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Minnesota Football-Let’s Chill Out About Firing Claeys

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In all of the vitriol over the Rutgers game, a fair amount of the fanbase seems to have forgotten that the Gophers are 5-2 on the season with five games to play. Minnesota will be favored in the next two, and should they win those games will be 7-2 headed into a showdown in Nebraska.

Of their two losses, both games were toss ups according to betting markets and other predictive models. Penn State just beat Ohio State on a last minute fluky play, and Iowa remains around the Gophers in most statistical rankings.

Given that it is rather amazing to me that there’s a significant-and significantly loud- minority of people who think that Claeys is a terrible coach deserving to be fired after one season based on the current performance.

Team Performance is Better Than You Think

I’ll get this out of the way now. Minnesota’s offense has underperformed relative to fans’ preseason expectations. Playcalling on both sides of the ball has been suspect at times. The Gophers have not shown the same kind of innovative and fun offense that Johnson coached at Louisiana Lafayette. The Iowa game was particularly galling from an offensive playcalling standpoint.

On defense, Jay Sawvel’s defenses have struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks. Minnesota’s lack of depth in the secondary has been badly exposed. They have seemingly missed many tackles. On top that the front four have consistently failed to generate pressure. The transition to a 3-4 had considerable growing pains, which were magnified by injuries and suspensions.

Of course, our eyes have a tendency to magnify mistakes and undersell success. Minnesota’s defense has actually played quite well this year. Prior to the Rutgers game, the Gophers were 18th overall in Defensive S&P. They were even better against the run, ranking 5th nationally.

Where the team has had the most difficulty is against the pass, and anyone who watched the team this year noted a major improvement when suspended starters returned to the secondary. Against Rutgers, the team suited up with most of its secondary gone either from injury or a restraining order, and they lost their starting linebacker to a controversial targeting call. Should it be a surprise that they struggled to defend the pass?

The offense is a different story and how accepting one is of its foibles has a lot to do with how long one expects an offensive transition to take. The offensive line has not generated the kind of improvement that was expected with the addition of Bart Miller. The major bright spots of the offense, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, have succeeded this year many times through feats of individual brilliance and not because of good blocking.

Bart Miller has coached this offensive line for less than a season, and none of them were his recruits. Furthermore, since week 2, the penalties have come down every week. Most of the false starts and illegal formations have been on tight ends, not part of his purview. Offensive line penalties are still much too high, but coaching is as much about improvement over the season as anything. I am disappointed with the level of push from the offensive line, but it takes time to adjust to new styles of blocking. Even with the disappointing performance, Rodney Smith is still averaging over 100 yards per game, and Shannon Brooks almost 90.

Mitch Leidner has not played like a first round draft pick, though that expectation was always silly. The senior has played well and within the offense for long stretches punctuated by a bad decision or two. Uncharitable commenters tend to magnify the latter and underplay the former, but they are not wrong that Leidner has made plays that have cost the team points. Where they are wrong is that Leidner is so horrible that his mere presence causes the team to lose games. This blog has never claimed that Leidner is a Heisman trophy winner, but I and others believe that he gives the team the best chance to win day in and day out.

Just as important, they are also wrong in attributing all of the offense’s mistakes to the current coaching staff. If your quibble is about the lack of development of quarterbacks, you’ll be happy to know that those most responsible for Leidner’s no longer draw paychecks from the University of Minnesota. Leidner has played in Johnson’s offense for six games. It is much too early to say that Johnson cannot develop quarterbacks to his system.

Furthermore, I’ll charitably say that I think there is a large portion of the fanbase watching the games and casting aspersion on players without much evidence. In my lifetime, which is much shorter than most, I’ve seen Gophers’ teams with little talent. This is not one of those teams.

The amount of negativity emanating from fans of the program is particularly confusing because it is an all encompassing negativity, a bitterness that seems more concerned with toxicity than constructive criticism. If the Gophers truly are terrible, then they should not be 5-2 right now. They should not have been leading games late into the fourth quarter. They should not have rallied when the game began slipping away. That is what terrible teams do.

I believe that this sentiment comes from a place of fandom because no rational person is so masochistic to watch a utterly talentless football team. In that way it is commendable, because it comes from wanting the team to be better.

Still, commendable cacophony is still cacophony. It is possible and preferable, to acknowledge that this team and the players on it are good in some areas and need improvement in others.

The Gophers are 5-2 with at least two games left in the season that they expect to be favored in I know this to be the case because Purdue and Illinois are terrible by almost all metrics. Northwestern was a game that was considered a toss up at the beginning of the season. Here’s a depressing piece of trivia. How many times Minnesota has won eight games in the regular season since 1960?

5.

There have been five seasons since 1960 where the Gophers won 8 games. If the Gophers win three of the next five, this would be season number 6. Two of those five seasons came under Jerry Kill. Two of them came under Glen Mason. In between them was an actual terrible football team. It seems like portions of our fanbase has forgotten what they look like.