located in the lower neck/shoulders area. Doctors feared that further damage to the discs could lead to paralysis.
"That's when it got serious for mom and dad," Shannon said.
Spahn said he went home from the scrimmage thinking his quarterback had suffered a stinger to "standing in the ER with his mom and dad bawling, not knowing what's going to happen."
The best possible outcome has happened. Thomsen underwent spinal fusion surgery and is expected to make a full recovery. He had his first post-operation visit with doctors Monday in the Twin Cities.
"I wasn't scared," Thomsen said of his injury diagnosis. "I knew I had a lot of support from my family and my team."
The damage to his spine requires him to wear a halo brace for the next three months. Otherwise, his progress has been remarkable.
He had surgery on Aug. 30. Two days later, he couldn't scratch his nose or hold his cellphone up. By Friday, he needed only minimal assistance getting out of his hospital bed.
"And right now," his dad said less than two weeks later, "if he had to jump rope, he probably could do it."
The family feels grateful, knowing the outcome could have been much worse.
"Yeah, it's going to change Andrew's life somewhat," his dad said, "but the positive thing is you're not pushing him in a wheelchair."
Playing football again doesn't seem realistic. Doctors have not said those words directly to him yet, but "if there's any chance of ever re-injuring this, it would never be worth it to play the game of football again," his dad said.
Thomsen loves football so having it taken away is not an easy thing to accept. Spahn calls him "probably the best athlete we've had here in generations" – so talented that he moved Thomsen to quarterback this season.
At 6-3, 230 pounds, he has played linebacker throughout his career. But he's so gifted athletically that Spahn figured "I would be pretty stupid to not put him at quarterback" for his senior season.
Thomsen received a scholarship offer from NDSU after impressing coaches at their summer camp. He was recruited to play defensive end.
The Bison coaching staff has been "exceptionally supportive" of the family since the injury, but Thomsen said he hasn't given much thought to his future.
He stood on the sideline with his teammates when Grand Rapids played at Hermantown this past Friday night.
"Do me a favor," Spahn told him before the game, "don't run on the field."
It was a difficult night for Thomsen.
"It was definitely hard to watch and not being able to do something about it," he said.
His path will be a little different now, but he sounded in good spirits Sunday evening after arriving in the Twin Cities for his first check-up.
"I'm just really happy that I'll have a full recovery and can walk," he said.
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Trouble spots: Gophers DBs; Vikings OLs
The weekend provided the first full slate of games for every level, and for the two most prominent teams in the state the headline should read: "Angst and anger."
Gophers fans are mad after a narrow win over a team from Ohio. Vikings fans are really mad after an overtime loss to a team from Ohio.
As for the angst, both teams had specific areas that were highlighted as either question marks or major concerns coming into the season, and this weekend magnified them.
Start with the 1-1 Gophers. The rush-and-cover tandem in pass defense has been a problem through two games. P.J. Fleck made upgrading his defensive line a priority this offseason by bringing in two graduate transfers to add to a mix of returning veterans. So far, that position's impact has been minimal, generating zero sacks in two games.
The front seven needs to create more pressure to help a secondary that has been susceptible to big plays. The Gophers already have allowed six touchdown passes (tied for 118th nationally) and nine completions that have netted at least 20 yards.
Starting cornerbacks Terell Smith and Coney Durr each allowed touchdown passes against Miami Ohio on Saturday. Both players were in position to make a play, but they didn't finish the deal.
Fleck talked Monday about the need to have better technique in those situations. He noted that his defensive backs had solid technique in coverage in the first half, limiting the RedHawks to only five completions for 57 yards.
The area that sabotaged the Vikings in Cincinnati on Sunday is the same tired old song. Just when you think their offensive line can't perform any worse, that group undercuts the entire game plan by committing a ridiculous number of penalties in the season opener.
There were five holding penalties, eight quarterback hits and three sacks allowed. All five linemen got whistled for at least one penalty.
The line repeatedly got pushed backward until the pocket collapsed around Kirk Cousins. Their penalties kept the offense in horrendous down-and-distance situations, which essentially took Dalvin Cook out of the equation for at least the first half and at times after halftime.
If they can't hold up better than that, establishing a consistent downfield passing game will be impossible because A) Cousins won't have the necessary time to let routes develop and B) he's skittish when things break down in the pocket.
Cousins, Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman better hope that rookies Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis can upgrade that position — and fast.
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Game ballsThe Tommies: Usually, we give game balls to individuals, but let's award one to the entire St. Thomas football team and coach Glenn Caruso after a 12-9 win over Division II Michigan Tech in the Tommies' debut as an FCS member.Trey Potts, Gophers running back: Took over No. 1 role with injury to Mohamed Ibrahim and rushed for 178 yards and two TDs on 34 carries.Derrick Jameson Jr., Maple Grove RB/returner: Rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns on only 12 carries and also returned a punt 50 yards for a TD.. . .He said what?!
"I had a doughnut for breakfast, McDonald's Big Mac and 10 chicken nuggets for lunch and then some Pizza Luce at night. That's the Sunday cheat. Maybe that's why I think Sunday is so fun. Because I cheat and get to eat all that wonderful food." — Gophers coach P.J. Fleck on his food consumption Sunday, which sounds awfully delicious to a FAM writer.
. . .Inside the numbers0: Points allowed by Wayzata High's defense in two games. Led by South Dakota State commit Tommy Hamann, that unit has given up only 25 rushing yards total. "They fly around and play with a really good mentality," Wayzata coach Lambert Brown said of his defense. 36: Consecutive NSIC games Minnesota State Mankato had won before having its winning streak snapped in a 30-10 loss to Minnesota Duluth. 49: Pass attempts by Kirk Cousins on Sunday, his highest total since Week 4 of the 2018 season. That's the result of falling behind by two touchdowns and committing 11 penalties on offense. 82: Combined passing attempts by the Gophers and their opponent Saturday, Colorado, this season. There are 11 FBS teams individually that have thrown that many passes through two games.434: Passing yards in three quarters by Bemidji State sophomore QB Brandon Alt vs. Wayne State. Alt (Cottage Grove Park) threw five touchdown passes. . . .15-yard penalty
This space is reserved for something that bugged me during the weekend. We'll keep it Minnesota-related most weeks but first ... Zac Taylor, what on Earth were you thinking? The Bengals coach gift-wrapped the Vikings a wakeup jolt by going for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 30 in the third quarter with his team leading 21-7. I'm all for coaches being aggressive and trusting their players, but that decision seemed unnecessarily reckless considering how things had gone to that point.
Now, the other thing, PENALTIES! The Gophers have been one of the least-penalized teams in college football during Fleck's tenure. But they committed two personal fouls on hits to the Miami quarterback Brett Gabbert. The second one helped make the game closer than it should have been. Trailing 31-20 late in the fourth quarter, Miami had an incomplete pass on fourth-and-10. But Rashad Cheney hit Gabbert after he released the ball, giving Miami new life. Very next play: A 33-yard touchdown pass. And the Vikings ... woof. Totally unacceptable to have that many penalties.
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Grab your popcornEden Prairie at Lakeville South. Friday night. No. 2 visiting No. 1 in Class 6A. That's popcorn worthy.St. Thomas faces a major step up in weight class Saturday at Northern Iowa, which is ranked No. 18 in FCS and gave Iowa State a scare in the opener before losing 16-10.. . .An important 48 hours for …
Chris Autman-Bell. The Gophers No. 1 wide receiver has missed the first two games because of a leg injury. Fleck said Autman-Bell practiced Sunday and looked "great" but his status for Saturday's important road game at Colorado likely will be determined by how he progresses the next few days. Tanner Morgan could use his top target after completing zero passes in the second half against Miami (Ohio).
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A FAM FINAL WORD
The performances we witnessed this weekend — two in particular — were not exactly pleasing to the eye and left fans fuming. Poorly played football can be hard to watch. But I also remind myself that this is the best part of the calendar. Football season.
This sport stirs many emotions in us. Elation, anger, frustration, despair ... heck, sometimes all in the same game.
I still love that feeling of anticipation walking from my car to a stadium on game day, not knowing what I'm about to witness and get to write about in a few hours, hoping that it's something memorable or perhaps even a Minneapolis Miracle. And having fans back at games makes a world of difference in the atmosphere and emotion that spills out and makes a stadium buzz.
Sometimes that emotion is anger, as anyone who logged on to Twitter during the Vikings game found out.
And sometimes the emotion strikes a different tone, like learning about Andy Thomsen and getting a chance to talk to him about his frightening injury and hearing determination in his voice.
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Thank you for reading my new weekly Football Across Minnesota column. I'll publish this each Monday night on startribune.com, timed to kickoff of "Monday Night Football." And you can also join me on Twitter during the first quarter of MNF as I chat with readers about what I wrote each week.
@chipscoggins on Twitter