Gophers football coach Jerry Kill held a revealing news conference Tuesday, even if he declined to name a starting quarterback for Saturday’s game at Purdue.
The Boilermakers probably have their own guess how Minnesota will use quarterbacks Mitch Leidner and Demry Croft. As Kill explained, his team’s offensive soul-searching is going far deeper than that.
The Gophers rank 127th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring, at 15.4 points per game.
Kill blamed himself for the team’s ultraconservative and ultimately fruitless strategy in last week’s 27-0 loss at Northwestern. The Gophers took few deep shots, ran no trick plays and often ran or threw short passes on third-and-long.
“I need to get back to the way I’m used to coaching,” Kill said. “That’s don’t-hold-nothing-back, and roll the dice a little bit. So that’s all on me.”
But Kill also said it’s time for the Gophers to reclaim their identity.
“We need to run the ball,” he said. “We’re throwing the ball 35 times a game. That isn’t who we are. That’s not who I am. That’s not how we’re going to be able to win in the Big Ten.”
As Kill noted, the Gophers won eight games last year, including a victory over Northwestern in which Leidner completed 10 of 15 passes. David Cobb, who rushed for a single-season school record of 1,626 yards last year, has since moved to the NFL. Freshmen Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are filling the void.
“We’ve got two great running backs,” Kill said. “[Wide receiver] KJ Maye is playing pretty darned good. We need to play to those guys’ strength.”
Instead of practicing Sunday, Kill turned on the Northwestern video — with a twist. Normally, the team studies film by position groups, to better focus the teaching. But Kill gathered the entire offense to keep everyone thinking about the big picture. He didn’t chastise players but noted how each mistake can derail a play.
“You find out who played really well, and who maybe didn’t have such a great game,” Leidner said. “But it just goes to show you, that we’re all in this thing together. If an O-lineman gets yelled at, we feel for him. If a quarterback gets yelled at, we’re here for him, too.”
No. 13 Northwestern dominated the Gophers up front, keeping pressure on Leidner while covering Minnesota’s receivers closely. He completed 10 of 21 passes for 72 yards, with an interception. He also lost a fumble that the Wildcats returned for a touchdown.
“I’m just going to tell you — and the guys in my [offensive line] room know it — it’s not about Mitch,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “He’s taken a beating. We’ve got to be better up front. We’ve got to help him because, when he’s trying to throw, a lot of times there’s things in his face.”
The offensive line could get a boost with the return of left guard Jon Christenson from knee surgery this week. Against Northwestern, the Gophers running game hit a wall once Christenson’s replacement, Joe Bjorklund, left because of his own knee issue.
By the time Croft entered, it was a mad scramble. He was 5-for-11 for 27 yards over four drives. With his redshirt now pulled, Croft almost certainly will get more playing time.
“Nobody needs to know what we’re doing with the quarterback from week to week,” Kill said. “We don’t need to tell anybody what we’re going to do.”
Limegrover said it’s Kill’s decision.
“You never want to completely just throw a rookie into the fire,” Limegrover said. “That’s a tough deal for any true freshman. And you always try and work him in, so it’s not everything all at once.”
Leidner is 13-8 as a starting quarterback, and his completion percentage for the season (57.2) still exceeds last year’s mark (51.5).
“I’ve been in this situation a lot,” Leidner said. “I’ve won a lot of football games. … I haven’t lost any confidence. It’s just a matter of, as an offensive unit, to keep getting better.”