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Gopher Football in review - what happened to pounding the rock?

Duane Bennet.
Duane Bennet.

It was just about a year ago that we began hearing the phrase "Pound the Rock" coming out of the Gopher football program. After seeing the offense finish last in the Big Ten in rushing this became the catalyst for change at the offensive coordinator position and the emphasis to return to a power run game was the stated goal.

The goal was put out there but the mission was not accomplished. What actually transpired was yet another 11th place Big Ten finish in rushing yards and actually fewer rushing attempts from 2008. The Gopher rushing attack was once the pride and the identity of the program. But the Tim Brewster era has seen the rushing game dwindle and dwindle with each passing year. The offense as a whole and the passing game on it's own have their issues as well but the running game should be a bit simpler and for me it comes down to this. If you want to run the football, then run the football. This is much more about a choice than it is about execution and talent.

After a 2008 season that saw the fewest rushing attempts and rushing yards in recent memory, 2009 was worse.

Rushing Attempts Total Yards Yds/Game Big Ten Rank
2007 433 1941 161.8 7th
2008 436 1350 103.8 11th
2009 430 1293 99.5 11th

To me the above chart is inexcusable. In 2008 the rushing game was bad and it was widely understood that something needed to change. Well the offensive coordinator changed and improving the ground game was given lip-service but it regressed. I'm more OK with the the reduction of production. What is truly inexcusable is that we actually had fewer rushing attempts in 2009.

I recognize, with the rest of you, that the offensive line struggled for much of the year and our running backs are not going to remind anyone of the Barber-oni years. BUT running the ball is a choice and we made the choice to abandoned that early and often in 2009.

The lack of actual commitment to the running game became obvious very early in the season. The game at Syracuse would have been a perfect game to establish an identity, build some rushing confidence and control the game after an early lead was given to the Gophers.

  • First possession of the game after a Syracuse fumble. Incomplete pass on play one, followed by a 16 yard run by Bennett to take the very early 7-0 lead. A big run by our lead back. Should have been an indication that we CAN run and we WILL run until Syracuse stops us.
  • Second possession. Deep pass to Decker sets up 1st and goal on 5. Run on first down for 3 yards. 2nd and goal on the 2. A team that has talked about pounding the rock for months would do just that and pound it out and get 6 more points from two yards out. But we passed on 2nd, incomplete. False start on 3rd moving us back to the 7. Pass on 3rd for a touchdown. We'll take the points but clearly this is not a team truly dedicated to running the ball.
  • Third possession. Three straight runs to get things going. Rush for 3, rush for 9, rush for 3. That left us with 2nd and 7, and what did we do from there? Incomplete pass, incomplete pass, punt. Why not stick with the run?
  • Fifth possession, this is the one that killed me. Rush for 9 followed by a rush for 10. So what do we do after gashing Syracuse for 19 yards on two carries on the ground? Of course we pass...incomplete. Run for a loss on 2nd and interception on third and long.

I realize that there has to be a balance to keep teams off balance. I would not have been pleased to see 15 straight rushes at 2.5 yards per attempt. But early in the game there were indications that we'd be able to run the ball effectively and almost at will. We also had opportunities to pound out short-yardage situations and chose to go to the air (see second possession). Ultimately we gave up on the run too early and never dictated the physicality and tempo of the game like we talked about doing.

There were games where the ground game was VERY effective. Northwestern and Purdue are the easy examples. In those two wins we averaged 43 carries, 186.5 yards and a 4.3 per carry average. In those games it was a clear emphasis. We came out and ran the ball until they stopped us, which didn't happen very often. Even down 10-0 early in the Purdue game we came out running the ball to set up a couple key pass plays. Our first scoring drive was an 8 play, 84 yard drive. Six plays were runs and just two were through the air, both completions. The game saw Weber actually attempt only 9 total passes. The Northwestern game had the Gophers trailing as the 4th qtr began and they went to the ground. 19 rushing attempts to 6 pass attempts in the 4th quarter yielded 14 points and a lot of minutes. The Gophers ended the game in victory formation.

Again, other factors are clearly involved. The NU and Purdue rush defenses are not the same as what we saw at Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa. But the fact remains we rarely attempted to truly establish the run. We rarely pounded the rock. And the end result was a worse year rushing than we saw in 2008.

So what does this mean for 2009? Who knows. As I eluded above, I believe that fixing the ground game is far less complicated than fixing the passing game. Our running backs are not great backs who will be playing on Sunday's in a couple years, but they are capable if given the chance. This comes down to better OL blocking and an actual commitment to running the ball with the play-calling. Run blocking is an attitude and an opportunity for the liemen to dictate the tempo. It is more force and less finesse. Guys like Jeff Wills, who struggled in pass protection, should be salivating to maul the man in front of him. I'm no OL coach, but this shouldn't be too complicated. Fisch needs to let these guys get into a rhythm on offense and maybe get the defensive line on their heels before we go to the air.

Maybe the talent is just not there. Maybe trying to force the run game would leave the offense in too many 3rd and long situations which would lead to punts, turnovers and lackluster production. But here's the thing, our offense already had too many 3rd and longs, punted far too often, turned the ball over and really didn't produce much. 2010 really needs to see more than just lip-service paid to the ground game. I'm not expecting to be one of the most feared rushing attacks in the country again, but something respectable and something that can aid the passing game is the least we should expect. The 2010 schedule is brutal, getting some traction on the ground will go a long way towards controlling clock and keeping yourself in games against some very good opponents. Year 4 of the Brewster era and more importantly year 2 of the Fisch offense needs to yield better results on the ground.