Welcome to the lab, Kent State. Grab some coffee. Kickoff comes early Saturday, and Professors Kill and Limegrover are eager to start tinkering.
TCF Bank Stadium won’t be buzzing like it was for the Thursday night opener against TCU, and the student section likely will be thinned out. But it’s really no less important for the Gophers. Their defense has been superb through two games, but the offense has serious work to do.
And yes, everyone saw the score from your last road trip — Illini 52, Golden Flashes 3. The Gophers could use a lopsided victory like that. It’s been six games, dating to last season, since they’ve scored 30 or more.
Enter offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, coach Jerry Kill and others at the controls of the Gophers offense, ready to experiment and hone what they do best. You’ll be trying to sabotage all that, of course. But for the Gophers, these are the basic instructions:
1. Safety first
Left guard Jon Christenson is out four weeks because of knee surgery. Left tackle Ben Lauer still is getting over knee surgery, and the guy taking Christenson’s place, Joe Bjorklund, has a bad knee, too.
Injuries are beyond a team’s control, but the Gophers must balance the need to show improvement against their longer-term goal of being at peak force for the Big Ten opener in two weeks at Northwestern.
“We’ve got to get healthy on the offensive line to be as good as we want to be,” Kill said.
2. Bring the juice
After last week’s 23-20 overtime victory at Colorado State, Kill said, “I thought the intensity was good on defense. But from the offensive side of the ball, it wasn’t.”
The Rams won battles up front, and the Gophers went three-and-out on their first six drives. Kill later acknowledged that players felt zapped in the 5,000-foot Fort Collins altitude. The coaches had hoped that wouldn’t be a problem. Back home on the prairie, it certainly shouldn’t be.
3. Establish the run
During last week’s six-drive drought, the Gophers rushed 10 times for only 20 yards. They kept airing it out more, and by game’s end, Minnesota had run 45 passing plays and 41 rushing plays. This from a team that has run the ball about two-thirds of the time during Kill’s tenure.
He wants the Gophers to run like normal — ideally, for 200 yards per game — and be more efficient when passing. If Mitch Leidner throws 25 passes, for example, Kill wants 17-18 completions.
David Cobb is gone, but redshirt freshman Rodney Smith is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, a tick above Cobb’s 5.2 last season.
“We just need to get [Smith] the ball,” Kill said. “He’s pretty good.”
4. Find Leidner’s groove
Leidner’s 52.5 completion percentage ranks 108th nationally and won’t cut it if the Gophers want to take a step this year offensively. That said, Leidner has the nation’s third-longest streak without an interception — 153 attempts dating to last November. Another thing that gets overlooked is his football IQ.
About half the plays the Gophers ran at Colorado State require the quarterback to check the defense before picking between one, two and sometimes three play options at the line of scrimmage. Leidner didn’t miss a single check last week — covering about 43 plays.
Leidner might be concerns one, two and three, for the average Gophers fan, but every other point on this list matters, too.
5. Clean things up
One of Kill’s biggest regrets from Fort Collins was poor field position. Colorado State had several punts bounce past Gophers sophomore returner Craig James. Minnesota started six drives within its 20-yard line, with four of those inside the 10. Any team’s playbook shrinks when calling plays in the shadow of its own goalpost.
Kill also fumed about Jonah Pirsig’s false-start penalty, which threatened to derail the team’s late-game touchdown drive. And Leidner’s fumbled snap on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak?
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Kill said.
“Here’s the one that bothers me,” the Gophers fifth-year coach said, scanning last Saturday’s boxscore, “Six of 19 on third-down conversions. We spent all week at practice [last week] working on third downs. We’ve got to get better on that.”
6. Stay flexible
The offense was more effective at Colorado State using its new no-huddle offense than it was when huddling. The risk of not huddling is your defense barely gets a break if you go three-and-out.
But Leidner, for one, seems to respond well to the jolt the no-huddle provides. The Gophers shouldn’t be afraid to try it sooner.
“The plays are more limited,” Kill said, and they are also more rehearsed. “[Leidner] doesn’t have to think as much, and he can just go play.”
Kent State could be the perfect test. Last week, it stuffed Delaware State’s offense for minus-33 yards (five passing and minus-38 rushing). And the Illinois score was deceptive, as the Illini drove less than 39 yards on all four first-quarter touchdowns, thanks to three Kent State turnovers.
But the Gophers are 24-point favorites. If they follow this script to awaken their offense, a barrage of touchdowns should follow.