Coaches see nuances. Fans just want results.
The Gophers were 13-point favorites last week against Oregon State and needed a fourth-quarter comeback for a 30-23 win. The offense, under new coordinator Jay Johnson, had fits and starts.
“If you watched the games all weekend, very few teams looked perfect,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “We all have problems, and the good teams get them corrected each week.”
After nine days of fix-it time, the Gophers hope for a smoother performance Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium against Indiana State, from the Football Championship Subdivision.
Minnesota could really use a lopsided win, something that evaded the Gophers last year in nonconference play. After a six-point loss to No. 2 TCU, they squeaked by Colorado State (23-20, overtime), Kent State (10-7) and Ohio (27-24).
This took a deep toll mentally on coach Jerry Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, and it was only compounded when the Gophers opened the Big Ten schedule with a 27-0 loss at Northwestern. The team couldn’t coast until Week 6, with a 41-13 rout at Purdue.
“This week, we know we have to come out right away and step on the gas,” senior lineman Jonah Pirsig said. “… It’s going to feel good regardless, but it’s going to feel a lot better if we beat them by 60.”
But Pirsig also saw FCS schools upend their FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) brethren last weekend. Northern Iowa beat Iowa State, Richmond defeated Virginia, Eastern Washington knocked off Washington State and Appalachian State almost toppled Tennessee.
“I think in the past some of those teams haven’t been taken as seriously as they should,” Pirsig said. “We have to treat it just the way we would Ohio State or Michigan, so that we don’t end up like some of the teams that got upset in Week 1.”
The Gophers were potential Week 1 upset victims, too. Oregon State went 2-10 last year and ranked near the bottom nationally on both offense and defense. Second-year coach Gary Andersen had his retooled team leading 23-17 entering the fourth quarter.
For clues on what Minnesota must fix, consider how the Gophers were undone to that point:
Drive 1: Rodney Smith rushed twice, setting up a manageable third-and-1. But Smith appeared to be checking for an audible and wasn’t fully set when Mitch Leidner took the third-down snap. The Beavers stuffed Smith for a 3-yard loss.
“I think it was a mixture of being a little bit too amped and a little bit nervous,” Leidner said of the early mistakes.
Drives 2 and 3: Another three-and-out, followed by another drive derailed again by a false start. New Oregon State defensive coordinator Kevin Clune deserves credit, too, drawing schemes the Gophers didn’t expect. The Gophers came out running plays designed to “get a feel for what [Oregon State’s] response was going to be,” Johnson said. “It’s always hard in the first game of the year, a new defensive coordinator, so you really don’t know what you are going to get.”
Drive 4: After Tai’yon Devers forced a fumble, the Gophers started in Oregon State territory for the third time. Another false-start penalty (center Tyler Moore) threatened the drive, but the Gophers scored on a Leidner touchdown run.
Drive 5: Touchdown No. 2, sparked by another Devers forced fumble.
Drive 6: It started with an errant snap from Moore for a loss of 23 yards. Three-and-out.
Drive 7: Despite another pre-snap penalty — illegal formation this time — Emmit Carpenter hit a 45-yard field goal as time expired for a 17-14 halftime lead.
Drive 8: After one first down, they punted again.
Drive 9: Another errant snap by Moore gave Oregon State a safety. “You can’t just blame [Moore] and get frustrated at him,” Leidner said. “You’ve got to keep him going. He’s only a sophomore, so I think he understands what he needs to do this week.”
‘Got to be better’
The early struggles — before the mistakes stopped and Leidner and Smith propelled the win — were nothing new. Thirty points was actually more than the Gophers have scored in a nonconference game against a Power Five opponent since 1997, when they scored 53 against Iowa State.
“It’s always good to get the first-game jitters out,” receiver Drew Wolitarsky said. “You come in with so much enthusiasm, and you’ve been waiting so long for a real game to play. It happens — little small penalties, snaps, drops, etc. We’ll definitely clean those up and be ready to come out [Saturday].”
The coming weeks’ schedule — bye week, then Colorado State (0-1) at home — sets up well for Minnesota to get Johnson’s offense clicking in time for the Oct. 1 Big Ten opener at Penn State.
Asked if he expected to see better results as players get comfortable with Johnson’s system, Claeys said: “I guess we’ll see. That’s what he was hired for. Whatever we have to do to score points, that’s his job. … It was a good start for the offense. We know we’ve got to be better, though.”