For all the growth the Gophers have shown in other facets this season — defense, special teams and the running game — their pass offense looked several developmental stages behind last week against Ohio State.
With Drew Wolitarsky injured and Donovahn Jones sick, the receiving corps suddenly was woefully thin. Heading into the Gophers’ final drive, Mitch Leidner had completed only one pass to a wide receiver.
With Joey Bosa leading a potent Ohio State pass rush, and the Buckeyes carefully covering Maxx Williams, Leidner finished 7-for-19 for 85 yards and two interceptions. The Gophers know that’s not going to be enough Saturday at Nebraska, either.
“But it had so much less to do with Mitch than it did the other 10 guys, and that’s what our guys need to understand,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “It’s easy to scapegoat Mitch, but there has to be a lot of responsibility spread around.”
The sudden dearth of wide receiver options was somewhat surprising because the Gophers appeared to have solidified that position a few months ago.
Wolitarsky and Jones had developed last year as true freshmen. The Gophers knew it would be tough replacing last year’s top receiver, Derrick Engel, but they had KJ Maye back healthy, with Isaac Fruechte poised for a breakout season.
A new crop of freshmen receivers — Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr., Jerry Gibson, Conner Krizancic and Desmond Gant — also had arrived with considerable hype. But after much deliberation, the Gophers are prepared to redshirt all five.
The offense took a significant hit when Wolitarsky severely sprained his right ankle Oct. 25 at Illinois. He’s out until at least the bowl game.
With Jones set to return this week, the Gophers will at least have their best deep threat back against Nebraska. He has one catch for at least 42 yards in each of his past three games.
Coach Jerry Kill said he planned to bench Jones for the first two series last week, for a minor discipline issue, but Jones would have played after that if he hadn’t been sick.
“I think he was really coming into his own,” Limegrover said. “Then to get sick and not be able to go — I think that was not just a setback for him but kind of a setback a little bit for us, not having his talent out there.”
Leidner completed three passes to Williams (for 47 yards), three to Fruechte (28 yards) and one to fullback Miles Thomas (10 yards).
Situational passing has led to success in four Big Ten wins, but the low game totals are nothing new for the Gophers. They rank last in the conference in passing yards, completion percentage and total completed passes. They also finished last in the conference in passing yards last season.
No new help is on the way for the final three games. Kill said it’s too late to pull another redshirt now. They had actually planned to do so with Gentry, the Cincinnati Moeller product who emerged as the most advanced of the freshmen receivers. But he suffered a knee injury in mid-September, before getting the chance to play. It wasn’t an ACL tear, as previously reported, so he will be ready to go for spring practice.
Kill remains high on all the freshmen, saying there is potential All-Big Ten talent there. But developing receivers takes time.
The Gophers had a shortage of receiver depth last year — after losing A.J. Barker, Devin Crawford-Tufts and Andre McDonald — so they thrust Wolitarsky and Jones into action. Those two combined to make 25 catches for 416 yards. But Kill wishes he had been able to redshirt both, just as he laments not redshirting David Cobb in 2011, when he got 10 carries.
“Next year, I won’t have to worry about this conversation; we’ll have depth [at wide receiver],” Kill said. “But if we keep doing what we’re doing [pulling redshirts], we’ll never build any depth.
“I know everybody wants us to win the championship today. We do, too, and we’re going to do everything we can to do it. But you also can’t dispense the whole thing. Then we go backwards.”
Nebraska gave up 581 rushing yards to Wisconsin last week — including an NCAA-record 408 yards to Melvin Gordon — but Nebraska has been tough against the pass this year. Opponents complete only 47.4 of their passes against the Cornhuskers, the second fewest in the Big Ten only to Wisconsin’s 45.3.
Leidner will have Jones back, as he did against Iowa on Nov. 8 when he completed 10 of 13 passes for 138 yards and four touchdowns.
“I think [Leidner’s] got that fighter’s mentality and a little bit of the ‘us against the world,’ ” Limegrover said. “And it’s going to be loud, and they’re going to be hostile, and that’s fine. Bring it on.”