No. 7 Gophers offense putting up historic numbers under Ciarrocca

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              Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, center, jumps in celebration with defensive back Chris Williamson after the defense stopped the ball against Penn State during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 31-26. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
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MINNEAPOLIS — With no game on the schedule the week before Minnesota played Penn State, most of the Gophers coaches hit the road for recruiting.

Kirk Ciarrocca hung back and crafted the game plan to beat a Nittany Lions defense that entered with the second-fewest points allowed in the FBS.

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“Kirk loves to be by himself. He got more work done than anybody in the entire building,” coach P.J. Fleck said after the 31-26 victory on Saturday, adding: “He loves sitting in his hole, watching film, and it showed.”

The Gophers ran the ball 40 times and attempted 20 passes, averaging a robust 7.7 yards per play. They had 24 points in the first half, more than the Nittany Lions had allowed in any of their previous eight games, taking only two sacks for 10 yards and producing just one turnover, a fumble near midfield.

“The kids played great. It always comes down to them,” said Ciarrocca, who was announced Wednesday as one of 41 nominees for the Broyles Award, given annually to an outstanding assistant coach in the FBS.

Fleck has given Ciarrocca full responsibility for the play calling, so he can focus on game management and other responsibilities of being the head coach. Ciarrocca, who has been Fleck’s offensive coordinator for the entirety of his career as a head coach, four years at Western Michigan and the last three seasons with Minnesota, said Wednesday that all the praise for shrewd play calls made him “giggle a little bit.”

He pinned the progress and success for the Gophers on offense on the players, with quarterback Tanner Morgan, running back Rodney Smith and wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson being the highest-profile members of a group that is second in the Big Ten with an average of 37.6 points per game, behind only Ohio State.

That extra time to strategize for Penn State, though, sure helped.

“I love the bye week. Geez, can we get a six-game schedule? That would be tremendous,” Ciarrocca said. “It’s not like I do the whole game plan myself, even when they’re on the road. I’m not letting them off that easy. They’re working.”

The Gophers (9-0, 6-0) rose all the way to seventh in the Associated Press poll and eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings this week. They have scored at least 28 points in all nine games, a feat never before accomplished in the history of a program that first launched in 1882. They were shut out in the last two games of the 2017 season, a predictably rocky first year for Fleck and his staff.

Ciarrocca, who first worked with Fleck at Rutgers in 2010 when he was the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and Fleck was the wide receivers coach, almost left Minnesota last winter for West Virginia to join Neal Brown’s staff, another under-40 former colleague of his. Ciarrocca, whose first 23 years as a coach were on the East Coast until he joined Fleck at Western Michigan, ultimately decided to stay with a late-night call to Fleck after initially telling him he was leaving.

“Kirk and I couldn’t be more opposites. I’m talking north pole, south pole, and we’re standing right in the middle of it, and the only way we can kind of connect is by looking straight down through the core of the earth. But we complement each other really well. He taught me so much when I worked for him. Not only just the football, but how to work for someone.”

Ciarrocca clearly has no regrets about staying in Minnesota.

“I don’t think I’ve ever not seen him in the offensive staff room watching film,” said Morgan, who’s third in the FBS in yards per passing attempt (10.9). “He works incredibly hard and prepares better than everybody in the country to put the players and our offense in the best situation possible so that we have no regrets.”