FORT COLLINS, COLO. – Jerry Kill entered a Gophers team meeting last Friday with the experience of a coach who has seen offenses stuck in neutral, and the confidence of a strategist who has shifted those teams into a higher gear.
His team was smarting from the previous night’s 23-17 loss to TCU. It marked the fifth defeat in seven games dating to last season, each when scoring fewer than 25 points. Kill decided this was the moment to underscore some new expectations.
Thirty-one points. Four hundred yards.
Not just Saturday at Colorado State, but on a per-game average for the rest of the season.
“We have no excuse; we’ve got to try to do that,” Kill said, after repeating those benchmarks to the media. “We do that and play good defense, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Kill didn’t just pull those numbers from thin air. The Gophers averaged 28 points and 357 yards of total offense last season and have increased their totals in those categories each of his four years with the program.
Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover believe they have the talent and will tinker. They sprinkled in a no-huddle approach against TCU and let quarterback Mitch Leidner attempt a career-high 35 passes.
Nothing has come easy for this program of late, as each of its past five opponents — Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Missouri and TCU — ranked in the Top 25.
But the next stretch against Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio should give Minnesota’s offense a chance to hit the gas pedal. And if the Gophers can’t produce 31 and 400, Kill seemed to hint that he’d go to his bench for players who can.
Learning on the job
Kill and Limegrover have been at this together for 16 years. Along the way, they’ve transformed offenses from mediocre to elite.
Kill rebuilt Division II Saginaw Valley State in Michigan using the old split-back veer option but kept falling short against two conference foes: Grand Valley, led by current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, and Ferris State, where offensive assistants included Limegrover and Tennessee coach Butch Jones.
When Kill left for Emporia State in 1999, he knew he needed to modernize, and Jones recommended hiring Limegrover. By 2001, Kill and Limegrover were at Southern Illinois. In that first season with a hapless program, they tried a no-huddle spread attack.
Northwestern had run that offense to big success in 2000. “It was still very new back then,” said Limegrover, a former Northwestern graduate assistant. “So that first year at Southern Illinois, we went all in. We went up and visited Northwestern and learned everything we could.
“We didn’t have a lot of depth or talent. So we were almost like, ‘OK, let’s see if we can’t trick people.’ ”
The Salukis went 1-10. The coaches needed to reimagine the playbook yet again.
“That’s when Coach [Kill] said, ‘We can’t keep going down this same path because we don’t have the kind of players to continue to do this,’ ” Limegrover said. “And we weren’t sure we could get them to Carbondale, Ill.”
Kill committed the Salukis to a huddling, run-heavy offense. Limegrover used the read option and play-action passes, and the Salukis went from 4-8 their second year to 50-14 over the next five years.
“By the time we left, we really felt like we were starting to develop a lot of answers for whatever questions defenses could throw at us,” Limegrover said.
The turnaround at Northern Illinois went quicker. The Huskies had been 2-10 the season before Kill and Limegrover arrived. In Year 3, NIU went 10-3, ranking 12th in the nation in scoring offense (38 points per game) and 19th in total yardage (450).
“By that third year we were up and rolling,” said that team’s quarterback, Chandler Harnish. “We were creative. We were doing a lot of misdirection and really aggressive with the passing game. It’s a process to turn it around, and it takes time, but they did it the right way.”
‘There’s a process’
Limegrover said one mistake the coaches made after coming to Minnesota was assuming success could come as quickly as it had at their previous stop.
“We had MarQueis [Gray at quarterback], so we said, ‘We’re just going to pick up where we left off at Northern Illinois,’ ” Limegrover said. “We kind of forgot that there’s a process. So I felt in that first year, maybe even in the second year, we were pushing too much.”
The Gophers have yet to master a passing attack, but their points-per-game average over the four years has gone: 18, 22, 26, 28.
Meanwhile, their yards-per-game average has gone: 310, 321, 343, 357.
But of the dozen teams that played in the six New Year’s bowl games last year — the Rose, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, Peach and Sugar — only one scored fewer than 31 points per game. That was Mississippi (28). But the Rebels also gained 419 yards per game and had the nation’s top scoring defense (16 points allowed per game).
The Gophers’ primary Big Ten West rival, Wisconsin, averaged 35 points and 469 yards last year. As good as Minnesota’s defense is, it’s clear the offense must make another step.
In February, Kill challenged Limegrover’s staff to take the things the offense did well and begin incorporating the no-huddle.
“We’re not going to be 100 percent no-huddle, but we’re going to have the ability to do more of it,” Limegrover said. “That will give us the ability to change the tempo.”
Players this week insisted they were surprised by how much no-huddle they ran against TCU. Facing a talented Horned Frogs defense that had held them to seven points last season, the Gophers were willing to try anything, even if that meant 35 passes from Leidner.
The current run/pass percentage ratio 53/47 probably won’t last — not when it’s been 66/34 throughout Kill and Limegrover’s tenures at Minnesota. But these next three games should show what kind of shape the offense will take for the Big Ten season.
Thirty-one and 400? Senior wide receiver KJ Maye, was thrilled to hear Kill say it.
“It was one of those things, where you see the confidence on his face,” Maye said. “It’s such a strong statement, you have no choice but to believe it.”