Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Gophers winning without passing game
By Brian Bennett
Minnesota is 2-0 and is averaging 47.5 points per game. But head coach Jerry Kill knows there's a lot that can be improved.
Before the Gophers headed out to the practice field on Tuesday, Kill wrote out on a dry-erase board several areas that needed to get better. Near the top of that list: dropped passes.
One of the main emphasis of the offseason was improving a downfield passing game that had a hard time getting going in 2012. So far, that has proved elusive again.
Philip Nelson hasn't had to pass much for Minnesota to be successful in its first two games.
Minnesota has thrown for just 226 yards in its first two games. That's second-lowest in the Big Ten and only 16 yards more than Michigan State, whose passing game problems are well documented. The Gophers have completed just 18 passes and have no receivers with more than three catches. Derrick Engel leads the team with 51 receiving yards. By contrast, Northwestern's Tony Jones had nine catches for 185 yards vs. Syracuse on Saturday, and Michigan's Jeremy Gallon had eight for 184 against Notre Dame.
"We've had some good plays, but we've had some drops," Kill said. "That's the big thing. [Quarterback] Philip [Nelson] has been pretty consistent and pretty sharp the first two games.
"We've got to cut down on some of the dropped balls and make some plays. We have people capable of doing that, and I think we'll see much improvement there as the year goes on."
Kill isn't overly concerned about the passing statistics yet because he likes the direction of the running game. The Gophers piled up 342 rushing yards in last Saturday's 44-21 victory at New Mexico State. Nelson has been excellent at running the zone read and keeping the ball himself as defenders concentrate on the backs; he ran for 122 yards last week and ranks seventh in the Big Ten with 205 yards for the season. He has also run for three touchdowns and is averaging 7.6 yards per rush attempt.
With that kind of success and given the competition -- UNLV and New Mexico State are among the worst FBS teams in the country -- who needs to throw the ball? In fact, Minnesota's 38 pass attempts are by far the lowest in the Big Ten. Nationally, only seven teams have passed the ball fewer times than the Gophers, and that includes option teams like Army, Air Force and Georgia Tech. That shouldn't be surprising, as Kill said Tuesday that "we're an option team."
But while Minnesota can likely keep the ball on the ground as much as it wants this week against Western Illinois, Kill still wants to develop a passing game. And the team will need it when the competition finally gets tougher. The key will be the receiving corps.
"We've got six or seven people playing in there right now," Kill said. "We've had two or three drops we can't afford to have there. We've got to get it figured out in the next few weeks."
The good news is that Jamel Harbison is set to return this week after a suspension. He's expected to be one of the team's top playmakers. Promising true freshmen Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky are seeing their roles increase and could be factors down the road.
"As we move into the Big Ten, Wolitarsky is a 225-pound guy and we'll need some of that physical presence," Kill said. "So we're bringing him along."
It's always nice to work on deficient areas while winning. Minnesota might only have that luxury for another week or two.