REPEAT AFTER ME: KILL'S #1 FOCUS ON OFFENSE IS MITIGATING RISK
Kill believed his best chance at victory was passing as little as possible while relying on the running game and defense to win. And it worked splendidly. As I said last week and need to come to grips with, this staff doesn't believe in running the same offense week-to-week. They do not care that they've had a horrible year passing the football thus far- Kill is clearly fine working on that in practice, and doing what is necessary to win in games. The recipe for success this week was to run the ball down their throats and when the offense found success early with the read-option they just kept going back to it. Again and again and again. Maybe they don't run the read-option in the Mountain West, maybe San Jose State's D is just that bad, and/or maybe the Gopher offensive line decided to finally start playing up to potential. Whatever it was, there was no reason for Minnesota to do anything else because the Spartans had no answer for it all day long.
If you can win running basically two plays all game long, why wouldn't you? Worry about next week next week. Of course Kill and Coach Limegrover and staff know they can't just run the same play over and over and beat Michigan Saturday, but that's another game and another game plan. For this one, the best way to mitigate risk was to throw the ball as little as possible. And it worked.
WE WON'T KNOW TIL SATURDAY WHETHER STREVELER CAN THROW, BUT HE SURE KNOWS HOW TO RUN THE READ-OPTION
I am far from an offensive expert, but I came away impressed from that game with how well Streveler made the right decision on the read-option time after time after time. Now sure, you could argue how hard was it when SJSU's D looked that bad, but there's something to be said for how often he made the right decision to give it to Cobb or keep it. Watching that game it just seemed like every time Streveler scanned the defense and put the ball into Cobb's ribs he knew exactly when to hand it off or pull it back and go.
And went he went, boy did he. Streveler is fast. He's a different type of athlete than Q for certain as he's not the physical freak that the old #5 was, but certainly you saw on Saturday why the coaches thought Streveler would fit so well for them at QB. He not only makes good decisions with the ball, but he's REALLY fast to the edge. Again, it's not going to be that easy against better, bigger, and faster B1G defenses, but he present an element in the run game that Moose even at 100% does not, which is a threat to get around the corner to daylight every time he keeps it.
With Leidner, you know his best running is up the middle, so whether he's handing off or keeping, the run play is generally staying in the tackle box. But with Streveler's wheels, he makes the outside contain guys pause on whether to help inside or not because Cobb was gashing them between the tackles while Streveler was sprinting for big gains outside. It's a nice wrinkle to add to the offense, and I hope just that threat of a faster QB allows Limey to go deeper into his playbook.
SO WHAT WILL WE SEE SATURDAY FROM THE OFFENSE?
Look, I have no idea. Judging by the track record of this staff, I don't know how anyone else really can either. As Matt detailed last week in Charts and Chalk, when facing better teams Limey has had a strange habit of going away from the power running game in favor of...well...let's just say less than favorable results. Instead of mixing in the pass out of run-heavy TE sets he tries to run a lot out of 3 and 4 WR sets like they did vs TCU or Iowa last year. It fools no one. Perhaps Steveler's inexperience will actually benefit things here as he won't know the full playbook as well as Leidner did, so perhaps here's hoping/praying they'll stick to what he's good at and comfortable with while mixing in a few different looks. Like maybe some shi(f)ts and motion and those...what do you call them...forward pass throwing...play pass...not-running play...well you get the idea.
Michigan is struggling mightily on offense (vs Power 5 schools at least) but all those highly touted recruits on defense have been good. Minnesota- like any functioning offense- will need to force the Wolverines to play sideline-to-sideline. We have seen basically zero bubble screens or wide receiver screens of any kind, but that doesn't mean they're not in the playbook (right...RIGHT?!?!), and they can be so effective out of the gun that the Gophs had so much success with this past week. It would be a great way to get their playmakers like KJ Maye, Berkley Edwards, and Donovahn Jones the ball out in space.
It's basic football and I know the coaches know this it's just that...well we don't have much of a track record to go on here, especially lately.
WHAT WE DO KNOW IS COBB IS GOING TO GET THE BALL UNTIL HIS LEGS FALL OFF
Wait, with all the injuries maybe that's not the best phrasing- Cobb is going to get the ball, and get it a lot. Through four games if we've seen anything it's that this staff trusts Cobb implicitly. The other backs? Yeah not so much. Whether trailing, in a close game, or ahead big, they've kept Cobb in the game no matter the situation. His 92 carries ties him for third most in the entire country with Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, and Cobb's 539 rushing yards is sixth in the nation. He's been carrying the mail and then some. The next two guys on Minnesota's carries list behind Cobb are the two QB's- Streveler with 31, Moose with 21. After that it's Berkley at 16 and Donnell Kirkwood and Roderick Nugget Williams have 10 each. That's it.
Berkley is averaging a very nice 5.8 yards per carry. Please, please let's find more ways to get him the ball. Both Nugget and Kirkland have struggled however, though they haven't had much of an opportunity to show improvement. It looks like Cobb will get every opportunity to be an all-conference back this season, and if it doesn't happen for him it certainly won't be for a lack of carries.
WHAT WAS WITH THE PENALTIES?
A dominant run game and defense, sound special teams, 1 completed pass...and 10 penalities? One of these things is not pattened Jerry Kill Football. What a strange, strange day for flags. How often do you see the home team dominate the game but get called for 10 penalties while the opponent had none? Prior to this game Minnesota was only averaging four penalties for 38 yards per game, so this was definitely out of character. Some of it can be chalked up to some newer faces getting playing time due to all the injuries. The rest probably just strange luck or "one of those games". I'd be shocked if we saw another 10 penalty game from Minnesota the rest of the year.
Then there was the "targeting" personal foul/unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on Damarius Travis in the third quarter after he layed out SJSU tailback Jarrod Lawson. Watching it live it looked like a clean and vicious hit as Travis caught Lawson squarely just as he was coming out of a spin move. Watching it on replay it looked...like a clean and vicious hit. Look, I get we're trying to better protect players from concussions and want to try and eliminate unnecessary head shots, but last I checked this is still tackle football and defenders should still be allowed to tackle. Travis had the angle, put his shoulder down and caught Lawson perfectly. From everything I saw he did NOT target the head, but because Lawson's head snapped back suddenly this is a penalty. Like just about every drive the Spartans had the penalty didn't matter as the Gophers would block a field goal try four plays later, but I still hate calls like this. It's tackle football and players are going to get tackled.
THE DEFENSE WAS EXCEPTIONAL
What a performance from the defense. They held San Jose State to just 7 points on 254 yards of total offense at just 3.9 yards per play, and also forced a whopping FIVE turnovers. They also notched nine TFL's and three sacks, and last year's sack leader Theiren Cockrane finally got on the board with his first sack. Minnesota forcing turnovers has been a nice step forward thus far, as they lead all B1G teams with 7 picks and 6 fumble recoveries through the first four games. That's a great start to the season considering they had 10 picks and 9 fumble recoveries all of last year.
Also of note was for the first time this season a Gopher opponent had the same number of plays ran as the Gopher offense at 65 apiece, meaning the defense was on the field a lot less than they had been the previous three weeks. Part of that is the defense playing so well, part of it is the Gophs' offense playing so well too.
THE MICHIGAN GAME IS WINNABLE- BUT LET'S NOT GET OVERCONFIDENT
Yes, Michigan is in trouble. Yes, their offense has basically been a train wreck. Yes, if Minnesota wins we really could see Brady Hoke fired on Monday. But through all of this their defense has actually been really good, and beating the Wolverines for the first time since 2005 will mean getting another monster game from the defense and the best game we've seen yet from the offense. This will be an old-fashioned defense first and three-yards-and-a-cloud dust kind of offensive game from both teams. Michigan's run offense has been better than you think (average of 211 yards per game at 5.6 per carry) and I still have nightmares of Devin Gardner torching Minnesota the last two times they've played. And that's the thing- Michigan was 3-9 in 2008 and 5-7 in 2009 and the Gophers had better records than the Wolverines both years. Of course, Minnesota still lost both times to Michigan. Chalk it up to Tim Brewster if you want, but Michign seems to have the Gophers number, so be wary of overconfidence here.
Yes, this is a game Minnesota can win against a good defense and an offense that has struggled vs BCS opponents. But just remember Michigan is thinking exactly the same thing.