Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly column that tours football topics in our state from preps to pros. You can find all the previous FAM columns right here. — Chip
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The late, great Jerry Burns once delivered an all-time classic rant in defense of his Vikings offensive coordinator. Imagine the colorful phrasing Burnsie might offer in response to the consternation and Twitter critiques of the offensive play-calling and philosophical approach of the state's two most prominent football teams this season.
Second-guessing football coordinators has become the lowest-hanging fruit in sports. We all do it, and we all believe with every fiber of our being that we can do it better than that dolt making the calls.
I mean, who calls a toss sweep to the fullback on third-and-1?
(See, we could do this all day).
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak and Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. have been in the public's crosshairs a lot this season. The conservative nature that we've seen from their offenses is the reason someone created a facepalm emoji.
And yet after watching the Vikings offensive play-calling the past two games and the Gophers on Saturday at Indiana, my reaction is … bravo. Good job. Let's see more of that.
Something changed. It's obvious to anyone who has studied both teams this season.
Kirk Cousins is cutting it loose, apparently at Zimmer's urging. The Gophers gave Tanner Morgan a chance to throw passes early to establish rhythm. The Gophers didn't settle for a field goal off a turnover right before halftime, with Fleck authorizing three consecutive passes trying to score a touchdown. And Cousins said something unimaginable: he might have been "too aggressive" at times in passing for 341 yards and three touchdowns against the Packers.
Start with the Gophers. We saw notable changes in their plan in Saturday's 35-14 victory over the Hoosiers. Sanford got the passing game involved early, with Morgan completing 11 of 16 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown by halftime. He entered the game averaging only 20 pass attempts per game.
The over-reliance on the running game has disrupted Morgan's timing and accuracy. It's not a light switch that can be turned off and on, even though the Gophers have been successful with that approach in games.
Sanford called quick-hitting passes, such as the middle screen to tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford on a third-and-6 conversion, a creative wrinkle that set up their first touchdown.
Fleck took a playful shot at me in the postgame in explaining why he went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Indiana 7 on the first drive. They didn't make it, but frankly, that was an easy call he should make 10 out of 10 times without hesitation.
His thought process at the end of the first half hit the mark. The Gophers, having scored with 46 seconds left to take a 14-7 lead, made an interception and had the ball at the Indiana 31 with 23 seconds left. Fleck saw an opportunity to essentially put the game away considering Indiana's woeful offense, and he went for a touchdown rather than just play for points. Chris Autman-Bell hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass while being smothered. Trusting your best offensive player to make a play is always worth the shot.
"Everybody from the outside is like, 'OK, is he going to kick a field goal? Is he going to be conservative or be aggressive?'" Fleck said. "Those are the two words: conservative and aggressive. There is conservative, aggressive and stupid. There are three options that you have. It all depends on what the defense is doing. They allowed us one-on-one coverage with [Autman-Bell]."
The true test: Display that same foot-on-gas mind-set against Wisconsin on Saturday.
Cousins let 'er rip against a team from Wisconsin on Sunday. His approach in back-to-back games has been refreshing because he's giving his best playmakers — Justin Jefferson especially — opportunities to make plays on shots down the field.
That's a credit to Kubiak for being more aggressive in his play-calling, to Cousins for being willing to take more risks and to Zimmer for supporting the process. It is starting to feel like a new identity for the offense, not one primarily based on a heavy Dalvin Cook workload.
Cousins described the risk-reward outcome as a "razor's edge." That's precisely the point. Trust Jefferson and Adam Thielen to make a play because the payoff is what can make the offense explosive. Don't revert to checkdowns and being overly cautious.
I wrote a column last week urging Kubiak and Cousins to throw the ball to Jefferson as much as possible, acknowledging that a few more interceptions might come with it.
That theory looked like it might come true when Cousins' deep pass to Jefferson in a tie game with two minutes remaining appeared to be intercepted by the Packers. Cousins got a reprieve when a review ruled that Packers defensive back Darnell Savage didn't control the ball as he fell to the ground.
The Vikings used the second chance to drive for a game-winning field goal and edge the Packers 34-31.
Had the interception counted, the Vikings likely lose the game. And I would still stand behind the statement that being aggressive and taking more chances in the passing game and trusting Jefferson/Thielen to make difficult catches in traffic is the right approach for their offense.
Cousins noted again the "razor's edge" dilemma on his pass to Thielen on the final drive that looked like it might get intercepted.
"I can probably point to a half-dozen throws that were too aggressive," he said. "I could argue that's one of them. You don't want to live in a world of throwing the ball into a covered player and crossing your fingers. There is a time and place for it. But you also want to be a smart football player."
Too aggressive? Not to Zimmer.
"I want him to keep doing it like he's doing it," Zimmer said. "He can't second-guess himself. If he throws an interception, that's life. Keep going for the jugular."
Sounds refreshing, doesn't it?
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FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
Shutouts started before sunrise
Mankato West, which plays Mahtomedi in the Class 5A Prep Bowl on Saturday, has recorded a statistical feat that seems almost impossible: The Scarlets have scored more defensive touchdowns (nine) than they have allowed (eight) for the season.
"It's very rare," Mankato West coach JJ Helget said, which explains why his team is undefeated and ranked No. 1.
The Scarlets have returned seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries for TDs. Their opponents have scored only 54 points combined in 12 games.
Helget said his defense switched to a scheme called "Crush" two years ago. Results fit the name. The Scarlets returned 15 starters off a 6-0 team, including four seniors on defense who are three-year starters.
"Most of what we do is predicated on our team speed and strength," Helget said. "We've got a lot of fast guys running to the football."
Their speed-and-strength advantage was cultivated during early-morning training last winter. Because of COVID restrictions, the team split into groups for weightlifting sessions. One group started at 4:30 a.m. The next group at 5:30 a.m. Others went after school.
They met twice a week from December to mid-March.
Senior linebacker Ryan Haley, a Mr. Football finalist who committed to Brown University in the Ivy League, drew the 4:30 a.m. slot as a team captain. He'd wake up at 4, eat a small breakfast and then head out the door.
"It wasn't a lot of fun, but I knew that this would all be worth it," Haley said. "It has definitely paid off for our group. It just speaks to how much football means to us."
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St. John's in clash of D-III titans
The path to two of St. John's national championships — 1965 and 2003 — included knocking out Linfield (Oregon) in the Division III playoffs.
The teams will meet again Saturday in Collegeville, Minn. in a second-round matchup between two of the winningest programs in college football history.
The Johnnies entered the season No. 6 in career winning percentage of all divisions; Linfield is 11th. Linfield notched its 65th consecutive season with a winning record, a record for all divisions. Their streak began in 1956. St. John's owns a streak of 53 consecutive seasons without a losing record.
Saturday's meeting looks like a potential shootout. Linfield averages 52 points per game, third highest in D-III. St. John's is tenth in scoring at 46 points per game.
Linfield quarterback Wyatt Smith was a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy (D-III national player of the year) last season and is a strong candidate again. He has passed for 3,002 yards and 37 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
"He's the best passer we're going to see," St. John's coach Gary Fasching said.
St. John's announced Monday that Fasching has tested positive for COVID-19 and is following required protocol. Defensive coordinator Jerry Haugen were serve as acting head coach leading up to Saturday's game.
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A FAM FAVORITE
Rooting for this Tommie
St. Thomas ended its first season in Division I FCS with a 39-point rout of Presbyterian to finish with a 7-3 record. Senior safety Nick Ektanitphong led the team with 10 tackles in his final game.
Tommies coach Glenn Caruso posed with his seniors on the field after the game. Ektanitphong, who was kneeling right beside him in the photo, epitomizes why I have thoroughly enjoyed chronicling Football Across Minnesota this season: So many wonderful stories.
Ektanitphong's parents immigrated from Bangkok, Thailand, in the 1980s with $38 in their pocket. His dad got a job at a restaurant in Texas as a dishwasher.
His parents eventually moved to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan as restaurant employees. One day they met a group of snowmobile riders visiting from Marshall, Minn. They told Ektanitphong's dad that their hometown did not have a Chinese restaurant.
That sparked an idea. Ektanitphong's parents eventually packed up and moved to Marshall where they opened a Chinese and Thai restaurant on Main Street called Hunan Lion. They opened a second restaurant a few years ago.
Ektanitphong grew up in Marshall working at the family's business. He played football and basketball with Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall NFL draft pick this year from North Dakota State.
The value of hard work and dedication was on display every day in his home.
"They taught me a lot," Ektanitphong said. "The main thing is to believe in myself and work hard. If you want to do something, put your heart into it and work hard and you can almost do anything you want."
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- Justin Jefferson: Played like a superstar in catching eight passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
- Derrick Jameson: Maple Grove's hard-nosed running back rushed for 138 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-3 Class 6A semifinal win over Eden Prairie.
- Brendan Beaulieu: Bemidji State senior caught eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown in a 28-24 victory over Augustana to help the Beavers advance to the second round of Division II playoffs.
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He said what?!
"I could have kicked a field goal and Chip would have said I was conservative again. So I didn't." — P.J. Fleck taking a playful jab at me in explaining why he went for it on fourth-and-1 on the first drive Saturday after I was critical of the Gophers coach for settling for a field goal from the Iowa 2-yard line in the first quarter the previous week.
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Numbers to know
- 18.7: Points per game allowed by the Gophers defense, 13th-best scoring defense in FBS. The Gophers are trying to finish with a scoring defense below 20 points for first time since 1999.
- 23: Rushing touchdowns this season for both Maple Grove's Jameson and Lakeville South's Carson Hansen going into their team's 6A Prep Bowl matchup.
- 21: Points scored by Kasson-Mantorville in a fourth-quarter comeback to stun No. 1 Becker in the 4A semifinals 24-20 and advance to the Prep Bowl for first time.
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Grab your popcorn
The Gophers host Wisconsin in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe at 3 p.m. Saturday and possibly have a shot to win to the Big Ten West and advance to Indianapolis based on tiebreakers.
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An important 48 hours for …
Tanner Morgan. The Gophers senior became the school's career winningest quarterback with the victory at Indiana. The challenge this week is infinitely more difficult. Wisconsin ranks No. 5 nationally in scoring defense, No. 1 in run defense and No. 6 in pass defense. Morgan needs a good week of preparation to develop a plan for how to attack the Badgers' defense.
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A FAM FINAL WORD
We witnessed positive results when coaches and players are willing to adjust their strategy or approach in certain situations. As Zimmer correctly pointed out, keep going for the jugular.
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Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota. I'll publish this each Monday night on startribune.com, timed to kickoff of "Monday Night Football." And you can also join me on Twitter during the first quarter of MNF as I chat with readers about what I wrote each week.
Chip (@chipscoggins on Twitter)