Well, that game sucked. Saturday’s loss to Illinois was never very pretty, but throughout the second half, the Gophers were making the necessary plays to win the game. Four sacks from the defense, a Nubin pick, a Lindenberg fumble, an absolutely beautiful pass from Kaliakmanis to Jackson...all as the Gophers were effectively keeping the Illini offense from doing anything (sans 1 play) in the second half.
But then 4th and 11 came. Then the Illinois backup quarterback came into the game. Then we saw 3 plays cover 85 yards and absolutely crush the emotions of Gopher fans and the team. Sadly reminiscent of the Northwestern debacle where a 3-play, 69-yard touchdown drive in the 4th quarter stands out as yet another unacceptable defensive collapse that contributed to an unacceptable Gopher loss. And there you have 2 inexcusable losses this season in games where the Gophers appeared to have victory well in hand.
And while it was the Gopher defense that allowed Northwestern to 27 unanswered points and it was the Gopher defense who completely fell apart for 3 plays against Illinois, today’s perspective is not about the defense.
I’m not one to nitpick play-calling. I find that is typically reactive and uses hindsight as justification for a result. Passing on 3rd and 1 is idiotic when the pass is incomplete and brilliant when converted. The Gophers kept the ball on the ground at Northwestern to eat clock and Wildcat timeouts, that didn’t matter. The Gophers threw it on third and four that was incomplete as they tried to earn the first down, to ice game. The pop-pass was incomplete and they punted as well. The point isn’t critiquing individual play-calls, but the offense is leaving a lot to be desired. It is an entire offensive philosophy that does not seem to be working, at least not working well enough.
The Gopher offense is predicated on taking very few risks, running the ball really well and then relying on your defense and special teams to do their jobs well. The problem here is that unless you have an incredibly talented team, you are putting tremendous pressure on those two units. This has been on full display in four of our last five Big Ten games (ignoring the Michigan game). And the net result is winning half of those while blowing leads in the other two. And effectively ending our chances at winning the Big Ten West when it was never more winable.
In all four games (Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan State and Illinois), the offense did nothing to win any of those games, doing enough to not lose them. Which then means you are very reliant on the defense to win it for you. Minnesota failed to get a game-clinching first down in all of those games.
- Northwestern - The offense punted on their final 3 drives of regulation while Northwestern scored 3 touchdowns in the 4th quarter.
- Iowa - the offense was pinned deep as Iowa played their field position game to perfection and punted after 3 plays, giving Iowa the ball back with a chance to win the game from midfield. This time the defense did their job.
- Michigan State - Three and out on their final possession (not counting victory formation on the next possession). Fortunately, they were up two scores and the defense forced turnovers on Michigan State’s final two possessions.
- Illinois - Three and out with 4:04 left, taking the clock down to 2:47 and giving the ball back to Illinois while leading by 5.
I struggle to think of an example in recent seasons where the offense has won a game for us. Probably Wisconsin to end the regular season last year. Of course, it has happened, but what we are seeing this season is becoming all too familiar.
The problems are systemic. The play-calling has been suspect at times. The improvement of the team’s quarterback has been slow and frankly questionable. The lack of a mid-range passing attack is infuriating. And more than anything, it would be refreshing to have an offense that is capable of winning a game, not, not losing one.
Things are particularly worse when you have a special teams unit that struggles in all things by individual kicking excellence. Things are also tough when you have a young defense that has been prone to big plays all year.
Today isn’t the time for massive changes, but the offseason might be. I would encourage PJ Fleck to challenge some of his current offensive notions, maybe take a hard look at special teams as well. He too can change his best.
We often make fun of the uninteresting and largely unsuccessful Iowa offense. But the Gopher offense may not be much better. Coming into this past weekend the Gopher offense managed to score exactly 13 more points than the Hawkeyes this season. We are not much different. And this may be an acceptable strategy when playing in the Big Ten West, but that all changes next year.
Again, maybe time to change your best when it comes to this offensive philosophy.
Now, “change your best” does not necessarily mean installing a completely new offensive system. Wisconsin is currently in the midst of that and it may or may not be successful for them. Their formula has worked for a long time. Things don’t have to be so binary.
We run the ball well. Our offensive lines have been very good every season, even as personnel has been turning over (a real testament to Brian Callahan). Our wide receivers this year are certainly capable of getting open and making plays (even with too many drops). We are not loaded with elite talent all over the offense, but we are not suffering from a lack of talent either. Again, it’s not binary. We don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But there are opportunities to put this offense in better position to succeed and win games, even on days when the rushing attack isn’t nearly unstoppable.
The margin for error is way too thin. This team is not elite, but it is not terrible either. We just cannot continue to be surprised by a special teams that makes significant gaffes, there are options for fixing special teams this offseason. We cannot continue to expect the defense to finish off games, sometimes we need to offense to do that too.
“Change your best” isn’t just for the players.