The Gophers held on for a closer-than-we'd-like (but not as close as Iowa) 35-24 victory over Middle Tennessee State on perhaps the best September Saturday TCF Bank Stadium has had the pleasure of hosting (Seriously, how amazing was the weather Saturday? Just spectacular). While most of the talk post game has been about the left knee injury and uncertain status of starting quarterback Mitch Leidner, my biggest takeaway from this game, besides the fact the Gophers seem to be cursed with QB health, was something else:
JERRY KILL ONLY PASSES BECAUSE HE HAS TO, NOT BECAUSE HE WANTS TO
And as we enter year four of Jerrysota, I need to be OK with this because it's a philosophy that is likely not going to change. Last Saturday the Gophers were up 28-0 at halftime, and had just flat walloped MTSU. The offense had rolled while the defense had dominated, and the second half seemed to be only a formality on the way to a 2-0 start. Now as a fan, all I have to go on is what I see in games, and what we've seen in games in the Kill Era is a struggling passing game. To appease my fears of another horrific season trying desperately to throw the ball only when they desperately need to throw it, this second half seemed like the perfect time to work on a few basic passing plays to build the confidence of Leidner, his receivers, and perhaps the fan base in general.
Some teams would look at a big halftime lead against an inferior opponent as just that- an opportunity to work on some things in a live game environment, which is a valuable experience and teaching tool for the players. They trust the defense enough to keep the other team in check, and IF something crazy happens and the opposition starts to get frisky, they can always go back to what they did in the first half that got them the huge lead in the first place. Nebraska unfortunately did exactly this to Minnesota in Kill's first year in 2011 when they had a 34-0 halftime lead, and instead of sitting on the ball the entire second half, they tried to pass the ball because Taylor "Arm Punt" Martinez couldn't throw well. Now sure, it didn't worked out well over the long haul as ol' Arm Punt never really figured out the throwing thing, but you get the idea.
What I need to come to grips with is that the Gophers as coached by Kill and OC Matt Limegrover do not believe in this. Jerry Kill believes in mitigating risk, and if he has a big lead he's going to trust his defense enough to keep it for him while his offense tries to not turn the ball over and run out the clock. And that means running- on basically EVERY play. The clock and turning the ball over become his mortal enemies because in his mind, those are the two things that stand in the way of him getting to victory the fastest. And regardless of what we or anyone else thinks of his passing game, the time to work on it is in practice, not up 28-0 on a team you curb stomped in the first half.
Obviously, the strategy worked. The Gophers attempted just two passes the entire second half (both incompletions to KJ Maye), and while MTSU got off an estimated 45 second half plays to Minnesota's 30 (most of which were punts. Or at least it seemed that way) the defense held (enough) and the offense just ran David Cobb down the throats of MTSU. And Minnesota won by 11. That second pass attempt was when Leidner got hurt, and there was no way in hell Kill was going to let backup Chris Streveler attempt a pass in the fourth quarter, even if he could be the starting QB Saturday and could maybe, possibly, sort of use game reps to build his confidence in preparation for that.
Or not, because again, that is not how Kill and Co operate. This is his MO and I don't see it changing, and as a fan of this team, I probably just need to accept that. I remain concerned that not attempting more passes in games is going to lead to the same struggles we've seen here in Kill's 3+ seasons, but with yet another starting QB injured, that point becomes moot for the time being. Still, for the long term or at least for 2014, is this a strategy to rethink, or does what he's seeing behind the scenes in practice- the things we fans don't get to see- give him enough confidence that it will get better? I have my doubts that this strategy that worked in previous stops in
lesser conferences (...checks Big Ten scores from Saturday...) comparable conferences will continue to work against what should be much better defenses and opponents than he's seen previously. The team's horrible QB injury luck certainly isn't helping things either, but bottom line, this is just how this staff operates, whether the opponent is MTSU or a Big Ten foe. And for my sanity, I probably need to learn to accept this.
HAVING SAID THAT, HOLY DAVID COBB!!!
I kept waiting for Cobb to be pulled in the second half to rest one of their most important offensive players, but #27 kept coming out again and again, and again and again he got the ball. 29 carries later Cobb had two TD's and a single game personal best of 220 yards. For the mathematically challenged that's a whopping 7.6 yards per carry. Kill likes to mitigate risk, but playing your top running back to the bitter end of a game you controlled at halftime is another type of risk, yet this one obviously paid off. Cobb has been as good- or perhaps even better- than advertised through two games, and he's going to need to be even better this Saturday to pull off the upset. Speaking of running...
PLEASE THROW OUT THE PLAY WHERE ISAAC FRUECHTE RUNS THE BALL
I mentioned this in a preseason preview somewhere, that Fruechte should not be asked the run the ball because he has proven he is not very good at it. Apparently just for fun, Limegrover thought he'd give it another try. The result? 1 carry for a loss of 8 yards. Coach? Please turn to the page in the playbook where it calls for Fruechte to carry the ball, rip it out, tear it up, and throw it away- wait, or recycyle it. Or burn it. Or because you guys probably use iPads for playbooks now, delete that page. Please.
THE DEFENSE WEATHERED THE STORM. AGAIN
Two weeks, two games, two times where the opposition has outgained the Gophers. And that's two times that Minnesota has not only won, but the defense has been pretty good. As Matt and others have been saying, don't worry so much about the yardage given up, but the number of plays. MTSU ran a LOT of plays the second half, and they took advantage of a very short field after blocking a Peter Mortell punt late in the third quarter, which is when the game started to get a little too close for comfort. Yes, we'd all love to see the D shut down somebody like the Blue Raiders again and again on every series, but consider how often the D was on the field, as well as how far down the depth chart they were having to go due to hydration and other issues, and it's still a solid performance. The hydration issues are a bit concerning considering it wasn't that hot Saturday and we can be pretty much assured it'll be roasting at TCU this weekend, but hopefully that's something that can be easily corrected this week. It at least gave plenty of guys a chance to play and gain experience, and when facing a spread passing attack against the Horned Frogs, that depth gaining experience should help. On that note, if we've learned two things about Kill in his 3+ seasons here and one is he hates passing the other is...
KILL DOES NOT HESITATE TO PLAY TRUE FRESHMEN. ESPECIALLY ON DEFENSE
True freshman were playing all over the front seven, especially on the line as Steven Richardson started at DT, and Ends Gaelin Elmore and Andrew Stetler played a ton. DT Gary Moore had his shirt pulled, as did LB Everett Williams. Fellow frosh LB Jonathan Celestin played plenty and played well with four tackles, including a TFL. True frosh Craig James had already jumped into the two deep at corner last week, and has looked really good so far. This is one "Killism" that I've taken less issues with than others- if Jerry feels like he's lacking depth and/or a true freshman can contribute, he's going to play. Period. He would probably like to be at a point where that doesn't happen, but it is, and the kids he's thrown in on defense in the first two weeks have looked pretty good. THANK YOU for pointing out the quality of opposition in said games, but we can only go off what we've seen, and the kids are holding up all right. Richardson is a disruptor on the interior, and clearly the coaches love what Elmore and Stetler can do now and what they'll be able to do in the (hopefully near) future.
Celestin is a very interesting case, as Damien Wilson and De'Vondre Campbell have two starting LB spots locked down. JUCO transfer Cody Poock was the spring starter in that third spot before injuring his knee, and the coaches still seem to be trying to find a replacement. Jack Lynn started and finished second on the team with 10 total tackles including a TFL, but Celestin played a bunch too. De'Niro Laster even got in late, but it seems to be Lynn vs Celestin, at least for now. The coaches remain confident Poock could be back for B1G play, which again seems unbelievable considering he tore his freaking ACL in MARCH!?!?!?. But if there's any delay in his recovery or if he's not back to 100% this season (which seems likely, right? Right?), there should be an interesting battle going.
The coaches have the luxury of figuring that spot out because it also helps that ...
ONE GUY WHO NEVER LEFT THE FIELD WAS TACKLING MACHINE DAMIEN WILSON
14 total tackles, 1 TFL, a pick AND a sack. Just another day at the office for Wilson. What a beast.
THERE'S NO WAY STEVEN RICHARDSON IS 6'0
None. JD and I were able to sit in the beautiful people section close to the field for the second half (thanks Frothy) and it allowed us to get up close to Richardson. Seeing him stand along the line beside his teammates? He might be 5'9 with his shoes on. Maybe 5'8. And you know what? Doesn't matter. He's a wreacking ball along the line, and you can see why he's playing early and often. Bigger programs don't want a 5'9 DT, but that has been Minnesota's gain. After seeing just how short he is, I love Richardson even more.