Gophers rescue plan: Can returning offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca reignite the passing game?
Back in 2019, P.J. Fleck, Kirk Ciarrocca and Tanner Morgan combined to make some sweet music, a trio that delivered the college football equivalent of a top-10 album, a couple of huge hits and entertaining tracks but work that finished just short of winning a Grammy.
From the field-rushing upset of Penn State and the physical dominance over Auburn in the Outback Bowl, that Gophers trio of coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback clicked in a season that finished with an 11-2 record and No. 10 final ranking, Minnesota's best in 57 years. Of course, the trio had plenty of help from NFL-bound wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman.
But with Gophers football popularity at a recent peak, the band broke up, with Ciarrocca leaving for his home state of Pennsylvania to coordinate the offense for Penn State. Fleck replaced him with Mike Sanford Jr., who would have some success in two years at Minnesota but never truly meshed.
“It's been fun to watch the camaraderie he has with the offense and the confidence they have in what we're doing.”
Now Ciarrocca has returned to join Fleck and Morgan, a sixth-year senior, in getting the offense and especially the passing game back on track. They'll get their first reviews Thursday night when the Gophers open the 2022 season against New Mexico State, coached by old frenemy Jerry Kill, at Huntington Bank Stadium.
"It really feels very comfortable for me here," Ciarrocca said. "It's a lot different than it is when you go somewhere and you weren't familiar with the culture or the players."
Back to the comfort zone
Fleck is entering his sixth season as Gophers coach and his ninth coaching with Ciarrocca, who spent the 2021 season as an offensive analyst for West Virginia. Their reunion seemed inevitable once Fleck fired Sanford at the end of the regular season. Two snapshots in Gophers history under Fleck show how the coach arrived at his decision and what things might be like with Ciarrocca again tutoring Morgan and being a valuable sounding board for Fleck.
The most recent episode came Dec. 28, when the Gophers defeated West Virginia 18-6 in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix. Fleck already had hired Ciarrocca away from the Mountaineers, and Fleck and West Virginia coach Neal Brown reached a deal that had Ciarrocca sit out this game. Co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Matt Simon served as the primary play-caller.
The Gophers dispatched West Virginia with their familiar run-based attack operating behind a veteran offensive line that tenderized the opponent's midsection with repeated body blows. Minnesota rushed 51 times for 249 yards, hogged the ball for 38 minutes, 29 seconds and attempted only 13 passes. The Gophers even used 380-pound offensive tackle Daniel Faalele at running back, and the big fella bulled his way into the end zone for a touchdown.
Afterward, Fleck sounded almost apologetic for the method of the victory.
"I know we didn't throw the ball particularly a lot this year. I'm very aware of that," he said. "That does not mean we're not going to throw the ball next year."
Fleck knows the passing game needs to be much more dynamic in 2022 for the Gophers to win the Big Ten West Division and play in a bowl of higher stature. The offensive line and run game dominance didn't happen every game, and the upset losses to Bowling Green and Illinois exploited a weakness as Morgan threw a combined four interceptions and was sacked 10 times.
The Gophers, who rushed the ball 70% of the time on their way to a 9-4 record, at times looked like a service academy without the fun of running the Wishbone.
During training camp, Morgan focused on his accuracy and Ciarrocca fined-tuned the details that the Gophers hope will result in a more dynamic attack, be it by land or air. Certainly, they want to have a more balanced run-pass mix like they had in 2019, when they ran the ball 63.4% of the time and passed it 36.6%.
Ciarrocca, though, put his spin on what he considers a balanced offense.
"If we need to run for 300 yards to win the game, we'll run for 300 yards," he said. "And if we need to throw for 350 and run for 150, that's what we'll be able to do. When I've been in charge of offenses that have been really good, that's what we've been able to do."
Pushing to be better
Morgan, who'll be starting his 40th game for the Gophers, is comfortable working with Ciarrocca again, trying to pick up where they left off.
"It was a really good feeling for everybody back here," Morgan said. "He pushes us every day to be at our best. … The standard is the standard, and he definitely upholds the standard for your offense."
Morgan at his peak in 2019 was something special. He had the best statistical season in school history, setting program records for passing yards (3,253), touchdown passes (30) and completion percentage (66%, 210-for-318), among others. The sky looked like the limit with Morgan.
That, however, didn't materialize. Ciarrocca left for Penn State, and the offense suffered. The Gophers, who scored 34.1 points per game in 2019, dropped to 27.3 in 2020 and 25.5 last year.
Sanford helped Mohamed Ibrahim emerge as the 2020 Big Ten running back of the year when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in seven games, but Morgan's passing yards per game fell to 196.3 in 2020 and 157.2 last year. The Gophers passed an average of 19.8 times per game in 2021 — fourth-to-last nationally.
A victorious suggestion
The second historical snapshot to remember when assessing Ciarrocca's influence came in 2018 on a Friday night against Indiana. The Gophers, in Morgan's first career start, built a 31-9 lead only to see the Hoosiers rally to tie the score 31-31 in the fourth quarter. With 1:40 to play, the Gophers took over at their 33-yard line, and Ciarrocca had a suggestion for Fleck.
"Coach Ciarrocca said, 'Hey, Coach, you mind if we end this game?'" Fleck said. "I said, 'I don't mind if we end this game. Whaddya talking about? You wanna take a knee and go overtime?'"
No, Ciarrocca had a play in mind. The Gophers ran play-action slant patterns all game, but this time Ciarrocca had Bateman run a slant-and-go route from the slot. Bateman made a jab step to sell the slant but sprinted past the Hoosiers defender and collected Morgan's pass in stride for the winning 67-yard touchdown connection.
“If we need to run for 300 yards to win the game, we'll run for 300 yards. And if we need to throw for 350 and run for 150, that's what we'll be able to do.”
That serves as an example of how the 57-year-old Ciarrocca can be a valuable counterbalance for his 41-year-old boss. Fleck and Sanford didn't have a coaching history together, but Ciarrocca once was Fleck's superior at Rutgers.
Ever since hiring Ciarrocca in December, Fleck has spoken of how seamless the transition has been.
"It doesn't feel like a second time around; it really doesn't," Fleck said. "… It's been fun to watch the camaraderie he has with the offense and the confidence they have in what we're doing."