Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, September 19, 2015
The questions about the Minnesota offense seem to grow louder with each passing week. When will the attack show some life? And, is this offense good enough to lead the Golden Gophers to a breakthrough season in Year Five under Jerry Kill?
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Saturday, the Golden Gophers walked another tight rope, hanging on to improve to 2-1 after an uninspiring and unimpressive 10-7 win at home vs. Kent State. The same Kent State team that Illinois clobbered, 52-3, earlier this season.
?We did win,? said Kill in the postgame, showing a feisty side and no doubt tired of the constant scrutiny of his attack.
Kill is correct. Minnesota did win. But by three points ? against one of the MAC?s lower-level teams. The offense does need more juice if the Golden Gophers hope to win the Big Ten West coming off consecutive 8-5 seasons that has optimism brimming in Dinkytown.
The defense has lived up to its billing, playing like one of the best units in the Big Ten in all three games. Minnesota held Kent State to 142 yards on 59 plays and didn?t allow an offensive TD. The speedy and athletic defense also contained TCU in the opener, yielding 23 points to the powerful Horned Frogs and their Heisman contending quarterback Trevone Boykin. And Minnesota held Colorado State in check a week later in a 23-20 OT road win. No doubt, this defense is championship-caliber.
"We just grind out each game even if the offense is stalling,? said defensive end Alex Keith. ?We are still going to be clicking on every level. It wasn't a pretty game, but it's a game we like."
Minnesota generated 288 yards of offense vs. the Golden Flashes, with 104 coming on the ground and 184 coming through the air. It looked all too familiar to other games in 2015. The Gophers entered the day No. 13 in the Big Ten in scoring (20.0 ppg); No. 12 in total offense (377.0 ypg); No. 10 in rushing offense (162.0 ypg); and No. 10 in passing offense (215.0 ypg).
"I don't have the magical answer right now, but I better get it," Kill said, "or I don't deserve to be here."
This is just a continuation of last season, when Minnesota?s offense also went in fits and starts. But at least the 2014 attack had running back David Cobb, who ran 314 times for 1,626 yards-both school single-season standards. He was a big reason why Minnesota was playing for the West Division title at Wisconsin in the last regular-season game of 2014. But, he's gone. This year, Minnesota lacks a star on its offense. And, it shows.
Rodney Smith is a promising freshman running back. He has many of Cobb?s qualities, as he is a tough, hard-nosed runner. Smith carried 30 times vs. Kent State, but it went for just 73 yards with a long of eight yards (2.4 ypc). He figures only to get better.
Lack of cohesion has hurt the offensive line, as injury has caused the unit to be shuffled often. If that unit can stick together and develop chemistry, it will help Smith and the entire offense. The latest issue: Left guard Joe Christenson is out after knee surgery.
That brings us to quarterback Mitch Leidner, who often is a lightning rod of criticism. Last season, he completed just 51.5 percent of his passes for 1,798 yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He hasn?t been much better this season. The junior has hit 59-of-107 passes (55 percent) for 614 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Against Kent State, Leidner completed 17-of-27 passes for 184 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He wasn?t made available to the media after the game.
"He's been positive in trying to keep everybody up," said wideout KJ Maye. "We've been doing fine on offense. We just have to make some adjustments."
The player some fans and pundits want to see is backup quarterback Demry Croft, a good-looking 6-5, 200-pound freshman who has turned heads in practice. At one point, he was warming up today. Kill was asked about the possibility of making a change under center.
"I'm not going to make any comments on the quarterback,? Kill said. ?I'm just not. That's not being disrespectful or anything like that."
If things continue as they are, Kill may be forced to look long and hard at the quarterback spot. Yes, I'm typing that after backing Leidner entering Saturday. The veteran has many positive qualities, such as his experience and understanding of coordinator Matt Limegrover?s offense. Plus, Leidner has won his share of games. But, at some point, he needs to take the proverbial next step in his development. And, it doesn?t appear to be happening, as his accuracy and pocket savvy remain issues.
At what point would it be OK to make a change at quarterback? Is it going to take a catastrophic loss to force a change?
Ohio visits Minnesota next week. Then, Big Ten play starts with a trip on Oct. 3 to white-hot Northwestern and its strong defense. That could prove to be a pivotal Saturday for what direction Kill wants to take this Gopher offense.
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|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|
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