When assessing his team's offense in 2021, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck needed only to look back two years to see a striking contrast.
In 2019, the Gophers averaged 34.1 points per game and had 31 touchdown passes during an 11-2 season. Two years later, with the same starting quarterback, Tanner Morgan, Minnesota averaged 26.1 points per game and had 12 TD passes during an 8-4 campaign.
What were the main differences? A couple of NFL-caliber wide receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, for sure, but also the offensive coordinator who called the plays, Kirk Ciarrocca.
On Monday, Fleck went back to 2019 in the hopes of a better future and brought back Ciarrocca to orchestrate the Gophers offense, naming him offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The hire is pending approval of the Board of Regents.
"We are excited to welcome Kirk back to Minnesota," Fleck said in a statement. "Kirk is one of the best offensive coordinators in the game, but he is also a tremendous person. We have a long professional history of working together, and I look forward to reuniting with him."
Ciarrocca spent the 2021 season as a senior offensive analyst for West Virginia — coincidentally, the Gophers' opponent in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 28. He began his duties at Minnesota on Monday, but after Fleck and West Virginia coach Neal Brown talked it over, they agreed that Ciarrocca will not be coaching the Gophers in the Dec. 28 game in Phoenix. Matt Simon, Gophers wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator, will call the plays against the Mountaineers.
"When we made the decision to hire Kirk, we did not yet know our bowl opponent," Fleck added. "Coach Brown and I both thought this would be best to avoid any awkwardness for both sets of student-athletes. It's the right thing to do."
Ciarrocca takes over for Mike Sanford Jr., who was let go last week following two seasons as Gophers co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with primary play-calling duties.
"I just felt like we needed a new direction and leadership in that position," Fleck said Sunday.
In Ciarrocca, Fleck has a coach who has been a mentor and a lieutenant. Fleck was wide receivers coach at Rutgers under Ciarrocca, the offensive coordinator, in 2010. When Fleck was hired as Western Michigan's coach in 2013, he brought Ciarrocca aboard to run the offense. Ciarrocca followed Fleck to Minnesota, spending three seasons with the Gophers before leaving to become Penn State's offensive coordinator following the 10-2 regular season in 2019.
Ciarrocca's stay in his home state was short, with Penn State coach James Franklin firing him after the 2020 season. The Nittany Lions went 4-5 in 2020 as their scoring fell from 35.8 points per game under offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne in 2019 to 29.8 under Ciarrocca. This year under new coordinator Mike Yurcich, Penn State's scoring dropped to 26.3 points per game and its total offense was an average of nearly 50 yards fewer.
Ciarrocca's work in 2019 helped the Gophers reach new heights on offense, with the 31 touchdown passes and 25 TD runs, figures that hadn't happened at Minnesota in the same season. Morgan set school single-season records in passing yards (3,253), TD passes (30), completion percentage (66.0%), passing yards per game (250.2), TD-interception ratio (4.28) and passing efficiency rating (178.7). Johnson and Bateman each surpassed 1,000 yards receiving, and Rodney Smith went over 1,000 yards rushing.
Under Sanford this season, the Gophers played to their strengths — a veteran offensive line and a deep group of running backs. Minnesota averaged 193.8 rushing yards per game, 30th nationally, and ranked fourth in time of possession at 35:10 game. However, they couldn't always pass effectively. In the 14-10 loss to Bowling Green, a 31-point underdog, Morgan completed five of 13 passes for 59 yards with two interceptions and was sacked four times. In a 14-6 loss to Illinois, Morgan went 15-for-28 for 180 yards but was sacked six times and threw two picks.
This year, the Gophers ran the ball 69.3% of the time and passed it on 31.7% of their plays, while the 2019 offense under Ciarrocca was more balanced, with a 63.4/36.6 run/pass percentage. With Ciarrocca back, emphasis on the passing game is expected to increase.
Freshman enters transfer portal
Gophers freshman offensive lineman Saia Mapakaitolo has entered his name in the transfer portal. The Mesa, Ariz., native was a three-star recruit in the Class of 2021 and originally had committed to Southern California. The 6-5, 280-pounder did not see game action this season.