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Minnesota Football: Nelson and Gopher Offense Making Strides in Past Two Games

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

The midpoint of the 2013 season was only a month ago, and my how things have changed since then. At that time we here at TDG skipped the usual "midseason review" that most reputable blogs post, mostly in the interest of not killing ourselves. After back-to-back bad losses to Iowa and Michigan the Gophers were 4-2 overall and quickly 0-2 in the B1G, and nobody wanted to write a midseason review talking about how the program has stagnated, improvement hadn't been made, and that we had no idea when our head coach was coming back.

Three games, and three wins later, Minnesota has already eclipsed last season's win total of six, and has their sights set on much bigger things. While they've played better in all facets, the offensive improvement has been the most notable. The past two games, when the Gophers scored 34 on Nebraska and 42 on Indiana, is the first time since 2009 that the Gopher offense has scored at least 30 points in back-to-back Big Ten games. On Halloween 2009 they hung 42 on Michigan State in a win and in typical Tim Brewster fashion followed that up the next week with 32 points against Illinois- in a loss (just for fun, the last three games of that season the Gophers scored 16, 0, and 13 points. Ahhh the Brewster Era. I do not miss it. And to give credit where credit is due, the last time before 2009 that Minnesota scored at least 30 in back-to-back B1G games was 2006- the season Glen Mason got fired- when they won their last three B1G games of the season 63-26 over IU, 31-18 vs Sparty and 34-24 vs f***ing Iowa).

My biggest frustration at the midpoint of this season was the offense, as the Gophers seemed intent to run and run then throw some incomplete passes. There was little to no creativity, and I was wondering (often out loud), whether this offensive system and scheme could work in the B1G. The 20-17 win over Northwestern was at least a win but far from a breakthrough as the Gophers managed 299 total yards and just one offensive TD. David Cobb at least had 103 yards (on 5.2 YPC) and Philip Nelson was an efficient 8-11 for 129 yards and 1 TD with no turnovers.

The breakout came the following week in the 34-23 upset of Nebraska, in a game that was so incredible to watch not just for the drama and for the victory, but because I couldn't believe this was the same Gopher offense we were watching. Jer and I kept looking at each other in section 214 and asking "Can this really be Limegrover?!?" It wasn't just the yardage total of 430, but the way they got them. We saw pre-snap motion on just about every play, a heavy dose of the jet sweep, and finally some confident and aggressive play-calling (PN9 was 7-15 for 152 yds passing, 1 TD and again no turnovers, though his receivers dropped some easy passes).

In last Saturday's 42-39 win vs Indiana thankfully the play-calling was as good or better than the week before (and perhaps at times even TOO aggressive, but I'll gladly take that trade off), there was plenty of pre-snap motion, the running game- and especially David Cobb- rolled again, and best of all, we finally saw the passing game make the jump. Nelson had a career day completing 16-23 passes (the first time all season a Minnesota QB attempted at least 20 passes) for 298 yards, four TD's and once again no picks. Cobb also had a career day with 196 yards rushing, a TD (6.5 YPC) and another 48 yards receiving. Derek Engel almost had a 100 yard day snagging four passes for 97 yards and two scores, and was one of four receivers with at least 48 yards. There were fumbles, drops, and stagnation in the second half, but overall it was a really good day.

Obviously we're dealing with a REALLY small sample size of two games, but the changes and improvements certainly look real, and what we're seeing right now would look much different from the hypothetical midseason report on the offense that we didn't do. What are they doing differently? A few thoughts and observations...

All off-season we talked about the importance of the health of the offensive line, a unit that had been decimated by injuries the past two seasons. This group had size, plenty of depth and experience, and we believed also some talent, but they needed to stay healthy to gel as a group and start performing like a legit B1G offensive line. They had looked just ok through the non-con then awful vs Iowa as the Hawkeyes front seven pushed them around like Pop Warner kids, then not much better against Michigan. But the past three weeks they've just gotten better and better, and a lot of the holes David Cobb has run through have been of the "large enough to drive a truck through" variety. I'm not smart enough to know what's changed between Iowa and Indiana, but they're opening holes, protecting the QB, and keeping penalties and dumb mistakes to a minimum.

OT Josh Campion, guards Zac Epping and Caleb Bak, and center Jon Christenson have started all nine games, and while three different LT's have started this season, it's been performance-based, not because of injury. Christenson's broken leg vs Indiana was the first significant injury, and while his loss will certainly be felt, the hope is former highly-touted high school recruit Tommy Olson will start living up to that reputation and play well at center. Matt, or someone more well-versed in O-line play, would be able to tell you better than me how Tommy the Tank performed, but to my eyes Olson looked pretty good in the second half after replacing the injured Christenson. His older brother Ed looks to be finally healthy and has played well at LT the past few weeks, and is playing up the level you'd expect of a fifth year senior that has started games since his freshman season. It's a group of big ol' Midwestern kids that are all over 300 pounds, the likes of which we've been used to seeing at Wisconsin and Iowa and Nebraska, and they're playing well in Maroon and Gold. While trying to avoid hyperbole and making too big of a deal of just two or three have to be excited about how the O-line is playing. And besides Eddie, EVERYBODY else is back (I had to double-check Epping, because it seems like he's been here for six years already. Nope, just a RS junior) next season.

This is the second straight season that the Gophers' best running back has come from way down the depth chart. In 2012 Donnell Kirkwood was coming off an injury-riddled 2011 season and was just fighting for playing time, but ended up being by far the team's best back. This season, both Kirkland and Roderick Nugget Williams were the top two returning backs, yet injuries to Donnell and injuries/off-field stuff for Nugget left the door wide open for Cobb. And boy did he run through it. Three straight 100 yards games, including a career high 188 last week, have Cobb at 803 yards and six rushing TD's for the season at an impressive 5.4 YPC. With three games remaining he has a very strong chance of being the first Gopher RB since Amir Pinnix in 2006 to run for 1000 yards in the regular season, though considering how dominant Sparty's D has been, he might want to get that milestone before the last game of the season in East Lansing (and I know the NCAA has counted bowl stats for awhile, but I'd still love to see him break 1000 yards before the bowl game. Maybe it's me).

Cobb has always had the ability, but he's finally putting everything together as the coaches can trust him this season to play every down, know all the plays, and pass protect when need be. He doesn't have home-run speed, but he's faster than Kirkland or Nugget, yet at 225 pounds still runs with plenty of power. He's been decisive in finding the hole and running through it, and thanks to his line has often times been getting to the second level before a defender can get a hand on him. He's jumped to fourth in the B1G in rushing yards and is fifth in yards per game (89.2), and if he keeps this up the junior has a legit shot at getting all-conference honors.

The Gophers have their bell cow in Cobb, and know they can trust both Kirkland and Nugget to change it up. And just think- not only are all three back next year, but you're also adding the home run threat in Berkley Edwards and a potential stud in Jeff Jones (crossing my finger and toes as a I type that).

PN9 has finally established himself as QB1. Mitch Leidner continues to prove he's a capable replacement when called upon, but has thus far been much more effective as the "Moose" running the ball rather than passing. Which is fine. Prior to the three game winning streak, there wasn't much differentiating Moose from Nelson, but we're finally seeing a confident Nelson leading the team and throwing the ball better and better, while Leidner is clearly a weapon running the ball. Nelson's numbers for the season aren't eye-popping by any means, and I'm not expecting him to start throwing for 290+ yards every week, but thanks to better play-calling and perhaps just finally being healthy, we're starting to see the healthy, confident and efficient Philip Nelson we hoped he could be.

His completion % for the year is still barely above 55%, but he now has a 2-1 TD to INT ratio (8-4), and as Matt tweeted, in his past four games he's playing great football:

Matt H. @MVofDT

Kato Jesus has completed 63% of his passes for 11.5 YPA, 6 TDs, 0 INTs and 2 rushing TDs since the Iowa game.

That's only a four game sample size, but that's also a TRUE SOPHOMORE. Really, really encouraging things from Nelson in the past month, and you should be legitimately excited about his prospects for this season and beyond.

After a slow start to the season, mostly from the lack of passes, Derek Engel has developed into a legit #1 receiver for this offense. While he needs to cut down a few bad drops we've seen in recent weeks, he's had a TD catch in five of his past six games, and has made some huge catches when the offense has needed it. Redshirt Frosh TE Maxx Williams has been an absolute revelation, and still leads the team in yards per catch at 16.7. For a tight end! I can't rationally talk about Maxx's potential here, but let's just say I'm beyond giddy. Far beyond it. He's 5'4 6'4, 255+ and is only going to get better and stronger as his career progresses.

Speaking of freshmen, we're seeing two of them emerge. Finally. Drew Wolitarsky had zero catches in the non-con, but has caught at least one pass for 15 yards in four of five B1G games. He's getting a lot of reps and not only is he gaining more confidence, but Nelson seems to be gaining confidence in him. Then there's Donovahn Jones, a 6'3 beast who's one of the team's fastest and best athletes, and Nelson and the team are finally recognizing it. Being a true freshman, his lack of touches until the Nebraska game may have just been him being slow to pick up the offense or learn the college game, but it looks like he's getting there now. Against Nebraska, Limegrover showcased him on the jet sweep with four carries for 42 yards.

Last week they finally got him involved in the passing game with three catches for 59 yards. The most impressive to me was his last catch, a big third down conversion for 17 yards on Minnesota's final drive. He was not just in the game in a crucial situation, but he looked to run a good route and Nelson trusted him enough to deliver the ball and Jones caught it. As you can probably tell, I'm a wee bit excited for Jones' prospects too, and he's a legit weapon that should continue to add an explosive element to this offense and for years to come.

Last but not least is the offensive coordinator. Mr Limegrover, I doubted you, and I'm sorry. He's proven the past two games he can call a creative, dynamic, and effective offense, and not only does he seem to have more confidence in this offense, but so do his players. Again, I am not an X's and O's guy by any means, but a big change I've noticed with Nelson at QB is not just the pre-snap motion, which obviously keeps the defense guessing and seems to have added a great wrinkle to his schemes. The big thing seems to be the way he's opened up the run for Cobb between the tackles. In his first two and a half seasons calling plays, Limegrover's been trying to keep defenses from stacking the box and the middle of the line by running the read-option with the quarterback. MarQueis Gray, Moose Leidner and even Nelson have been pretty successful running it, and have all picked up good yardage. But it also leads to far too much exposure for the QB to get hit when he's running the ball a lot.

While it's always been in the playbook, Limey has seemed to solve this problem with the jet sweep, as he gave Nebraska a heavy dose of it and, as he saw in his research of the Wisconsin drubbing of the Huskers in the B1G title game last year, NU couldn't stop it. Not only that, but it then gave Cobb more room to run and the line less people to block between the tackles. We've also seen far more play-action and rollouts with Nelson, which again forces the defense to defend the edges and makes them load the tackle box at their own peril. Nelson only carried the ball six times (the seventh carry was a sack because the NCAA rule that sacks count as QB rush yards is stupid) in the win over IU and seven vs Nebraska (8 total with one being a sack), making that play more effective for him when he runs it, and allowing him to run less.

Leidner continues to run the ball a lot when he's in, but as we're seeing, that's his game and he's good at it, and at 240 pounds, runs more like a fullback than a QB. Overall, Limegrover is finding different ways to get his players to the edges and make the defense respect it so that it gives Cobb more room to run between the tackles. I'm excited to see what Limegrover has in store for Penn State this Saturday, and see if this offense can eclipse 400 total yards for the third week in a row.