Sunny Side Up: What Will Minnesota's Offense Look Like vs San Jose State?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This week's thoughts from the Upper Deck are focused on the offense: who's in, who's out, and this thing I've heard about called passing.

Two things before we get started:

1) Great to see Coach Kill already back and looking well. May he have a long and successful tenure as Minnesota's head football coach.

2) Incredible job by Chris and Elliot for their coverage, insights, and support of Coach Kill and his continued battle with epilepsy. I'm always proud to be apart of this site, but never more so than the past few days. Great work, gentlemen.

So to football, then. This Saturday is Minnesota's first real test of the 2013 regular season. They've beaten up (for the most part) three not-so-good schools, outscoring them 124-56 on the way to a 3-0 record. While there's been plenty of good (running game, defensive dominance last week, much improved special teams, fewer penalties and mistakes than last year), there's still some pressing questions facing the Golden Gophers this Saturday, and for me the biggest centers around the offense- just what can we expect from the Gophers and OC Matt Limegrover against the San Jose State Spartans?

Mitch Leidner received his first significant playing time of the season last week, as starter Philip Nelson left the game with a hamstring injury and did not return. PN#9's status remains questionable at best for Saturday, which should give Leidner his first career start. Based on his performance against the Fighting Teachers (7-8 passing for 103 yards, 17 carries for 73 yards) we should be confident in his ability to run the offense. Just what kind of offense he'll be running is another matter. I joked on Twitter before last week's game that the over/under for pass attempts was 12 (if you're not one of my five or six followers you're missing out on gems like this...that I post maybe once a month. Fine, you're not missing out on much). Number of pass attempts against Western Illinois? 12. Leidner and Nelson were very efficient as a combined 10-12 for 124 yards with no TD's and no picks, and yes, tt was enough to win, and in the end, I know that's all that matters.

But still...the Gophers have been much better on paper and on the field than their first three opponents, but that's not the case this week, nor will it be for the rest of the season. Their running game has been good yet has likely featured far more QB keepers (55 of their 130 rush attempts- or 42%- have come from Nelson or Leidner) than is sustainable in the B1G (we've already seen one QB injury). The passing game has been limited/virtually non-existent/barely functional for three straight weeks, and it's going to need to be much better than that if Minnesota wants to go bowling.

The running game should get a serious boost with the return of last year's leading rusher Donnell "Kirkland" Kirkwood and true freshman speedster Berkley Edwards, who are both coming off high ankle injuries. David Cobb (28 carries/213 yards/3 TD's) and Roderick "Nugget" Williams (30/217/3) have been very good in their absence, and actually, "very good" might be selling them short- would you believe they're BOTH averaging over 7 yards per carry? True story. Adding Kirkland and Berkley gives Limegrover two more capable ball carriers, and Edwards provides a home run threat that is potentially even more potent than Cobb. This is easily as deep as the Gophers have been at running back since the Mason years, and the hope is we'll see a larger and larger percentage of the carries go to the backs and less and less to the QB's. Because if Leidner gets hurt on his 15th read-option keeper of the day and Nelson's hammy is still wonky, next man up is...true frosh Chris Streveler! Yeah that's not good. So again, let's hope for more RB's and less QB's in the running game.

Which brings us to the passing game- or almost complete lack of one. You know what this offense has been missing (well besides a passing game)? Playmakers in the receiving game. Maxx Williams (ok, we need a consensus on a nickname for Maxx. We should probably just add a third "X" and call him "Triple X" and be done with it but I'm open to suggestions), the redshirt freshman TE, has been not just the team's best receiver, but their best- and really only- downfield threat. While that certainly speaks to Maxx's talents and abilities both for the present and future, it's still more than a little worrisome when a redshirt frosh TE has thus far been the only guy capable of stretching the field. Derek Engel has the longest catch of the season at 48 yards, but is averaging only 8.7 YPC on his four other grabs.

It just really hasn't happened for anybody else, but hey, at least they're trying to throw the ball down field and take some shots with their potential play makers, right? Oh wait, I remember now, they haven't tried that AT ALL! Seriously, what the H-E-double hockey sticks (and you didn't think I'd find a way to slip hockey into a football post? Shame on you) happened to KJ Maye, Donovahn Jones and Jamel Harbison? Not like those are the only potential playmakers at receiver or anything, and yet the three of them have combined to be as non-existent as Jim Souhan's understanding of epilepsy and the proper way to respond to it. Maye had one catch for one freaking yard, Harbison finally saw the field (after sitting the first two games for disciplinary reasons) but to the best of my knowledge and vantage point from section 214 wasn't targeted once, and Jones didn't play a single snap. All three of those guys represent some real athletic ability and explosiveness, and yet the first three games against inferior opponents were spent NOT figuring out ways to get them the ball.

That's a gigantic missed opportunity to me, and now here we are at game #4 with the passing game a complete unknown. Saturday should give us an answer of whether the passing game has been so conservative because OC Matt Limegrover hasn't felt the need to open it up, or because they're simply not capable of it. Please, PLEASE let it be the former. Please.

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