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Minnesota Football: Loss to Illinois Proves Gopher's Margin for Error is Slim

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All three of their most recent three games have been very close, and the Gophers came out on the right end of things on two of them. It shows how slim the margin for error is for Minnesota this season, and to get another win in November, it's not going to be easy.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

No "Seven Things" post from me the past couple of weeks (mostly due to sick baby/sick wife/sick me) but also because the only seven things I could really come up with from the Illinois game were:

1) That sucked

2) I hated it

3) That was terrible

4) No really, that sucked

5) I am already dreading the Iowa game

6) Man I hate Iowa

7) Did the Gophers really just lose to Illinois?

It was definitely a stunning loss, and one I'm still not over almost two weeks later. I won't dwell on it long I promise, but if you were wearing Maroon and Gold (or mostly Maroon and White) that day either as a player or a coach, you can share the blame in this loss. I mean really, it's not difficult to find failings in this one: Cobb will get more blame than deserved but he did fumble that football in the fourth quarter. The offensive line was pretty offensive for a lot of that game, especially the first half. Mitch wasn't "Bad Mitch" or "No Confidence Mitch" from the first three games of the season, but he wasn't as good as he was the past three games, and quite simply wasn't as good as he needed to be. And the four sacks? Especially that last one? Yeesh. Santoso missed a 40 yard field goal he usually bangs through. The defense gave up three long scoring drives. Etc etc blah blah you get the idea.

While Illinois deserved to win that game, with all that went wrong for Minnesota they still only lost by a field goal. If even one or two of those aformentioned things go right, it's very plausible that Minnesota escapes with a victory and we're all breathing a sigh of relief while being 4-0 in the conference and feeling good about beating Iowa and picking up a few more wins. You know, just like the previous two victories over Purdue and Northwestern where the Gophers survived and did just enough good things to win. The defense got murdered in the first half vs the Boilers but thankfully the offense kept pace enough to keep them in it, then the team outplayed Purdue enough in the second to win by ONE POINT on a 52 yard Santoso boot. In the win over Northwestern the Wildcats controlled a lot of that game but thanks to the Jalen Myrick kick return TD and the defense tightening up when they needed to the Gophers got the seven point win.

All three of their most recent three games have been very close, and the Gophers came out on the right end of things on two of them. Had something gone against them in the Purdue game (Santoso misses the game winner) or Northwestern (Myrick doesn't house that kickoff) the Gophers could easily be 0-3. Or, despite the Cobb fumble that was returned for the winning score vs Illinois, the Gophers still had the ball 1st and 10 from the Illini 26 with under three minutes to play and if they punch it in on that drive, they could also be 3-0. Of their four conference games the Michigan victory is the only one where they clearly outplayed the opposition, otherwise, it's come down to a few plays here or there, most of which have gone Minnesota's way.

We've said since early in the season this team has a good defense and special teams, and how well the offense plays will be a major factor in how well the Gophers do in the B1g, and for the most part that's been true. Because Kill insists on running a ball-control, risk-averse "better to keep the ball a long time and not score than score quickly" scheme that goes against what pretty much everyone else in college football is doing (well at least everyone else outside the B1G), it's meant a close game vs the Big Ten and power 5 schools. And by close, I mean "if the Gophers want to win". Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois are far from the best teams in the conference, yet Minnesota is 2-1 with a point differential of only +4. Until the defense takes yet another leap and becomes elite, or if the offense ever gains consistency, then what we've seen the last three games tells us that Minnesota's margin for error is slim- and that perhaps the Illinois loss isn't so shocking after all.

SOMETHING HAS CHANGED WITH THE DEFENSE SINCE THE MICHIGAN GAME

Look, the defense is not a big issue on this team right now. They've been very good for a majority of the season, and in that Illinois game, I know they ONLY allowed three offensive scores while holding allowing 14 points in the first quarter was jarring, as on two of the first three Illini drives the Gophers allowed 149 yards on 18 plays. Yet, after that second touchdown with still under three minutes to go in the first quarter, that was essentially it for the Illini offense. The results of their next 11 possessions after that:

3 plays for -1 yards; PUNT
3 plays for 2 yards; PUNT
3 plays for 5 yards; PUNT
1 play for 2 yards; HALF
2 plays for -17 yards; FUMBLE RECOVERY BY DAMIEN WILSON
9 plays for 75 yards; TOUCHDOWN
5 plays for 35 yards; PUNT
6 plays for 6 yards; PUNT
5 plays for 18 yards; PUNT
3 plays for 1 yard; PUNT
3 plays for 0 yards; PUNT

So Illinois had the ball 14 total times in the game, 13 if we exclude the one play drive that ended before the half. Of those 13, three went for at least 74 yards and all of those went for touchdowns. Of the remaining 10, one ended in the fumble recovery after just two plays. The other eight drives all ended in punts, and of those six were three and outs. That's domination- or at least mostly. While it's hard to fault the defense for only allowing three offensive scores, those three long touchdown drives have been part of a disturbing trend that began with the Northwestern game a month ago.

Prior to the Northwestern game Minnesota's defense was generally not allowing those long, sustained drives for touchdowns. Earlier in the year, as well as most of last season, the defense did a great job of doing the "bend but don't break" thing, where they would limit the big plays, and force field goals or turnovers instead of drives ending in touchdowns. When opposing teams did score, it was usually due to a short field. This was the case in the first five games of the season as Minnnesota allowed just four opponent scoring drives of 70 yards or longer:

1 74 yard TD drive to Michigan

1 75 yard TD drive to SJSU

1 80 yd TD drive vs MTSU in garbage time

1 75 yd TD drive vs EIU in garbage time

Of those four, only the one vs SJSU didn't come in garbage time or the fourth quarter when Minnesota was ahead by more than two touchdowns, and that ended up being the only score SJSU got the entire day. Even in the loss to TCU, just about all of their scoring was done on short fields thank to Minnesota's 5 turnovers on the day. The Gophers were doing what they were designed to do, it was working pretty well.

But the past three games in wins over Northwestern and Purdue and the loss to Illinois, things have changed as they've allowed a whopping NINE scoring drives of 70 yards or more:

3 70+ yd drives vs Northwestern (2 TDs and a FG)

3 of at least 70 yds vs Purdue (all TD's)

3 of 74+ vs Illinois (ditto)

I'm not smart enough to know why this is happening, just that it has. Hitting the tough November slate starting tomorrow with Iowa, it's going to be imperative that the D gets back to doing what they did prior to Northwestern with limiting big plays and long scoring drives (long as in yardage, not time) if the Gophers have hopes of picking up more regular season wins.   

THE OFFENSE CONTINUES TO BE CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT

Since the beginning of the 2013 season the Gophers are 7-7 in 14 games vs Power 5 conference opponents. Honestly, that seems about right based on what we know and experienced these past two years. 14 games worth of data shows that the offense remains a work in progress- to say the least. In year four of the Kill/Limegrover offense, the Gophers are still having difficulty establishing an identity and imposing their will on opponents. Oh sure they want to be a power run team, but the numbers generally don't support it: in those 14 games starting with Iowa in 2013 and up to last week vs Illinois, Minnesota is only averaging 163.6 rush yards at just 3.624 yards per carry with barely one rushing score per game. That is...less than I had hoped. In their five games vs Power 5 opponents in 2014 (including TCU), they're trending better with an average of  176.4 yards per carry at 4.05 per carry. Not dominant, not great, but slowly improving.

Not surprisingly the pass offense continues to struggle in those 14 games averaging 171 yards at 52% completions for 1 TD and 1 pick. In 2014 vs P5 it's an average of 178.8 yards at 53% completion and exactly a 1/1 TD to INT ratio. Another year in the Limegrover offense, and the numbers when it matters are only a slight improvement on year three- and the four toughest B1G games are still to come.

The most troubling number for me, or the one that best tells just how slim the margin for error for Minnesota, is that in those 14 games since 2013 the Gophers are averaging just a shade under 21 points per game while the opposition averages 24. More than that, of those 21 points the offense- via TD's and FG's- is accounting for a little over 17 of them. We've heard Tracey Claeys and his D say a few times their goal is to hold the opposition to 17 points or less, which is fine if your offense can give you 20+ per game. But when they're only giving you 17 of their own it's putting an enormous amount of pressure on the D and special teams to be perfect.

I'm not calling for change in offensive philosophy yet (fine, I'd LOVE to see a TCU-like switch to the Air Raid), as this offense-especially at the skill positions- is still pretty young. David Cobb has turned into a star, Maxx Williams is the best tight end in the B1G, Mitch Leidner has shown some definite signs of progress, and the offensive line is mammoth with plenty of depth. There are plenty of positives to look at and signs that can lead you to believe progress is happening and the offense will improve. And look, this philsophy can work and it HAS worked for Kill and Limegrover in their time at Minnesota- but only for half of their games vs Power Five teams since 2013.

As long as we have this offensive philosophy at Minnesota, the past three games against Northwestern, Purdue, and Illinois give a good idea of what to expect for at least the rest of this year. To not just register another win in 2014 but to stay competitive with Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and this Saturday vs Iowa, the margin for error is slim- the Gophers can win, but they're going to need plenty to go right for it to happen.