Minnesota's 10-7 win Saturday over Kent State (a team the Gophers were favored to beat by at least 24 points) was the worst victory since Glen Mason's Gophers defeated North Dakota State 10-9 in the Metrodome in 2006. While that season ended with Mason getting fired, we can safely assume Jerry Kill's job security is very much safe regardless of how the rest of this season plays out. His offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover though? That's a different story.
The Gopher offense was awful, their worst performance of 2015 in three games, all of which have seen the offense get progressively worse while the level of competition also has gotten...wait, worse? The TCU game didn't bother me. That's a big boy defense and a legit top 10 team. I expected a letdown vs Colorado State on the road and got it, and while I had hoped that win would look better and better as the season went along, the Rams did us no favors in losing to Colorado.
But the win over Kent State showed an all-around offensive ineptitude that no program in the 5th year of a coaching staff should have to endure. The Gophers wasted an absolutely dominant performance from their defense (which held Kent State to 142 total yards at 2.4 yards per play, and also forced 2 turnovers. And the lone Golden Flashes TD came from their own defense. Yeah wow) with if not their worse offensive performance of the Kill Era, one that was certainly their most disappointing. Yes, Minnesota has injury issues along the offensive line and at Tight End, but the Gophers were manhandled up front all afternoon by what should have been an inferior opponent.
And the OC did them no favors. In what has become typical Jerry Kill/Limegrover fashion, the Gophers went in against an overmatched opponent and tried to do as little as humanly possible to win (this is not the topic I want to discuss today, and at this point, why bother? Kill believes in winning games while mitigating risks above all else. He is not interested in blowing out an opponent or working on weaknesses like the passing game in game settings. A 10-7 win for him is the same as 50-7. He has proven this over and over against weak non-con opponents and as much as this drives me insane I don't expect this to change as long as Limegrover and this offensive philosophy remains). It's one thing to do this when it works (think the SJSU game last year where backup QB Chris Streveler ran pretty much the same read-option play over and over and over to great success), it's another when you keep stubbornly doing it with no success. You know, like on Saturday. Kent State knew exactly what was coming and prepared accordingly: Minnesota's offense saw a stacked box with more run defenders than blockers all afternoon long, and made zero adjustments to account for it. Sure, Limey tried to open things up a bit early when QB Mitch Leidner went deep early, but he got picked twice on terrible underthrows, and that was it for offensive creativity. The offensive gameplan was so vanilla you would have thought it was a spring scrimmage open to the public.
And look, to Minnesota's credit- it worked. After those picks they really didn't seem to care how much they did or did not move the ball, they knew if they just get a couple of scores the D and special teams would do the rest. And boy did they. The Gophs survived with a beaten and battered offensive line and got a victory. For Kill and Limegrover, that is all that matters. But it shouldn't, because with a best-in-a-generation defense (and even that might be underselling it) and very good special teams the Gophers could be the third best team in the B1G this season. But because of the offense they're going to be lucky to just get bowl eligible and win six games.
In year five of the Kill/Limegrover Era, that is simply unacceptable. While I've "Still Got Hope" in Jerry Kill, Tracy Claeys and the defense as well as the Special Teams group, I'm going against the name of this blog as I've lost any and all hope in Matt Limegrover and the offense- regardless of who the quarterback is.
Before we go further, here's national offensive rankings for four different statistical measures from 2010 (the last year before Limey got here) through these first three games into 2015. There are two traditional stats and two advanced, and they all seem to paint a pretty similar picture:
2015: 16.7 Points per Game (122nd nationally)
2014: 28.4 (66)
2013: 25.7 (85)
2012: 22.08 (94)
2011: 18.42 (111)
2010: 23.17 (89)
2015: 364 Total Yards per Game (98)
2014: 357.3 (103)
2013: 343.3 (105)
2012: 321.38 (108)
2011: 310.33 (110)
2010: 361.33 (77th)
Offense S&P+ (an explanation for just what the hell this is here)
2015: N/A until this week
Offense FEI Ratings (Explanation here)
2015: N/A until week 8
So yes, by definition, prior to 2015 Minnesota's offense did indeed improve from year 1 under Limey to year 4. I have seen that argument a few places prior to Saturday and while the gradual improvement is true and real (especially from 2013 to 2014 where in all categories but total yards we saw a really nice jump from 2013 to 2014- and I'm well aware you can poke plenty of holes in how you use the total yards stat), I threw the 2010 stats in there for a reason: as bad as things were under Brewster, it took 4 freaking years for Limegrover to bring the offense back to about the same or better numbers than the offense we saw under Brew and interim OC Jeff Horton. Part of that goes back to the Kill philosophy, which is to mitigate risk by controlling the clock with the run game and lean on your defense and special teams, but seriously, five years later and this is where we're at?
Sure, he's had a few games in that span where the offense was great, they moved the ball, and he used creative and adaptive play-calling to get it done. The win over Nebraska in 2013 (aka "The Shits and Motions Game") is the best example because it was SO jarring from what we had seen previously. Prior to that Minnesota had won four non-conference games to open the season while passing as little as possible. That worked great until they played B1G opponents with real defenses that could defend the run, and Minnesota got clobbered by both Iowa (23-7) and Michigan (42-13). The defense won them the Northwestern game as the offense continued to struggle.
And then the Nebraska game happened. Like many of you, I was there, and I was stunned and it remains my favorite game of the TCF Bank Stadium Era. An offense that in all the prior games had come out in the same stodgy formations with no variation and no creativity suddenly was running shifts and motions out all kinds of sets. Nebraska was clearly as stunned as we were, though they were much less pleased with the results. Minnesota still ran the ball a lot as always, but thanks to Limegrover's creativtiy in how they did it and how well he called the game, they dominated Nebraska in a way Minnesota hadn't done since the glory years with 271 yards on the ground in a 34-23 upset.
At that point, I became a believer... for all of two games. Next week vs Indiana they put up a whopping 573 yards of total offense (including 325 through the air! WHA???) and 34 points. THIS IS HAPPENING!!! And then it wasn't: the next game was a win over Penn State but a "meh" perfomance from the O, and then they got totally shut down by the two best teams on their schedule in Wisconsin and Michigan State. They had a month to prepare for the bowl game vs Syracuse and yet the on-field product looked like Limegrover had done the game plan during pregame warmups.
Last year was better but still never reached that two game peak of Nebraska and Indiana from 2013. Limegrover had another strong gameplan for Nebraska which resulted in the first Gopher victory in Lincoln since the automobile was invented (fine that's an exaggeration, but only slightly), and responded well to the losses to Michigan and Iowa with dominant wins. But after that, the non-con was the same recipe of do as little as possible to win (or vs TCU, lose), they did enough offensively to survive Northwestern and Purdue, fought hard but weren't great against Ohio State and Wisconsin and laid a giant egg in Champaign. Oh, and another month to prepare for a bowl game, and another performance in a loss to Missouri that looked like Limegrover forgot there was a bowl game until the last minute.
Which brings us back to 2015. Yes, they lost their two best offensive playmakers in David Cobb and Maxx Williams, Yes, they've sustained a bunch of injuries along the O-Line, and lost their projected top two TE's for the season; those excuses are valid against TCU in the opener, and at least plausible vs Colorado State. But Kent State? At home? This is the fifth year running the program- ALL of the kids are ones that Kill and Limegrover recruited to fit this system. Yet this offense thus far has looked as bad as it did in year one. I can understand this in the first or second, or even third year. But the 5th? Limegrover is an offensive line coach and they've recruited well there, and prior to this season, coached it well and gotten a performance to match, and yet maybe the most troubling aspect has been how much of a mess and how lost the O-line has looked. Sure you're missing a couple of starters, but shouldn't the wealth of experienced depth we should have built up been enough to step in and be better than this?
Limegrover proponents believe the last two Nebraska games, as well as the wins over Iowa and Michigan last year, are signs of what can go right and what we're building towards. What they really are is the exception not the rule, an outlier of great performances mixed in amoungst so many duds. What happened to the creativity from the 2013 win over the Huskers? Where did all the formations and calls that led to all those yards and points vs Indiana go? How can he draw up a gameplan that works so poorly vs Illinois one week, then so great vs Iowa the next? Where is the consistency?
Then there's the quarterbacks. Limegrover, Kill and the staff are currently 0-5 in developing quarterbacks in their five years (if you count current backup Chris Streveler. And I do as he started the SJSU game last year but despite Leidner's continued struggles has apparently not been able to push him for playing time), and as excited as I am about true freshman Demry Croft, I'm worried despite his talent they may go 0-6. If a couple of quarterbacks don't pan out, maybe you chalk it up to the player. But five different guys and none of them have developed? How can that not be on the coaching staff and the offensive coordinator? It's also why as much as I think Croft can't do any worse than Leidner has and has a much higher ceiling, Limegrover's track record at Minnesota suggests the chances of Croft being successful are few and far between as long as the Gophers continue doing what they're doing.
And that's the thing- why ARE the Gophers doing things this way? Why has it come to this? In the year before coming to Minnesota, Matt Limegrover was not only in charge of a really good offense at Northern Illinois, but he and Kill had also developed a really good quarterback to run it in Chandler Harnish. Here's those same four statistics we used for the Gopher offenses for NIU's offensefrom 2010:
Scoring Offense: 38 PPG (38th nationally)
Total Offense: 450 yds per game (19)
Holy lord look at those numbers! How on earth is this the same guy?!? How can Limegrover be in charge of that offense and also what we witnessed againt Kent State? Limegrover proponents would argue this is exactly why we need to stick with him: "He did THAT before: Just give him time, he'll do it again." One minor detail however: the Gophers are not running that offense anymore. For reasons that have not been explained, Limegrover and Kill have transitioned away from the spread, read-option run based offense that they had so much success with at NIU to boring, predictable, run-heavy steaming pile of garbage you saw Saturday.
Still, while I have little faith he can go back to that kind of offensive success the overall argument stands- Limegrover did coach a successful offense at NIU and the previous stops with Kill, and he did develop competent, consistent quarterbacks. The question then is how long should he get to show he can replicate that success at Minnesota? For me, five full seasons is more than enough, but I have a feeling Jerry Kill's patience with his long-time coordinator and friend may be longer.
All is not lost for the 2015 season. The Gophers are still 2-1, they still have a winnable home game vs Ohio coming up and they still have the entire B1G slate in front of them. The defense and special teams are good enough to win the West if they get ANYTHING from the offense, and the offense doesn't have to be 2010 NIU-level for that to happen. I hope the debacle vs Kent State brought a lot of soul-searching for Limegrover and Kill, and that they'll work to get all the things that are going wrong corrected. Maybe they'll start going back to doing more of what worked at NIU and less of what hasn't here at Minnesota. That they haven't been able to do that now in their fifth season with their fifth different quarterback tells me it's not going to happen, but as a Gopher fan I hope Limegrover spends the rest of the season proving me wrong.