The Gophers offense is perfectly in sync, as only an offense that tallies at least 28 points in all nine games this year can be.
The players also eerily look to the sideline, perfectly timed with each other, to check every play.
It’s a quirk of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s system, even if the idea itself of switching a call at the line of scrimmage is common.
Audibles are the quarterback’s doing, shouting instructions to his teammates if he thinks the original play call won’t work against the defense’s look. But Gophers signal caller Tanner Morgan said it’s more of a collaboration between him and Ciarrocca, also his position coach.
A perfect example was the Gophers’ first touchdown in the 31-26 upset against then-No. 4 Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. Morgan found receiver Rashod Bateman for a 66-yard score, a six-man offensive line and key block from running back Shannon Brooks paving the way. But that wasn’t the initial plan.
“It was something Coach Ciarrocca saw on film, a specific blitz they had that early on could give us a lot of trouble,” Morgan said. “They disguise it really well, but Coach Ciarrocca noticed one thing that he would know that that was coming, so we just had a check to it, and the original play was a different run or I can’t even remember. But we got the check and hit it big.”
Morgan said Ciarrocca spots the defense from his bird’s eye view in the press box.
“He sees things, obviously, a lot better and more clear than I do,” Morgan said. “… He can see things very quickly. But it’s cool to see for me, personally, kind of knowing what he’s going to check to before we even get there.”
Ciarrocca picks out those subtleties in the film room, a place the coach hardly leaves. Coach P.J. Fleck attested to that, saying Ciarrocca spent the extra bye weekend before the Penn State game alone instead of out recruiting. The result was an “unbelievable” and “flawless” game plan, according to Fleck.
“He’s in his element. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I’m not sure if he went home,” Fleck said. “… And that’s Kirk. Kirk loves to be by himself. He got more work done than anybody in the entire building, probably for the last six months, by himself.”
Ciarrocca, though, isn’t so keen on revealing what’s on his mastermind, even though many football teams use sideline techniques such as funky whiteboards with random photos — everything from clip art to cartoon characters — to communicate to players on the field.
“If I gave you the answer to that, I might have to get rid of you,” Ciarrocca joked. “… I mean, that’s just what we do. We look to the sideline. On the first touchdown, the kids did a great job executing the details of the play.”
The sideline checks are hard to unsee once noticed. And in that way, they can be a bit of a red herring, messing with opposing players and defensive coordinators.
“People think we check the play all the time, but most of the time, it’s just jibber-jabber,” Ciarrocca said. “We’re really not even doing anything. … One thing I found that in the [Mid-American Conference when at Western Michigan], after it was the third or fourth time they’re playing us, they all started to realize it. We’re really not changing the play as much as people think.”
Except for when they are, to sometimes magnificent success.
Morgan a semifinalist
Morgan was named one of 16 semifinalists for the Davey O’Brien Award, which recognizes the nation’s best college quarterback each year. A Gophers quarterback has never been selected as a finalist for the award. Morgan could be the first when the top three names come out Nov. 25, with the winner announced Dec. 12.