Gophers strive to be basic, yet inventive

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2011 - 6:31 AM

Labeling the Gophers offense is futile. The coaches concentrate on doing a few things right, but compile game plans with imagination.

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Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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The Gophers' new offense is pass-happy and run-based. It's designed to protect the quarterback above all else, and to send him, unescorted, into the heart of the defense. It's nothing flashy, and crazily imaginative, at once simple and complicated. It's rooted in fundamentals, except when it jettisons the basics.

"It's an amoeba," says Matt Limegrover, who will operate the steering wheel from the press box each Saturday. "It never stays the same."

Which explains why this shapeless germ of an idea also defies a neat definition.

"It's kind of hard to describe," said quarterback MarQueis Gray, more comfortable with running the plays than labeling them. "It's not an option, but there are a lot of decisions to make like that, real fast."

"I don't know what you'd call it," said Eric Lair, who -- as an example -- moved from tight end to H-back without changing positions. "[With] Coach Limegrover, you never know what he's going to do."

Better that the defense doesn't know -- which is sort of the whole point of the Minnesota Method, or the Gopher Go, whatever you want to call it. According to Limegrover, the Gophers playbook includes stray elements of the West Coast, the spread, the pro-style -- sort of a chef's surprise of play design, with one bedrock principle: Can the players execute it, and execute it well?

"The important thing is that everyone is comfortable with it, especially the players," Limegrover said. "You can have the greatest play ever designed, the Mona Lisa of offense, and if your quarterback can't pull it off or your line can't block for it, what good does it do you?"

Instead, coach Jerry Kill's staff drills their players in being fundamentally sound, concepts that are adaptable in a variety of offensive sets. The offensive line, for instance, is taught only three or four basic blocking schemes, giving the players time to polish them. And every offensive play must fit into one of the blocking blueprints.

"Last year, we had a ton of plays for the offensive line," said left tackle Ed Olson. "Now we can focus on just a few and get it right. Coach Limegrover is trying to make it as easy as he can for us."

Meanwhile, he's trying to disguise the Gophers' intentions and keep defenses off-balance. "The way to do it is, you have the same basic plays," Limegrover said, "and you window-dress the heck out of them."

That means working quickly, so defenses have less time to read and react. It means running lots of misdirection, plenty of play-action fakes to backs, and giving Gray the license to leap into a hole in the defense if he spots one. At Northern Illinois and in smaller-school stops before that, Kill and Limegrover learned to compensate for talent gaps and physical deficits by using, for example, the jet sweep, in which a slot receiver goes in motion and takes a handoff from the quarterback virtually the moment the ball is snapped.

"We'll never be as traditional as, turn around [and] hand the ball off. Drop back, throw the football," Limegrover said. "We need to spread the field, and against teams like USC and Wisconsin, you don't want slow, plodding stuff. You want quick-hit action, so they can't anticipate you."

Looks can be deceiving

To a typical fan, the Gophers' offense might look fairly textbook. There are no bizarre formations or crazy antics, at least none that Limegrover would reveal (and they used none at NIU). The Huskies last year ran the ball 581 times (for 42 touchdowns) while throwing only 329 passes (at a 63 percent completion rate with 23 scores), though to be fair, they won seven games by more than three touchdowns and spent a lot of time running out the clock. Minnesota ran the ball 447 times and passed 378.

"We'll still have an emphasis on running the ball, just like last year, but you might see more [shotgun] and pistol [formations] than under center," senior tailback Duane Bennett said. "They mix in a lot of different stuff. But the overall scheme, I don't think there are any surprises."

Gray's ascension as quarterback has given the offensive coaches the freedom to design a variety of keepers and draw plays, since he's even more mobile than NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish. (But it's also made them cognizant of the need to assign him passes he can complete.) Lair's ability to catch passes in traffic allows them to X-and-O some tricky hide-and-seeks with the H-back. Wideout Da'Jon McKnight's athleticism means there might be a jump ball or two in the game plan.

"The nice thing about our offense is that when we really get it going, you can spotlight just about anybody in it," Limegrover said. "I'd be lying if I said there's not a certain part of this game plan that isn't geared toward MarQueis being successful [at] both running and throwing the football."

The genesis of this move-the-ball goulash is in Limegrover's Sunday morning meetings, when he and his fellow coaches, virtually of all whom have worked together for a dozen years or more, watch film of their next opponent, then spitball ideas for beating them. Anything is fair game at that stage, Limegrover said; if a coach believes having the quarterback throw lefthanded and the receiver do cartwheels down the field will produce a touchdown, it goes on the blackboard.

"I'll say something like, 'What if we run ghost motion with the Z receiver over the top to set it up for later, when we can give it to him on a reverse?'" Limegrover said. "'What if we fake the bubble screen and throw deep? What do we have to do protection-wise?'"

The board sometimes grows to 125 plays, way more than the Gophers could actually use, but the exercise encourages creativity and problem-solving. Quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski "is a free spirit. He's not afraid to throw something out there to see what we think," Limegrover said. "He's the most out there, usually. We'll look at some of the things he suggests on Sunday and say, 'You need to get a little more sleep.' But on Wednesday, after practicing the kids a couple of days, we might go, 'That bizarro thing Jim put on the board, it does kind of fit. Maybe it's worth leaving in for third-and-eight.'"

They weed out everything they are less confident about, until there are only 90 plays left, which is all that can fit on the quarterback's wristband. It means every week's offense is a little different, sometimes radically different.

Which is why it defies any label.

"It doesn't matter what it's called," Bennett said. "What matters is how we run it."

  • 2011 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW GOPHERS OFFENSE

    Minnesota: This year's offense will defy a neat description. One thing is certain: The QB is key.

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