If Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover seems less inhibited with his play-calling now that Jerry Kill has retired, that’s not a coincidence.
The dynamics have changed with longtime defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys taking over as head coach. Both still revere Kill and always will for all the things he’s done for their careers. But Kill was more cautious.
Limegrover explained Tuesday that he used to be more concerned about putting the defense in a bind with riskier play-calling. He often spoke of the need for the offense to be good “team players.”
“One of the interesting things is that I think Coach Kill always felt that way,” Limegrover said. “So that kind of permeated down. … And interestingly enough, with Tracy being the defensive coordinator and now the head coach, he’s been the one to say, ‘Hey, go ahead and take a chance here.’ ”
The difference was notable two years ago, when Kill took a leave of absence for health reasons. Claeys led the Gophers to a 20-17 victory over Northwestern, and Limegrover unveiled a slew of new offensive wrinkles the next week, when the Gophers stunned Nebraska 34-23.
Kill was back overseeing everything by the next week, and to be sure, the Gophers had big offensive days with him in charge, too. The 51-14 victory over Iowa last year and 41-13 win over Purdue this year are two examples. But there were several games when the Gophers played it safe, such as this year’s 10-7 hair-pulling win over Kent State.
After Kill retired Oct. 28, the Gophers came back three days later with a 29-26 loss to Michigan. The Wolverines had the nation’s best scoring defense, but the Gophers would have won had they scored from the one-foot line with 19 seconds remaining.
Last week, the Gophers scored more points (35) and racked up more yards (434) than any team had all season against undefeated Iowa. In the fourth quarter, Lime-grover called a play in which Shannon Brooks took a handoff toward the right sideline, then passed deep to Drew Wolitarsky.
“It was funny, the way we ran it in practice during the week, we were kind of questioning, ‘I wonder if this is going to work,’ ” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “It didn’t really look too pretty in practice. But man, it worked out exactly the way you want it to in the game.”
Brooks hit Wolitarsky in stride for a 42-yard touchdown.
“[Claeys] sits in our [offensive] meetings now, and it’s great,” Limegrover said. “He was all in favor of Shannon’s halfback pass to Drew. He was the one that said, ‘Don’t bring it back on the plane with you.’
“Coach [Kill] had a great knack for calling those [trick plays] at the right time. But the nice thing with Tracy at the helm is that, I feel like I’m dealing directly with him as the head coach now.”
It’s not just trick plays. In an interview this weekend with KFAN (100.3-FM), quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski raved about the creative flow of ideas with former Denver Broncos quarterback Adam Weber and former Chicago Bears staffer Carson Walch in the offensive meetings. They’ve pitched ideas they saw work in the NFL.
Zebrowski explained how the staff is incorporating more short passing plays, including riskier ones during which the running back goes out for a pass, instead of hanging back in pass protection.
“It was very similar a couple years ago, when [Kill] went away for a couple games with creativity,” Zebrowski told KFAN. “And we’re doing things that maybe we couldn’t do or think we could do. Maybe it was more of a conservative approach.”
The Gophers are 0-3 under Claeys, but they’ve committed only one turnover in those games. And Leidner has extended a streak of 250-yard passing games to four, matching the school record Mike Hohensee set in 1982.
“I think everybody thinks, ‘Hey, they’re wide open and what have you,’ ” Limegrover said. “Well, we’re throwing the ball more because we have a quarterback that’s really confident right now, and that’s a big part of it.”
Claeys, who used to spend his time exclusively on defense, splits his time now, attending offensive meetings one morning and defensive meetings the next. He still leaves the play-calling to Limegrover.
“If you’re going to play-call, you need to be in there all the time, I believe that,” Claeys said. “But I’ve been able to give them an idea how I think other teams will try to stop something.”
And with the offense on a roll, the Gophers are getting harder to stop.