Gophers football players often talk after a loss as if they’re ready to ride motorcycles on Sundays.
Before they watch film at the Larson Football Performance Center, they describe zipping up figurative “leather vests” to protect themselves from constructive, if biting, criticism — the road rash, if you will — that comes from reviewing their many mistakes.
After Minnesota’s 14-10 loss to Bowling Green on Saturday, everybody involved in Minnesota’s passing game should instead zip tight head-to-toe hazmat suits. Losing to a struggling opponent picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference and doing so as a 31-point favorite, the Gophers program needs to clean up a toxic spill. Coaches included.
Minnesota’s passing game sits very near the bottom of college football in total yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and attempts. Among 130 FBS programs, they are outside the top 115 in each category, and in some categories only the seemingly pass-adverse military academies are worse.
Gophers passing was lagging in the first three games, but was serviceable in the season opener vs. Ohio State and rode the run game as well as the defense against Miami (Ohio) and Colorado to get back-to-back wins.
There was whiplash from the high of the shutout win in Boulder to the low of boos being heard during the homecoming game vs. visiting Bowling Green.
(Meanwhile, a look at the stats shows the Buffaloes are also among the worst passing offenses in the country, so the U’s shutout last week might not be as strong.)
Head coach P.J. Fleck was asked what went wrong in the passing game. “Everything,” he replied before a pause.
“You want me to be more specific? Pass protection, quarterback play, tight-end play, throwing and catching the football. That sums it up.”
With the loss of top running back Mo Ibrahim, the strength of Minnesota’s offense was supposed to be the roughly 200 combined starts from its linemen. But they couldn’t handle Bowling Green’s blitzes and stunts.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan’s rough day nearly ended when he was lit up by Davon Ferguson on a cornerback blitz in the second quarter. With halftime to adjust, Ferguson, a Kansas transfer, got his second sack on the same blitz from the other side of the field in the fourth quarter.
The Gophers’ leaders on offense — Fleck, Morgan and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. — chalked up their below-par 2020 season to pandemic interruptions. They don’t have that explanation/excuse now and need to brainstorm solutions with eight Big Ten games left this season.
The Gophers came into Saturday’s game running the ball nearly 72% of offensive plays, and that number actually went up. Fleck embraces his desire to run the ball and pass off it. Second-year offensive coordinator Sanford Jr., calls the games within the general guardrails Fleck established.
On Saturday, the U trailed throughout the second half, but Minnesota called 25 total plays (11 runs, 14 passes). While trailing, they called 21 plays (13 runs, eight passes). That’s not a typical script for a team needing to come from behind to win.
Minnesota lost top receiver Chris Autman-Bell on the first series Saturday. Without him, the most-inexperienced position group on offense hasn’t done enough in his absence now going on three games.
Before the Bowling Green, Fleck was asked about having better run-pass balance. “We’re going to take what the defense gives us,” he said. “If we have to throw the ball 11 times a game, we’ll throw it 11 times a game. If we have to throw the ball 35 times, we’ll throw it 35 times.
“We want to be as balanced as possible,” Fleck continued. “Some people think balance is all about being 50/50, but it’s doing what you have to do to win the football game.”
Morgan attempted only 13 passes Saturday, completing five for 59 yards. A lot of Minnesota high school programs likely did more than that on Friday night.
When the Gophers needed a fourth-quarter touchdown drive, they didn’t throw it abundantly, much less freely. There were five designed runs, a scramble by Morgan when no one was open, an incompletion on Morgan’s low but catchable ball to Mike Brown-Stephens and a Falcons defensive lineman’s pass breakup on third down.
The Gophers then punted — and boos came down. The next two throws ended in interceptions.
The U’s best two offensive plays of the second half came on the ground — change-of-pace QB Cole Kramer’s 19-yard touchdown run and Trey Potts making an impressive cutback on a 54-yard gain. The U offense didn’t do what it had to do to win the game.
“We talk about being the reason (for success) at the quarterback position and (Saturday) I was the opposite of the reason,” Morgan said. “It’s 100 percent on me, and now I have to respond better than I ever have.”
That sounded like someone preparing to steel himself with something stronger than a figurative leather vest.