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Gophers slow-playing their way to success

10/17/2014

College football has become fast food. More teams are ingesting as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and putting bloated numbers on the scoreboard.

Games like last Saturday's captivating track meet between Baylor and TCU -- it featured 1,267 yards, 119 points, 62 first downs, 198 plays and a staggering 39 possessions -- are becoming common, like fast food joints on a main drag.

Does the game still have room for the five-course meal? As they say in Minnesota, you betcha!

Shortly after TCU-Baylor kicked off, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald lamented a 24-17 loss to Minnesota. The Wildcats had recorded twice as many first downs (28-14) and 119 more yards than Minnesota, and ran 30 more plays, but they couldn't fatten up on points or possessions (11 total, just four in the first half).

"To Minnesota's credit," Fitzgerald said, "[Jerry Kill's] offense takes half the game away by standing in the huddle and talking about what they're ordering for dinner."

Matt Limegrover loved that line. Minnesota's offensive coordinator also liked hearing Fitzgerald say his team pressed a bit too much against a team trying to shorten the game.

"I don't think it'll ever be sexy," Limegrover said of Minnesota's approach, "but at least somebody's saying they're a little affected by it. I got a kick out of that."

In an age when more teams are ramping up tempo and possessions, Minnesota is going the other direction. The Gophers are slow-playing their opponents, averaging just 62.7 plays per game, the third lowest rate in the FBS. The only teams logging fewer snaps than Minnesota -- Florida Atlantic and South Florida -- are both 2-4.

Minnesota is 5-1 and in tied for first place in the Big Ten West Division. Maybe Limegrover is wrong -- slow is sexy.

"I don't know if you want to call it a dinosaur or an outlier," Limegrover said. "The best way to put it is the world around us has changed and we've remained the same."

Added Kill: "Sometimes it's not bad to be different."

One reason why Minnesota plays this way is that Kill's staff has remained the same. Limegrover has worked for Kill since 1999. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has done so since 1995. Two other offensive assistants, Brian Anderson and Pat Poore, have been with the group since 2001. H-backs/tight ends coach Rob Reeves began his coaching career with Kill in 1996 and has never left Kill's staff.

Limegrover wonders whether things would be different if the group assembled two years ago rather than 12.

"The current trend is, let's speed up, let's go as fast as we can," he said. "Everybody clamors, 'They're a relic, they're a dinosaur.' But because we've been together for so long and it's developed, we know it's a good blueprint.

"Why mess with it?"

Minnesota's philosophy seems simple but is exceedingly rare: Play great defense and special teams, limit turnovers, score a few touchdowns to gain a lead, bleed the clock, sing the fight song. The Gophers are tied for 16th nationally in points allowed and limit explosion plays, especially through the air, ranking ninth in yards per pass attempt (5.49). They beat Northwestern primarily because of a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in the fourth quarter. Other than a five-turnover disaster in its lone loss at TCU, Minnesota has committed two or fewer turnovers in its other five games and none in a Sept. 27 win at Michigan.

The offense is tied for 112th nationally in yards (331.8 ypg) and 121st in passing (119.8 ypg). But the scoring is adequate (27 ppg), and with a deliberate style (38th nationally in possession time) and a punishing running back in David Cobb, Minnesota can inflict slow death with a lead.

"Every possession's important," Limegrover said. "Every time you get your hands on that football, you've got to make something positive happen, but you can't be negligent."

While HUNH (hurry-up, ho-huddle) offenses gain an edge by snapping the ball before defenses are set, Minnesota uses presnap motion and shifts to flummox its foes. The Gophers might show three different formations before the snap, forcing defenses to adjust their calls and possibly creating numbers advantages.

"They're very patient offensively," said Purdue coach Darrell Hazell, whose team visits Minnesota on Saturday. "They do a great job of running the ball. ... They throw the play-action passes at you, they throw the naked passes at you, and then they're very content with punting the ball and playing great defense.

"That's been their formula for winning."

There are drawbacks. Three-and-outs are killers and, until the Northwestern game, Minnesota struggled on third down. Though a 10-point lead can feel like 21, especially with Cobb pounding away in the fourth quarter, Minnesota isn't built to rally.

The most telling stat: Under Kill, Minnesota is 19-0 when leading at halftime and 0-22 when trailing.

"If our defense wasn't playing great, there'd be a lot bigger issues," Limegrover said.

But Minnesota will remain methodical, huddling up and discussing what's for dinner.

Lately, it's been a lot of chicken.