It was an irony of Big Ten football that the league’s most stable coaching situation was simultaneously its most fragile.
Minnesota head man Jerry Kill, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover all worked together since their days at Emporia State in 1999. They followed each other to Southern Illinois and then Northern Illinois before landing with the Golden Gophers in 2011.
Several other of Minnesota’s coaches shared time with Kill with either the Hornets, Salukis or Huskies. Sometimes all three. In fact, the school notes that, “The group of Kill’s
nine assistants and strength and conditioning coach…served under him for a combined 141 years (counting 2015), which is the most in the nation.”
There was no doubt, the Minnesota staff knew each other, depended on each other, and shared a philosophy.
But because of Kill’s health, there was always a chance that a major change would eventually be needed.
That happened this past week as Kill stepped down. The Gophers responded with an inspired performance that ended up just inches short of an upset against Michigan.
The 317 passing yards were atypical for a Gophers team that averages 209 a game, and is ranked 82nd nationally. The 29 points given up by the Minnesota defense was likewise somewhat anomalous, given that they only allow an average of 23.9 points a game and are ranked 49th.
The frustration, however, was all too familiar. Minnesota beat Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio by a combined 9 points. Then they went on to lose three of their next four, including that close call with the Wolverines.
When they have stumbled, it’s tended to be the result of lack of scoring (ranked 107th in points per game), an inability to win the turnover battle (84th in turnover margin), and miscues in special teams (97th in kickoff return defense, 102nd in kickoff returns, 100th in punt return defense, and 122 in punt returns).
Youth has been a factor. (Seventy-nine of their 119 players are underclassmen.) Injuries have also hit the team really, really hard. Eleven starters have missed at least one game after getting hurt, which includes Ohio State transfer Brian Bobek, an offensive lineman who’s been out the last three games.
Mitch Leidner is the Minnesota quarterback. He’s completing 57.8 percent of his passes, with 8 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. He tends to throw short. He averages a mere 4.67 yards per attempt in road games.
Leidner can certainly run. He’s the team’s third-leading rusher, and with 21 rushing TDs in his career, he’s only three shy of tying Rickie Foggie’s (1984-87) record for a Golden Gophers signal caller.
The players pacing the Minnesota run game are both freshman out of Georgia. Rodney Smith has 541 yards, a touchdown and averages 4.3 yards per carry. Shannon Brooks has run for 349 yards, 3 touchdowns and averages 6.1 yards per carry.
When it comes to receivers, 5’10”, 199 pound senior KJ Maye is the main threat with 39 receptions, 408 yards and three touchdowns.
And although the offensive line has been especially unlucky when it comes to injuries, they give up fewer than 2 sacks a game, good enough to be ranked 49th in the country.
As you might expect from a team that was coached by Kill and is now led by Claeys, the Golden Gophers have been tough on defense, especially against the pass (ie. 16th nationally in passing yards allowed).
Defensive back Jalen Myrick already has three interceptions, three pass breakups, and three tackles for loss.
Steven Richardson, a sophomore defensive tackle, leads Minnesota in the category of tackles for loss. He has eight. And the leading tacklers overall are linebacker Cody Poock and defensive back Antonio Johnson, who’s a Cleveland native. They both have 55 stops.
One last note of interest: Minnesota has four sets of brothers, including the Huff twins, who play for them; while Braylon Edwards’ brother, Berkley, is a running back who did see time in a lopsided victory over Purdue.
The Buckeyes host Minnesota this Saturday at 8 p.m. on 97.1 The Fan.