The Gophers ended the 2015 regular season with a 31-21 loss to Wisconsin on Nov. 28 at TCF Bank Stadium. The next day, coach Tracy Claeys fired Matt Limegrover, the offensive coordinator and line coach who had been on Jerry Kill’s staff with Claeys for 16 years.
The Vikings ended last season with a 12-10 playoff loss to Seattle on Jan. 10, 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium. Mike Zimmer’s response was to fire offensive line coach Jeff Davidson.
Claeys gave a disjointed explanation for firing Limegrover, saying he did not want one coach to be both a coordinator and line coach, while avoiding an answer to the obvious question:
“If you had a high opinion of Limegrover as a coach, why did you not offer him a chance to be one or the other?’’
Zimmer did not give Davidson’s dismissal the courtesy of a disjointed explanation. Asked why he was not bringing back Davidson, Zimmer said:
“I didn’t want to.’’
Zimmer was riding high with the public and the media (and continues to do so), so we laughed at this as an example of the coach’s crusty manner, rather than viewing it as a snide sendoff to a man who had been an NFL assistant for two decades.
Davidson’s firing was announced on Jan. 12. Later that night, it was reported that Zimmer would hire Tony Sparano as Davidson’s replacement. Two days after that, Davidson was hired as the line coach in San Diego.
Limegrover also landed a job in this time frame. He replaced Herb Hand (hired by Auburn) as the offensive line coach at Penn State on Jan. 13.
Claeys’ decision to fire him was a complete surprise to Limegrover, yet he handled it with 100% professionalism. That had to work in his favor when the job opened at a school with the football tradition of Penn State.
Davidson did the same. He left Winter Park on Monday and had a job in San Diego by the middle of the week.
Claeys fired quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski along with Limegrover. Zebrowski wanted to stay within driving range of the Twin Cities for family reasons, and wound up as the offensive coordinator at Hamline.
The replacements for Limegrover and Zebrowski were Jay Johnson as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Bart Miller as line coach.
Claeys wanted to change the profile of the line to a more aggressive style. The Gophers are 6-2 compared to 4-4 a year ago, although the schedule has been so much easier that it’s difficult to assess if anything has changed.
Lately, the Gophers have been running the ball very well against bad teams, and should do so again Saturday vs. Purdue.
One thing is obvious: By this time in 2015, MitchLeidner was playing better at quarterback for Limegrover and Zebrowski than he has as a senior.
It’s also obvious Limegrover landed on his feet back in his home state. Penn State is a very different 6-2 than the Gophers’, since the Nittany Lions have an upset of Ohio State on the resume.
Saquon Barkley was limited by injury for a couple of weeks, and contained by the Gophers in late September, but the sophomore running back is rolling now behind Limegrover’s offensive line.
The Nittany Lions put 62 on Purdue last weekend, so maybe that’s the gauge on the effect of Claeys’ firing of his long-time colleague Limegrover:
Can the Gophers reach 60 against the Boilermakers on Saturday?
Zimmer also was looking for a more amped-up approach from his offensive line. Davidson was interviewed during offseason workouts in San Diego and talked about the importance of long hours spent working on technique. Sparano was the fiery type who would provide the iron will to the offensive line that Zimmer saw elsewhere on his team.
Or something like that.
The fans and the media, to some degree, were quick to embrace the idea that Saparono would put a needed emotion charge into the Vikings offensive line. Which was interesting, because in San Diego, coach Mike McCoy hired Davidson to switch an ineffective offensive line from 2015 into an organized unit strong in its funamentals.
The Vikings are 5-2 and the Chargers are 3-5, so the records would indicate this was an effective move for Zimmer. In the case of the teams’ offenses, records lie.
The Chargers are 12th in offense. They are averaging 365.8 yards per game. They are rushing for 3.7 yards per attempt (bad, but a yard better than the Vikings). They have scored 23 offensive touchdowns in eight games.
The Vikings are 31st in offense. They are averaging 293.3 yards per game. They are rushing for 2.7 yards per attempt. Incredibly, they are a first-place team with 11 offensive touchdowns in seven games.
On Wednesday, the Vikings received the resignation of Norv Turner, the veteran offensive coordinator. Denials aside, it was obvious this came with a push from Zimmer. The offense figures to look better with Pat Shurmur on Sunday against Detroit's horrible defense, but long-term, problems will continue unless Sparano can start to have a positive impact on his line.