The 2009 Gopher Offense is "The Mulligan Offense"

I enjoy the game of golf but admittedly I am not very good at it.  I can play a round of 18 holes where on three or four holes everything goes right.  I'll hit a solid drive that stays in the fairway, follow that up with a nice iron shot that lands somewhere on the green and then finish up the hole with a nice birdie putt or at the very least a two-putt for par.  It is those holes that lead me to believe that I'm close to being a much better golfer.  But the rest of the holes are incredibly frustrating because typically something goes wrong.  It isn't every shot on the hole that goes awry and ruins my score, instead most often it is just one shot that puts me in enough trouble that it adds a couple strokes to my score.  If only I could take a mulligan per hole, my final score would be much more impressive and people would recognize my golf game as something that today it is just not.

I'm sure that many of you golf, or at the very least will be able to follow my analogy.  The analogy above is exactly what we are seeing with the 2009 Gopher offense.  A couple times per game we see the offense come together as they move down the field keeping the defense off balance and executing without major mistakes until they put 6 points on the board.  This is enough to show us that this offense has some weapons capable of moving the  ball and scoring against any defense we may face. 

The problem is more often than not we need a mulligan to keep drives alive.  I know that there isn't a perfect offense out there.  Everybody gives up sacks, makes penalties or calls a play that the defense blows up.  But the Gopher Mulligan Offense (GMO) does all three with far too much regularity.  The 2009 Gopher offense has been frustratingly inconsistent and statistically very disappointing.  Currently we sit last in the Big Ten in total offense, last in rushing offense, 10th in 1st downs, 10th in 3rd down conversions, eighth in scoring offense, sixth in passing offense and only Purdue has turned the ball over more than the Gophers.  What makes this offense frustrating is that we actually have some talent and weapons on the offensive side of the football. But the GMO continually shanks it's drives deep into the woods or chips into the sand trap or 3-putts and seems to be asking for a mulligan.

We saw this from the very beginning.  The Syracuse game gave us opportunities to score early, the offense executed with few mistakes and jumped to a 14 point lead.  The next seven possessions resulted in just 63 yards and zero points.  Play-calling, poor execution (specifically from the QB) and penalties contributed to the impotent offense until everything fell into place during the 4th quarter.  On at least a few of those drives in the second and third quarters if the Gophers would have been allowed a mulligan we would have scored 35 points and it never would have gone to overtime.  But we all know that just isn't possible in college football and this offense needs to execute in the following areas with far fewer mistakes if they want to start winning more football games.

All three areas I want to discuss are equally vital to the success and failures of this offense.  I don't believe any one has been significantly hampering the offense more than another.  At times the play-calling has been a significant handcuff, other times the play called was perfect but poor execution (inaccurate pass, OL breakdown, dropped pass, etc) made the "right" call moot and at other times penalties either stopped the play before it was given a chance or positive plays moved to negative.  I believe this offense has some very talented and dangerous weapons, but there is a threshold of mistakes that can be made and we are surpassing what this offense can handle on a weekly basis.

Play-Calling

We sort of set ourselves up for this one by installing a new offensive system AND then hiring a rookie offensive coordinator to run it.  First of all I'd like someone to show me a college program that switches offensive systems that does not experience some growing pains.  Michigan's 2008 offense finished dead last in the Big Ten in scoring, total offense, 1st downs, 3rd down conversions and turnover margin.  We all know how bad the 2007 Gopher offense was.  It wasn't as bad as Michigan-2008 but it was bottom half of the conference in all major offensive categories.  That offense was greatly helped by a very good and experienced offensive line.  The point is that new systems generally take a year to develop and really show their worth.  When you are running complicated offensive schemes with 19-23 year old kids it is hard to expect them to execute nearly as well in their first year as they will after having a full year to understand the system.  The game moves very fast and when you are thinking as well as trying to read & execute something is always lost somewhere in the middle.

As if that wasn't hard enough on the new offense, we have a guy calling plays who has never called plays in his career.  Jedd Fisch has a reputation as being a gifted offensive mind.  He has worked with some very talented head coaches at the NFL level and even during his short stint with the Gopher he has shown some very good and created play-calling.  The problem is he needs a mulligan or two (or three or four) every game.  This is a touchy subject as offensive coordinators are always easy targets and when offenses aren't scoring or when arm-chair quarterbacks think they could call a better game they become the ones responsible for offensive woes.  I'm not harping on Fisch here as I think he is showing some promise and given some time he may become very good at calling plays that continually keep defenses off balance.  But so far it has been hit or miss with more misses than hits.

There are a number of series where a play gets blown-up by the defense and it seems to throw the rest of the series off.  When the script doesn't go as planned the offense usually punts after three feeble attempts.  When the script works, this offense has moved the ball on whoever they have faced.  Adjustments need to be made on the fly and creative plays need to be set up.

Finally (this is me thinking I should be an offensive coordinator), why isn't Decker used as a decoy more often?  I understand that he is our best player and we should get the ball in his hands.  I have yet to see a play that sees Decker run something deep that draws a corner and a safety, which in theory should allow someone like Stoudermire or Hayo to get deep with no safety  help. Decker draws so much attention you should be able to move the defense allowing your other play-makers to get some open space to work with.  I've seen some of this, but not enough and never for a home run attempt.

Penalties

This one has been the most frustrating through the first five games of the season.  Once again, I realize that all teams commit penalties and a false start, holding or personal foul at the wrong time can kill a drive for anybody.  But after leading the league in penalties last year I was hopeful we would have a renewed emphasis on composure but we continue to be near the bottom of the Big Ten in yellow flags.  And maybe it just feels this way, but it seems like we get penalties at exactly the wrong time.  Penalties that kill drives, turn 7 points into 3 and penalties that move the chains for the opponent. 

Last week's Badger game is a perfect example.  On the stat sheet we committed 9 infractions for a total of 75 yards!  That is bad in and of itself, but look more closely at the situation and timing of some of those penalties and you can easily do the math to see a Gopher win.

  • 2nd Qtr - Wisconsin ball - 2nd and 10 - incomplete pass which would have made for 3rd and 10.  Instead we get a taunting penalty giving the Badgers 1st down which resulted in 3 points for the Badgers.
  • 2nd Qtr - Minnesota ball - 1st and goal on the 1 - chop block on Bunders moves the ball from the 1 to the 16 resulting in 3 points for the Gophers.  Chalk this one up as -4, not +3.
  • 3rd Qtr - Minnesota ball - 3rd and 2 on the Badger 18 - Eskridge runs for 16 yards taking it down to the 2 yard line.  HOLDING on the TE, results in 3rd and long and Weber throws an interception.  -7 for the Gophers.

Those were just three penalties that were absolutely huge as they directly led to or took points off the board.  There were a couple kick return penalties that dramatically affected field position as well, but you get the point.  One could argue that Eskridge wouldn't have run for 16 yards had McGarry not held, but what I'm arguing is that Eskridge would have still run the ball down to the two had McGarry made a good and clean block on the Badger defender.

The point is that we are a heavy penalized team and we are just not talented enough to overcome the holes these negative yards put us in.  We are a talented offense but when points on there for the taking we need to not make mistakes turning a sure seven points into three or worse.

Execution

This is another area that is very easy for the armchair QBs to nit-pick.  The two easiest targets are Adam Weber and the offensive line.  Many of the criticisms are absolutely accurate.  Weber has made some poor decisions, he refuses to throw the ball away, the OL has blocking issues running and protecting Weber.  These areas where we lack execution (or the appropriate talent) are frustrating and often stick out like a sore thumb.  In the instances where the right play is called, we do not commit any penalties but we just do not execute are all too frequent. 

Primary example occurred against Wisconsin in the first quarter.  Wisconsin was up 7-0 and the Gophers were driving trying to tie the ball game.  Minnesota had 2nd and 4 at the Badger 8 yard line.  As a team trying to establish itself as a power running team this is when you don't get cute you run the ball because you have two attempts to get just 4 yards giving you first and goal.  Instead it went like this...

  • 2nd and 4 - run with Brandon Green for a loss of 3!  This goes back to play-calling and then also execution.
  • 3rd and 7 - incomplete pass to Nick Tow-Arnett.  This was a great play call.  Decker was wide left and ran a deep cross taking his man and another with him to the right.  Stoudermire ran an outside slant to take the defense into the endzone, but he never intended to receive a pass as he got to the endzone and started blocking the corner.  In the flat was NTA.  He was wide open and had at least a first down and momentum to take him into the end zone.  Weber threw the ball behind NTA for an incompletion.  No penalties, GREAT play-call and poor throw that couldn't get hauled in. 

Then there were a number of plays, especially in the 4th quarter when Weber was given less than .5 seconds before the pass rush was in his face. 

All in all not one of these problems is any greater than another.  Those who have said our only chance to win a game is to put MarQueis Gray in at QB are not taking into account that a freshman QB will still have execution issues to go along with our already established play-calling and penalty issues. 

Statistics back up all of these critical areas.

Play-calling is contributing to our lack of 1st downs (10th in Big Ten) and poor 3rd down conversions (10th).  Only two teams have more penalties than the Gophers.  Execution shows up in our lack of points (8th), yards (11th), turnovers (9th) and sacks allowed (10th).

None of this should be terribly surprising.  Our offensive line was porous last year, everyone has to learn a new system and our coordinator is a rookie.  Next year I would really like to see far better OL play, more discipline and a better game-plan by the coaching staff.

As I stated this offense has some talent.  The Northwestern game proved we can play while keeping penalties down.  And I like some of the things I have seen from Fisch.  But there needs to be more consistency.  We currently need too many mulligans.  If we can get our drives straightened out, then maybe can find ways to compensate for our short game deficiencies.  Sorry for the golf analogy again.  If we can eliminate crucial penalties then maybe we give our drives a chance.  If we can't then maybe Fisch needs to refine his approach to play-calling giving this offense a chance to execute.  You get the point, fixing just one would make a huge difference. 

Realistically I would love to see minor improvements the rest of this year and then we hope for significant improvements for 2010.  Maybe, just maybe, we'll see an offense come together and give us their best game of the year and we'll upset one of our difficult road teams as we finish the season.

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