Tyler Mason’s Oct. 29 Gophers mailbag

In this week's Gophers mailbag, topics include Minnesota's struggling passing attack, and the professional future of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys (pictured).

Al Goldis/Al Goldis/Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team suffered one of the more disappointing losses in recent memory Saturday when the Gophers lost at Illinois, 28-24. It was a game Minnesota was favored in, and most fans expected the Gophers to roll over the struggling Illini. Instead, Minnesota came out flat and made a costly mistake late that resulted in a loss.

Now the Gophers have a bye week as they prepare for the tough four-game stretch to close out the regular season. Most of the questions this week focused on the offense. With a bye week this weekend, there won’t be a mailbag next week. But be sure to send your questions after Minnesota’s game against Iowa on Nov. 8.

Question: Tyler, with the Gophers’ recent success, what do you think the odds are of Tracy Claeys getting the Kansas head coaching job? Illinois job? Love your column. Thanks. — Greg, St. Peter, Minn.

Answer: Thanks for reading, Greg! As for your question, we’ve heard Claeys’ name mentioned in rumors for the Kansas gig. It makes some sense, too, as Claeys is a Kansas native (and Kansas State graduate) and knows the area well. Given the Jayhawks’ inability to compete in the Big 12 in recent years, Kansas may have trouble luring a big-name head coach. That’s why someone like Claeys could be a good fit as an under-the-radar candidate who appears ready to take the next step from a coordinator to a head coach.

Claeys wasn’t shy about the fact that he was contacted by a few teams since last season when he filled in as the interim head coach when Jerry Kill missed time to treat his epilepsy. Minnesota had some success when Claeys was running the show, and his name popped up nationally as one to watch. At the same time, Claeys is an extremely loyal person, as are almost all of the coaches on Kill’s staff. Claeys has been with Kill since 1995 at Saginaw Valley State and followed Kill with each jump in the coaching ranks — to Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, and now Minnesota. He’s been Kill’s defensive coordinator since 1999, a sign of loyalty not often seen in the college coaching profession. Claeys has proven himself as a defensive coordinator. It would only be natural if he had the itch to finally lead a program of his own.

Q: How can you not have a QB on this team? Mitch Leidner is better but you cannot run 60 times every game. Until Kill can get a legit college QB who can throw consistent passes the Gophers will keep being a 2nd tier team. How do the Gophers address the QB situation moving forward? — Chris, New Ulm, Minn.

A: There’s no question that the passing game has been a glaring issue with this team, and not just this season. The quarterbacks in Kill’s system — from MarQueis Gray (who wasn’t his recruit) to Philip Nelson to Mitch Leidner to Chris Streveler — are all very similar in style. They’re big-bodied quarterbacks who like to run but don’t always have the most accurate arm. At this point in the season, Leidner ranks 10th in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (155.3). Nationally, Leidner’s completion percentage of 51.1 percent ranks 116th out of 126 Division 1 quarterbacks. Still, I don’t see anything changing for Minnesota at the quarterback position the rest of the year. The Gophers have made it clear that this is Leidner’s job, and they’ve stood by him despite his inconsistencies.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the quarterback job is an open competition next spring and fall if Leidner continues to struggle. One name to keep an eye on: Jacques Perra. He’s a true freshman walk-on from Roseville, Minn., who has ascended to the No. 3 quarterback spot on Minnesota’s depth chart. The hope is to redshirt Perra, so I wouldn’t expect to see him play at all this season. But as arguably the most accurate passer on the Gophers roster — he was a 61 percent passer as a prep senior — Perra could challenge for the starting job next year.

Q: The offense is in trouble. Is it the QB problem or the OC problem? The QB is not accurate. Is that why the Gophers have no short passing game and they bomb away and hit a couple? I sure see why the Gophers are last in passing in the Big Ten and every team will just stack the box and the Gophers will probably lose their last four games. — Al, Chatham, Ill.

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A: This relates a bit to the previous question about the quarterback situation. Yes, Minnesota is indeed last in the Big Ten in passing yards, averaging just 140.5 yards per game through the air. However, I don’t think much of the blame falls on offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Like you alluded to, one of the big issues has been the play of the quarterback. Additionally, Minnesota’s receivers have had issues with drops as well as an inability to get open at times.

I actually think Limegrover has called a decent game this season. There have been a few times when Minnesota’s play calling was a bit too vanilla for my liking, but Limegrover has a good sense of what opposing defenses are trying to do and has made adjustments. Such was the case against Illinois when running back David Cobb wasn’t getting much room to run. Limegrover recognized that and started calling more play-action passes, which worked well for the Gophers.

Minnesota’s lack of a short to intermediate passing game has been troubling. I truly thought the Gophers would work more screen passes (perhaps to running back Berkley Edwards or receivers KJ Maye or Donovahn Jones) into the offense, but that hasn’t been the case. It’s not that Leidner hasn’t had time to throw, either. Minnesota has allowed just 12 sacks all year, fourth-fewest in the Big Ten. It’s been inaccuracy (see the stat in my last answer) and inconsistency at quarterback that has been the biggest problem for the Gophers’ passing game.

Q: So, um, what happened with the running game on Saturday? I thought Illinois was supposed to have a terrible run defense and Minnesota could just walk through them. What was the deal with the ground game? — Phil, Minneapolis

A: I’m just as confused as you are. The Illini allowed more than 270 rushing yards per game coming into Saturday’s contest, and I fully expected senior running back David Cobb to have a big day against Illinois. Outside of one big run in the second half, that simply wasn’t the case. Illinois did as good a job of bottling up Cobb as anybody. Take away his 67-yard run he broke off after halftime, and Cobb averaged just 2.4 yards per carry for the rest of the game.

Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover talked about Cobb on Tuesday during the Big Ten coaches teleconference. He said he believes Cobb gets stronger as the game goes on, and that seemed to be the case against Illinois after his slow start. Limegrover also gave credit to Illinois, which game planned against Cobb and often packed the box between the tackles to stop the run. Until the Gophers can establish a passing game, teams are going to continue to key in on the running game and forcing Minnesota to pass. That’s what the Illini did Saturday, and it worked for most of the game. The Gophers did have some success on play action, much like they did against Purdue one week earlier. That was a product of the Illini expecting a run and Minnesota surprising the defense with a pass. Once Illinois started honoring the play-action pass a bit more, Cobb finally broke off a few runs. Still, though, it was not a good day overall for the Gophers’ running game.

Q: With the way the schedule looks for the end of the season, I see Minnesota finishing 6-6. I don’t think they can beat Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State or Wisconsin, but which game do you think is most winnable? — Steve, Bloomington, Minn.

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A: I think two of the Gophers’ four remaining games are winnable. The one I feel Minnesota might have the best chance in is the next game in a week and a half when the Gophers host Iowa. For starters, Minnesota will have two weeks to devise a game plan for the Hawkeyes, while Iowa will be coming off a game against Northwestern. The Gophers will also have home-field advantage and have had success a few years back against the Hawkeyes at TCF Bank Stadium. And while Iowa is off to a 5-2 start and a 2-1 mark in the Big Ten, I think the Hawkeyes are the weakest of the four remaining opponents. That’s not a knock on them, but speaks to what Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin have been able to do. Iowa is a balanced team but isn’t necessarily outstanding on either offense or defense.

The other game I could see the Gophers stealing is the final matchup of the year — a trip to Madison, Wis., for a date with the Badgers. Sure, Minnesota has lost its last 10 meetings against Wisconsin, but this Badgers team seems a bit more vulnerable than in years past. UW’s defense has been one of the best in the Big Ten statistically, but this is a team with a few flaws on offense. Wisconsin’s passing game has been just as inept as Minnesota’s. If the Gophers can slow down Badgers running back Melvin Gordon, they might have a chance at an upset at Camp Randall.

Q: The Gophers seem to always get off to slow starts. As a fan, I tend to believe the team isn’t ready to play, but with the ever-present patience of this coaching staff, do you think the Gophers might be intentionally playing this way? The team has been able to make good second half adjustments, so I’m wondering if the game plan is to just keep the game in front of them, keep trying to establish the run, and make adjustments. Obviously Coach Kill would love to come out of the gate and pour it on, but perhaps the program is not at a level where the Gophers can force the action? — Todd, St. Louis Park, Minn.

A: You’re definitely right in that this team seems to come out of the gates a bit sluggish, especially on offense. There haven’t been many instances this year when the Gophers have scored on their first possession of the game. Still, they have scored first in five of their seven games even amid some slow starts. As to whether or not this is intentional, I’d be shocked if that was the case. We’ve seen in the past few weeks that falling behind early can be dangerous. Minnesota trailed by 11 at halftime against both Purdue and Illinois. While the Gophers were able to overcome it against the Boilermakers, that wasn’t the case this past Saturday.

I think you raise a good point about the halftime adjustments. This coaching staff seems to have a knack for making a few tweaks heading into the second half that pay dividends. Against Purdue, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys figured out a way to slow Purdue’s offense down after the Boilermakers scored 31 points in the first half; Minnesota gave up just seven points after halftime. Like you said, the Gophers would much rather come out firing to start the game and build a big lead early. But I’m just not convinced that this offense is one that is capable of doing so.

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