In 2004, the Gophers football team completed 13 passes that gained at least 40 yards. In three seasons under Jerry Kill, the Gophers have converted the same number of 40-yard pass plays.
So, a team that had a first-year quarterback in Bryan Cupito put up an identical number of explosive pass plays in 11 games that Kill’s crew has produced in 38 games.
Guess what has been a major point of emphasis as the team prepares for the 2014 season.
“We’ve thrown the ball a lot in camp,” Kill said.
That remains a missing piece in Kill’s rebuilding job. His blueprint is predicated on a blue-collar foundation with a physical running game and defense.
Kill emphasizes defense in particular and his staff has recruited better athletes on that side. In fact, the secondary is the team’s best position group, which is a Halley’s comet development for Gophers fans. They don’t see that very often.
Now the Gophers need to find some life in their passing game. They ranked 115th nationally in passing last year, largely because they lacked explosive plays.
The Gophers produced only four passes that netted 40-plus yards. Only seven teams in Division I had fewer.
A strong running game is a nice backbone to their offense, but the Gophers must add some sizzle to become less predictable and make things easier on themselves.
“There’s nothing shameful about working an 80-hour week,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said, “but occasionally you’d like to hit the instant lotto.”
Limegrover loves that analogy, and he’s spot on. Offenses crave those 13-play drives that consume the clock and wear down defenses. But it’s also difficult to repeat that over and over.
Mistakes happen that kill drives. Defenses make stops. It’s unrealistic to expect an offense to keep grinding away flawlessly. Teams need an occasional home run to remove some pressure.
The Gophers aren’t hitting many home runs in the passing game.
“I think everybody appreciates the workmanlike attitude that we bring, our desire to run the ball and eat up clock,” Limegrover said. “It’s a nice feeling every once in a while to get a quick hitter or a one- or two-play drive.”
Their shortcomings have been twofold: shaky quarterback play and a lack of speed and legitimate Big Ten-caliber playmakers on the outside.
The Gophers are optimistic they have improved on both fronts. For starters, they have one quarterback now, Mitch Leidner. No more rotation or platoon system or uncertainty.
Can Leidner handle the job and play at a high level? That remains a huge unknown, but at least the Gophers have continuity at that position now. They’re also counting on improvement around him.
KJ Maye is healthy again after dealing with a sports hernia last year. Donovahn Jones has more experience at receiver after switching from quarterback. Drew Wolitarsky caught a 55-yard touchdown pass in the bowl game. Tight end Maxx Williams is a future NFL player. Speedy freshman Berkley Edwards looks promising.
“I think we have a few guys that have that one-play, quick-strike ability if you can get the ball in their hands in the right situation,” Limegrover said.
Their offense remains predicated on the run with David Cobb, who emerged as a featured back last season with 1,202 yards rushing. But they need to take advantage of their reputation as a running team by keeping defenses honest with play-action passes down the field.
Their schedule includes five teams that finished in the top 30 in rushing defense last season, including two in the top 10: Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Gophers can’t be so predictable against those teams. They need a viable counterpunch.
“There’s something really beautiful about a 12-play drive,” Limegrover said. “But at the same time, to say, ‘OK, every single time we get the ball, that’s going to be how it goes down,’ that’s hard to maintain. It’s amazing how a quick strike can energize the whole team.”
Conversely, the inability to generate those home run plays can deflate a team, especially if the running game slams into a brick wall. Limegrover said the offense has experimented with different formations and personnel packages to maximize their opportunities in the pass game.
The Gophers have more speed with their skill players. They believe in Leidner. Now they need to put those things together in order to take the next step as a program.
“I think there’s no question that we’re better right now at throwing the football,” Kill said. “But you’ve got to do it in a game.”