"Do we have a coaching deficiency on the offensive side of the ball?"
I didn't think it would happen this early, but moments after a deflating 23-7 loss to Iowa, that pervasive and smothering thought crept into my mind.
As I left TCF Bank Stadium in what was yet another "turning point" loss for the Gophers, a feeling I've experienced far too often in my 30 years, I couldn't come to grips with all I had just witnessed. It wasn't simply that the Hawkeyes had dominated Minnesota at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Similarly, the slow rolling grumbles to full on cacophonous thunder of #QBGAZE2K13 by the middle of the 3rd quarter don't explain it all.
No, what bothers me the most after Ferentz left a smoldering carter in the middle of TCF Bank Stadium is this: Minnesota had seemingly spent the better part of 60 practices and 5 games dating back to preparation for Texas Tech establishing an identity, all of which were thrown away against Iowa. Worse yet, when said game plan didn't work, there was no adjustment. No variation of strategy. No quick pivot to say, "hey! we might be able to get back in this game if we go back to what we were good at doing!"
What we got instead was a tacit defense of a quarterback clearly playing below his optimal gameday athletic baseline and a trite recitation of coachisms as an explanation for what had just occurred. Most hollow of them all was, "we were outplayed and outcoached." Emphasis mine.
What exactly does "outcoached" mean?
In the context of Minnesota vs. Iowa 2013, I'd offer this: going against what you've done successfully -against lesser caliber foes to be sure, but still successful- in favor of a gameplan designed to pit your "weakness" against the opponent's "weakness," hoping that your weak is not as weak as theirs. Some might call that an example of "scouting" or "coaching," although neither of those terms apply when your team doesn't execute particularly well and you end up with a ~300 yard disparity. And yeah, the other team didn't change what they did to scout you: they just ran their offense.
Therein lies the rub for me. It wasn't that we couldn't execute our base offense against Iowa's front seven. It was that we didn't even try.
Take, for example, Gopher247's film review ($) since I haven't charted the game yet. The Gophers trotted out a 1 running back, 1 tight end and 3 WR set over 50% of the game, with a 2:1 pass/run ratio. What about more run heavy 21 or 22 personnel? Only a quarter of the time. And our favorite formations, the inverted wishbone and Golden-I? Zero.
Conflating the curious decision to open the game with more 3 WR sets versus the more versatile wishbone was another added wrinkle; rather than stick with the standard zone read out of shotgun/pistol sets, the Gophers came out on the first two series running.... the inverted veer. Trust me when I say that I would have noticed if they'd run it this season. They haven't. As far I can remember, the last time Minnesota ran anything resembling an inverted veer was back in 2011 against Northwestern.
Let's summarize: we didn't run our base offensive gameplan designed to force opponents to defend 8 running gaps (you know, the same thing Stanford and Wisconsin do and have done for year) that was humming along for over 280 yards a game. We broke out a formation that doesn't inherently add a critical new dimension to the offense (unless you can get your RB to the field side on the sweep and the WRs block well; they didn't) that hasn't been used in 18 games. We decided our best option was to attack Iowa's sort of vulnerable secondary with an unproven group of receivers and a QB1 running sub-optimally. No, not just mixing in more passes -- I'm talking a full on reversal of run/pass ratios. I wonder why we lost?
What is our offensive identity?
72 hours ago, this would be a laughable question. Now, I'm not exactly laughing. I wonder if our coaches were serious when they said back in 2011 that the offense could be "radically different" from week to week:
The genesis of this move-the-ball goulash is in Limegrover's Sunday morning meetings, when he and his fellow coaches, virtually of all whom have worked together for a dozen years or more, watch film of their next opponent, then spitball ideas for beating them.
The board sometimes grows to 125 plays, way more than the Gophers could actually use, but the exercise encourages creativity and problem-solving.
They weed out everything they are less confident about, until there are only 90 plays left, which is all that can fit on the quarterback's wristband. It means every week's offense is a little different, sometimes radically different.
I don't mind scouting for specific opponents or thinking about creative ways to attack a defense. In fact, that's smart coaching... provided it comes from within the framework of your base offense, the things you spent all spring and fall camp determining what your currently available cache of players can execute effectively.
Where I take a fairly large issue with this philosophy is instances like last Saturday, when I wouldn't have the foggiest inclination this was a top 20 rushing team the week prior. It looked like the same disjointed, mis-executed hodgepodge that plagued this team the previous two seasons or at the height of Jedd Fisch's ether baked lucidity. The offense was radically different -- and that was precisely the problem.
Another point of contention: if you are going to potentially radically change the offense week to week, do so in a manner where your best offensive players are touching the ball. Maxx Williams was targeted once, and the pass was intercepted. KJ Maye had zero targets on Saturday. Jamel Harbison, whom Jerry Kill referred to as "our best offensive player" before tearing his ACL last year in the season opener, still has zero catches. Wide receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones, both of whom burned redshirts immediately, have 1 catch a piece. This goes beyond the axiom of "not needing to pass" to beat four weak non-conference opponents; if you intend to pass your way to a victory, you'd better start directing said throws to your playmakers.
All in all, isn't it better to lose attempting to execute what you're good at -which, for Minnesota, means a dogmatic effort to run the ball with multiple TE/FB formations- versus potentially getting clobbered doing the things you're not good at?
Where were the adjustments?
No, I'm talking about the adjustments that could have been made after two straight 3-and-outs, eating a sack that took the Gophers out of FG range and a one play drive killed by a terrible interception. I'm referring to no sense of urgency at a turning point in the game (down 10 with under 4 to play in the first half, ball at midfield) to maybe think about it being four down territory, considering the defense had already been on the field too much during the first half. What about ditching the veer and 3 WR sets, instead coming downhill at Iowa to set up potential play action?
Folks like to give defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys a lot of credit -deserved, mind you- for crafting solid halftime and in-game adjustments to counteract what the opposing offense is showing. Much of the time, Claeys and the defensive staff will simply have the players go back to fundamentals and a simpler defense if what they've prepped all week for isn't working. I'm left wondering after the Iowa game if Coach Limegrover is capable of making adjustments like that, in a positive manner, on the fly. Our offense tends to set up defenses based off formation and situational tendencies established on film from prior weeks versus calling an audible in-game.
If any gameplan required an almost immediate adjustment, even to a more basic set of plays that had worked the previous 5 weeks, it was this last one against the Hawkeyes.
What happened to the offensive line?
Yes, I know Iowa's front seven is a consider jump up from New Mexico State's. I'm also aware that the Gophers need to pass more against the Hawkeyes than any previous opponent, and Limegrover/KIll made the call to start Ben Lauer at LT since basically the Western Illinois game (he played all but the first and last offensive series). And yes, as noted extensively above, we didn't much of our base formations last Saturday.
Still, Minnesota's sack rate allowed doubled against the Hawkeyes. They surrendered nearly as many (4) as they previous 4 weeks combined (5). They FBO numbers are even worse: the lowest adjusted line yard average, leverage rate and passing down sack rate allowed all year, by a mile. For a group with so much returning experience, one starting to really gel and make a step forward, Saturday was a cataclysmic stumble.
Has Limegrover reached his 'Peter Principle' moment?
In 17 Big Ten games with Limegrover as Minnesota's offensive coordinator, the Gophers have netted over 5.5 yards per play only three times (2011 against Iowa and Michigan State, 2012 against Purdue) and have eclipsed the 400 total yard mark just twice (Michigan State and Purdue). On the flipside, the offense has gained 254 yards or less in 8 of 17 contests.
Northern Illinois certainly had their struggles on the offensive side of the ball during Kill and Limegrover's first two seasons as well, besting 400 yards only 3 times. Still, the lowest MAC conference game offensive output in 3 seasons at NIU during Limegrover's tenure was 225, a threshold the Gophers have failed to top 6 times since Kill took over -- including the last three Big Ten games.
It stands to reason that the caliber of defenses Limegrover has matched up against are much stronger than any he's seen to date -- manifestly so, in fact. One could also make the assertion this staff doesn't quite have the full component of offensive playmakers necessary to accomplish all of their goals. Andre McDonald isn't here, Berkley Edwards appears destined for a redshirt, and Harbison, Wolitarsky, Jones and Williams are still only freshmen.
Still, the lack of explosiveness both from a personnel and schematic viewpoint cannot be understated. Minnesota either doesn't have or doesn't execute plays designed to make defenses play the entire width of the field, setting up a scenario where opposing defensive coordinators know most of Minnesota's plays will come within the hash marks. This is a strategy that works when you execute well. When the offense doesn't do that, much like Iowa, there's little wiggle room with the offense to keep defenses off-balance.
While at Northern, Limegrover accomplished this by frequently running jet sweeps or pin & pull blocks to get running plays to the edges. The former has barely been a part of Minnesota's playbook the last three seasons (definitely not against Iowa on Saturday), while the latter appears to have completely been excoriated from the gameplan given current personnel. The lack of pin & pull is especially troubling, since Northern showed a propensity to pull linemen around from just about every spot on the line; At Minnesota, we only pull with our guards and almost always inside the tackle box. It certainly begs the question: if versatility with pulling linemen was a large part of the reason NIU had multiple 1st Team All-MAC linemen and were more explosive in the ground game, why have we not seen our line building towards that?
Think about this for a moment. Jon Christenson starts at center for the Gophers, a former walk-on. He doesn't pull -- ever. His backup is Tommy Olson, a guy who used to start at left guard since his true freshman year but who also has an injured plagued career. He was widely regarded as one of the more devastating run blocking guards in his recruiting class, and he has shown an ability to not only pull, but get to the second line on zone blocks. When does Limegrover make the call to go with a guy with more physical ability but tends to be injury prone? It wouldn't be necessarily a bad move, considering you know what you have with JC at center.
What about Isaac Hayes at right guard? Hayes was another highly regarded prospect known for playing with a tenacious run blocking attitude. If power running is the goal, when does Hayes start to creep up the depth chart over another former walk-on in Caleb Bak? Is that a red flag in and of itself: two former walk-ons as starters along the interior line?
Whatever the case may be, Limegrover hasn't exactly the same adaptability to the Big Ten that his coordinator peer in the booth has displayed since arriving in Dinkytown. Claeys' scheme is certainly unique among defenses in the Big Ten, though he seems to have figured out what it takes to avoid getting bombed on -- a base level of DC competence that Minnesota generally hasn't been afforded the last decade. Claeys also can rely upon his assistants to coach their specific position units while giving himself more time to think about the big picture. The bigger question for Limegrover: does the dual responsibility of OC and OL coach duties hinder his ability to do both?
The most uncomfortable question of all: does a minor shuffling of the deck need to occur on the offensive side of the ball, or does Kill's loyalty win out? That will determine Kill's level of success at Minnesota more directly than "other" uncomfortable questions will.