P.J. Fleck is changing offensive coordinators after winning eight games, and if anyone is curious about why a shake-up is necessary, take a minute and examine national passing statistics in college football this season.
Start with the pass attempts category and scroll to the bottom:
128. Air Force.
That's right, the Gophers threw fewer passes than every college football team at the FBS level except the three service academies, who treat the forward pass like a kindergartner treats a plate of asparagus.
As Fleck frequently noted, the Gophers lost five running backs during the season, yet they still made their passing game ride in the back seat.
They did so despite having a four-year starter at quarterback, the most experienced offensive line in college football, a standout wide receiver and a big, athletic tight end.
Fleck opted not to renew the contract of Mike Sanford Jr., putting him in the market for a new coordinator. The Star Tribune confirmed a Yahoo! Sports report Thursday night that Fleck is targeting his former coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who left after the 2019 season, spent one year in that role at Penn State and served as an offensive analyst at West Virginia this season.
Fleck also has a worthy candidate on staff in wide receiver coach Matt Simon, who was passed over two years ago when Ciarrocca left.
A change became inevitable based on the inconsistency of the offense under Sanford's direction. Yes, losing star running back Mohamed Ibrahim in the opener was a significant setback, but the offense had more firepower than it displayed in finishing 84th nationally in scoring and 98th in total yards.
The Gophers scored 10 points against Bowling Green and six points against Illinois in a pair of baffling offensive performances.
The entire scheme felt disjointed and lacking imagination until the final two games. On that point, Fleck caused ears to perk up when he credited both Sanford and Simon for a creative game plan at Indiana. That sounded like a message being delivered.
The fact that 6-7 freakishly talented tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford caught only 23 passes in 12 games amounts to coaching malpractice. The offense had a major mismatch that went largely ignored.
Sanford's primary problem was that Tanner Morgan regressed from being one of college football's most efficient passers as a sophomore in 2019 — right behind LSU's Joe Burrow, Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts and Ohio State's Justin Fields — to No. 71 nationally in passing efficiency as a senior.
It's too convenient an excuse to blame that disparity in production solely on losing two NFL-bound wide receivers. Quarterbacks generally improve with experience, not slide backward.
The indelible image of Sanford's brief stint as coordinator will be Morgan looking to the sideline with the play clock winding down, frantically trying to get the play called at the line in a desperate attempt to beat the clock, followed by a run up the middle. Over and over again.
The whole thing looked chaotic.
Morgan deserves better. The offense deserves better. Which is why Fleck can't be content with simply changing coordinators. He also must examine his own philosophy in understanding how to squeeze more out of the offense.
Nobody expects Fleck to abandon his affinity for ball-control, power running. That's his identity as a coach. Yet, there must be wiggle room in there to find a more consistent approach with the passing game.
The Gophers are quite capable of running the ball down the throat of some Big Ten opponents without asking their quarterback to do any heavy lifting. Throwing the ball shouldn't be set aside as an inconvenience, though.
Those who played that position will tell you that being a reliable passer isn't as simple as flipping a switch. It takes repetition and nurturing. Imagine the pressure Morgan felt knowing he had limited chances to throw.
Morgan is returning next season for his fifth season as the starter, a rarity in college football. He has started 38 games, and his 26 wins make him the winningest quarterback in program history.
Given those facts, it doesn't make sense for the Gophers to run the ball roughly 70% of their plays, as was the case this season. The next coordinator, with Fleck's clear support, should be tasked with finding a better run/pass balance and diagraming pass concepts that accentuate Morgan's strengths. Bringing back Ciarrocca would make sense considering the success Morgan had in 2019 under his guidance.
They should take advantage of a quarterback with Morgan's experience, not minimize it.