Jerry Kill later softened his words, hoping to take pressure off his players. But the Gophers football coach’s raw feelings poured out immediately after last week’s 10-7 victory over Kent State.
“Offensively, we’re a mess right now,” Kill told Big Ten Network. “As long as we play good defense, we’ve got a chance to win. But we’re going to have to get on track offensively here, or we’re going to be in trouble.”
For longtime Gophers fans, that’s the primary concern heading into the team’s final nonconference test Saturday against Ohio (3-0). Defenses like this don’t come around Dinkytown very often. The Gophers have fielded a top-25 scoring defense only three times in the past 52 years.
As good as this year’s defense looks, the Gophers (2-1) are in danger of squandering it, unless the offense rises from the ranks of the nation’s worst. The Gophers rank 122nd out of 128 FBS teams in scoring offense, at 16.7 points per game.
What happens if the offense doesn’t improve? Rare in these touchdown-heavy days of college football, but defense-driven teams come along in the Big Ten every so often, with mixed results.
Penn State had the nation’s seventh-best scoring defense last year but ranked 113th in scoring offense. The Nittany Lions had a woeful offensive line that couldn’t protect heralded quarterback Christian Hackenberg and went 7-6.
In 2012, Michigan State had the nation’s ninth-best scoring defense but ranked 110th on offense. Andrew Maxwell was inconsistent at quarterback, and coach Mark Dantonio wasn’t ready to turn things over to then-freshman Connor Cook. The Spartans went 7-6, needing a late-season victory over the Gophers just to become bowl-eligible. That was the only season in the past five years Michigan State hasn’t won at least 11 games.
“It is difficult,” Dantonio said. “We lost some extremely close games that year. … We maintained a strong defense, and once we got into the ’13 season, we played much better offensively, and great things started to happen.”
The Gophers rank 26th nationally in scoring defense (16.7 points per game), and that includes the opening test against then-No. 2 TCU. Since the start of last season, the Horned Frogs have averaged 47 points per game, but they managed just 23 at Minnesota.
And while it doesn’t show in the scoring defense stat, the Gophers defense pitched a shutout against Kent State, as the Golden Flashes’ only score came on an 80-yard fumble return. Kent State went 3-for-17 on third-down conversions and ran just three plays in Gophers territory.
“I know how hurtful it can be when you’re playing tremendous D, and the offense is going three-and-out or making turnovers, and how that can crush a defense,” senior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. “I just said, ‘Hey, listen, that’s on that side of the ball. Just control what we can control.’ ”
Kill believes this is the best defense he has ever had. His longtime defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been less effusive, guarding against complacency.
“The key is you have to get better each week because each week it gets a little bit tougher,” Claeys said.
‘Not a beauty pageant’
If the Gophers keep playing defense like this, they don’t have to become Baylor or TCU offensively. Marginal improvement could do wonders.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz’s favorite example is the 1981 Hawkeyes. That was his first year as an assistant under Hayden Fry.
“I’m not sure enough’s been written about it,” Ferentz said. “I think it was one of the biggest historic moments in this conference’s history. If you look at it, for 13 years prior to 1981, there were two teams [Ohio State and Michigan] that went to the Rose Bowl. So everybody’s lining up for third place.”
The ’81 Hawkeyes had the nation’s 14th-best scoring defense. But they were down to their fourth-string running back and finished 60th in scoring offense.
“We had the best punter in the world, Reggie Roby, and if we got the ball in there close, we tried to get a field goal,” Ferentz said. “So it was good enough to get us out to California [for the Rose Bowl].
“We played outstanding defense and outstanding special teams. I think the point that you make to your team is that the objective is to win games. It’s not a beauty pageant.”
The Kent State game certainly wasn’t for the Gophers, who lost the turnover battle 3-0 and rushed for only 104 yards on 44 attempts. Peter Mortell punted seven times, but five of those pinned the Golden Flashes inside their 20-yard line, and three pinned them inside their 10.
As Kill often says, the goal each week is to outplay opponents in at least two of three phases — offense, defense or special teams.
“That’s what separates good and great teams, in my opinion,” said Mortell, last season’s Big Ten Punter of the Year. “When one phase isn’t playing as well as they’d like to, it’s up to the other two to kind of step it up.”
Kill spent another week addressing offensive questions. For now, the team seems determined to stick with junior quarterback Mitch Leidner, and the focus has been patching the offensive line. Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover worked to simplify schemes, and held open competitions for playing time, taking a long look at some true freshmen.
“Nothing is ever easy, but I think we can certainly improve this week,” Kill said. “I really do. I’m looking forward to it because controversy sometimes makes you better. I’ve had a lot of that in my life, and kids — it makes them mentally tougher.”
What the Gophers really need is a lopsided victory. But until their offense improves, they know they can’t be picky.