The Gopher Football team used defensive supremacy to move to 2-1 on the season by defeating the Kent State Golden Flashes 10-7 at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday afternoon. The Golden Flashes only touchdown was a strip of Rashad Still that was returned 80 yards for a touchdown by Demetrius Monday, who also picked up two interceptions on the day. Minnesota's offense was mediocre at best, scoring on a 43 yard Ryan Santoso field goal in the first quarter, and on a 14 yard pass from Mitch Leidner to KJ Maye right near the end of the second quarter.
The major story of the game was the inability of the Gopher offense to do...well just about anything. The Gopher offensive line was atrocious, getting out-muscled by Kent State all game long. The supposed strength of the Gopher offense, their running game, never got into a groove as the Gophers finished with just 104 yards rushing on 44 carries for an average of 2.4 yards per carry. Coincidentally that 2.4 yards per carry is also what Rodney Smith ended up with on the game, rushing for 84 yards on 30 carries. That will not cut it against any opponent, much less one that the Gophers should have run all over.
In a vacuum, Mitch Leidner's final line of 17-27 for 184 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions doesn't look great. But it doesn't look as bad as it actually looked on the field either. What does look bad is that four of Leidner's 17 completions went for 32, 25, 22, and 21 yards. Thus the last 13 catches went for a combined 84 yards, or just under 6.5 yards per reception. Leidner was throwing with people in his face for a majority of the game, yet when he actually got time he many times would throw a woefully bad pass. The perfect example of this is his second interception where he had Still wide open had he just thrown the ball far enough. Unfortunately, he left the pass four yards shorter then it needed to be and was easily intercepted by Monday. The inconstancy was once again very present against an opponent who had a decent defense, but will be considerably more permeable then several the Gophers will see in Big Ten play.
So....lets briefly talk about the positives the Gophers showed and what they can hope to continue next week against Ohio and into the start of the Big Ten season. First, this defense is good....very very good. The Gophers kept the Golden Flash offense off the scoreboard and held then to just 142 total offensive yards. The Gophers did not force any turnovers, but that is more due to the fact that Kent State quarterback Colin Reardon was being very conservative and was throwing passes nowhere near the Gopher defenders...and in turn nowhere near his receivers. Cody Poock led the team with ten tackles and was all over the middle of the field. While a few times the Gophers showed off their bend but don't break philosophy, there were many more times where they did not budge an inch. This defense will be what will keep Minnesota in Big Ten games at the moment.
Peter Mortell also had another great game today. Mortell had to punt often due to the ineptness of the Gopher offense. His seven punts had an average of 41.9 yards, and he pinned Kent State inside the 20 five times, and inside the ten three times. If the Gopher offense can ever pick it up, Minnesota can get back to using Mortell as a huge weapon, playing the field position game and hopefully forcing opposing offenses into stupid turnovers while backed up deep in their own end. If the offense does not improve....well Mortell will have the Big Ten Punter of the Year award locked up by the end of October.
When Leidner could get the ball off in a decent form, the Gophers wide receiver corps showed some good things. Eric Carter had a nice game with four receptions for 33 yards, making several in traffic. Drew Wolitarsky made a great catch on a pass Leidner threw into triple coverage in the third quarter. There were no terrible dropped balls that I recognized unlike previous weeks. That's improvement, which is good.
Now for the negative parts of Saturday. The Gopher offensive line is in a bad place right now. A lot has to do with injuries to several starters including Ben Lauer, Jonah Pirsig, and Jon Christenson. Both Lauer and Pirsig played on Saturday, but it was obvious neither was 100%. Pirsig did not seem to have any lateral speed and had defenders beat him to the outside several times. Lauer was removed by the coaching staff after not being effective. In a perfect world, both would be able to sit for a week or two and heal up before the Big Ten season starts, but that's not really an option unless the Gopher coaching staff wants to pull a redshirt or two and try and start a true freshman at either left tackle, or right tackle with Josh Campion moving back to left tackle. Christenson will be out for at least another three weeks, and that already has created a major depth issue on the offensive line. Joe Bjorklund started at left guard for the Gophers....but was his own backup. The Gophers currently have no other left guards able to play. Gopher coach Jerry Kill said after the game that they would most likely have to pull a redshirt or two for the next weeks to be able to give Bjorklund a breather, without having to shift the entire line around. That also is contributing to the Gophers woes on the line as they haven't had a stable lineup all year. Injuries to several players have made for a mishmash of lineups, and the players have had no ability to gain any cohesion. While many Gopher fans will say that the quarterback is the major issue with this team currently, I still argue that the issues with the offensive line are even more concerning,as it appears there is no easy fix, and it impacts every single offensive play. If the Gophers can't rush the ball because the line can't get a push, you see situations where teams can put nine defenders in the box and dare the Gophers to pass the ball like Kent State did Saturday to great success.
Matt Limegrover's play-calling also needs to be discussed. While I don't claim to know more then the coaching staff, it was beyond frustrating to see Kent State putting nine men in the box and the Gophers continue to run up the middle while being completely overwhelmed. Now how much was this due to the fact that they either can't trust the quarterback not to turn the ball over is a legitimate question, but it still was frankly disappointing to see the same situation repeat over and over. Many Gopher fans in the stadium also agreed as the boos began raining down in full force in the fourth quarter.
Finally, lets get to the elephant in the room. Once again, Mitch Leidner did not play at a level that the Gophers needed him to do so for the offense to succeed. A good portion of this can be blamed on the offensive line. However as I discussed above, when Mitch did get protection, he made several good passes, but a good number of poor ones as well. If you ask Gopher fans, it's probable that a strong majority will tell you that Leidner had a good run, but its time for the Gophers to try someone else at the position, either redshirt freshman Jacques Perra, or more likely, true freshman Demry Croft. As was discussed several times last week, and I have no doubt will be to death this week the major question is if a true freshman is ready to take over this offense. After today, there aren't many Gopher fans left who don't at least want to see him try. As Gopher fans are well aware, freshmen have not had much success for Minnesota in recent years at quarterback, but that doesn't stop the majority of the fanbase from wanting to see if Croft is different.
Jerry Kill was very defensive when asked about the quarterback situation in his postgame press conference. He said that he would not discuss the quarterback position until he had a chance to review the film. He repeated this answer several times when pressed by several members of the media, and appeared visibly frustrated. This would end up coming to a head when Kill was asked about the fans booing his team in the fourth quarter. Kill defended his team saying that if the fans were booing anyone they should be booing him, and that he thought he frankly deserved to be fired after the game, but that that wouldn't happen since the Gophers don't have a current athletic director. He became visibly agitated and said that "I'm sure I have 105 e-mails waiting for me telling me I should be fired". He finished his press conference by saying, "Oh and we did win today...in case you forgot". He was visibly angry with the media, and frankly probably the entire situation. Unfortunately unless things improve, its not going to get any easier for him.
Again...I don't know more then the coaching staff, but to avoid a fan mutiny, Kill almost has to consider playing someone...whether Croft or Perra some at quarterback next week against Ohio. If only to try and take some of the vocal pressure off himself, off of Leidner, and off of the defense. If it doesn't work, all of the Leidner defenders can point to it and say that it isn't his fault, its the other factors like the offensive line, etc. as they have been saying all along. If the other quarterback impresses...well, that will set off another set of circumstances that will undoubtedly get talked into the ground. Either way, something has to shift one way or another, or just like in plate tectonics....we're going to have an earthquake and its going to be a big one.
I'm sure everyone will have tons of opinions on what to do to try and fix the Gopher offense....and frankly I don't know if anyone has a completely right answer. I know I have no idea how to fix this situation. But it is obvious that the status quo is not working, and unless the coaching staff figures something out soon, the defense may not be able to bail this team out much longer.