Often it is a players only meeting, a significant adjustment to strategy or the emergence of an unexpected player who can turn around a team's season. Some sort of a catalyst that ignites something within a team, changes a mindset and the results on the field dramatically change and a season is saved.
That is this week for Gopher Football. Last Saturday the Gophers learned at least a couple valuable lessons. They cannot make the mistakes they have been making, they need to work as a team, and they need to have the juices flowing for each of their remaining seven games on the schedule. Why? Because if they make enough mistakes (regardless of how small they may seem), if they don't work as a unit, and if they come in lethargic; they will get their asses handed to them in the Big Ten.
I believe that last weekend was a wake-up call for the players as well as the coaching staff. What you will see on Saturday is going to be a team that is vaguely familiar yet unseen since at least September 3rd. It all started with getting shutout in Evanston. The Northwestern Wildcats whipped the Gophers. After a tight game early the Wildcats blew it open and made the Gophers to look hapless in their attempts to come back. What comes next, in this writer's opinion, is when things start to turn around for the Gophers.
First of all it started with a change in how the team, particularly the offense, reviewed the Northwestern film. Rather than breaking out into position groups to review the game, the entire offense gathered in the team's large meeting room and reviewed each and every play. The purpose? To show tangible evidence of how little mistakes by everyone contribute to the struggles as a whole. A running back making the wrong cut, a lineman whiffing on a block, a receiver breaking off his route too early, the quarterback making a wrong read...obviously they all add up. But perhaps as importantly this appears to have been an accountability session and not a shaming session. Per the coaches and Mitch Leidner at Tuesday's media session, it was a great film session that helped to get everyone more on the same page and focused on their responsibility to be accountable to their teammates.
The next reason I believe that we are currently sitting at a crossroads, potentially a turning point, is that there have been a number of comments by Coach Kill about getting back to who we are and what we do well. What does that mean? It means power football, running the ball. Last year through five games the Gophers averaged 16.6 pass attempts per game. This year? 34! That is not our identity and we do not have a quarterback who can truly succeed in that type of a game plan week after week. Last year Mitch attempted 15 passes in the win over Northwestern. This year the team (Leidner plus the 11 attempts from Demry Croft) attempted 32. At Tuesday's press conference and again today for his weekly Jerry Kill Show radio appearance, Kill was pretty firm that we are going to get back to who we are. He mentioned that he pulled the linemen aside and informed them of this re-commitment to a run focused offensive identity.
I believe this plan is going to be great for the quarterback play as well. I think that the criticism on Leidner is often misguided and unduly harsh. His overall numbers have improved, he has made some very nice plays, and at best he is the third biggest reason we are struggling offensively. But there is no doubt - and has never been argued otherwise - that he is limited. Reducing his throws and running the ball effectively will only open things up for the passing game. Is Mitch improved and capable of burning defenses off play-action after they are sucked in? Yes, I believe that to be true, but a ground game has to be established first.
Thirdly, it was recognized that they have done a poor job of getting the ball to their best players and allowing them to make plays. Translation? Expect more KJ Maye. Expect more running to lead the way. I am hoping we see more zone-read runs with Leidner returning to "Moose" form. Expect a better called game from Matt Limegrover. He does have a great offensive gameplan every once in a while. More running to both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, they will get a heavy dose of carries this week. This will lead to designed plays for KJ Maye, maybe giving Isaiah Gentry a chance to show off his play-making ability in one-on-one situations. Getting the right guys on the field and getting them the ball in the right places, at least a more concerted effort to do so.
Lastly, I think the timing is just right. Getting your ass kicked and having your backs against the wall is a very strong motivator. Purdue on the other hand is coming off a heart-breaking loss. In my opinion there is a greater chance that the Gophers come out pissed off while Purdue may still be a bit hungover from their near upset over #2 Michigan State. Then things can begin to roll for the Gophers offensively. Identity re-established, a unit holding each other accountable and getting a conference road win before a rival helmet school comes to out house. No motivation needed when Nebraska comes to town.
What does my crystal ball show? I see a big game from the offense this week and a Gopher win. I then see a more confident team hosting Nebraska and this is when Limegrover seems to call his best game to give us back-to-back conference wins followed by a bye week.
All of this assumes no further carnage and injury to the offensive line or the defense. Both units have been hurt significantly by injury and can't afford to lose anybody else. The flip side of that is we are starting to see some younger players really step up and emerge as core guys, especially on the defense. The experienced secondary was the heart-and-soul of the defense, now with 3/4 of them injured you are seeing guys like Steven Richardson, Jack Lynn and Jalen Myrick come through with big plays. Thieren Cockran recorded his first sack of the season, Adekunle Ayinde lead the team in tackles at Northwestern, Jonathan Celestin & Julian Huff are proving to be valuable as well. Overall others on the defensive side of the ball are stepping up and this group is going to be outstanding when Damarius Travis and Briean Boddy-Calhoun return from their injuries.
The season is still relatively early and I believe the worst is behind us. Certainly I could look foolish after this Saturday but I think the Northwestern beatdown will be looked at as the turning point of the 2015 season. Will it result in a Big Ten West title? Nothing we have actually seen would suggest that but it is a possibility and it has to start this week with a win.