If competing for a Big Ten title is something the Gophers are going to do this season, they are going to have to figure out how to operate with some kind of effectiveness on the offensive side of the ball.
That’s not a revolutionary concept, of course, and certainly Minnesota is trying to do just that. But nothing that Jerry Kill’s team has shown in three games has inspired much confidence that an offensive renaissance is on the horizon.
Things were particularly grim in Saturday’s 10-7 win over Kent State.
Let me repeat that: a 10-7 win over Kent State.
Yes, that’s the same Kent State team that Illinois throttled in Week 1 by a score of 52-3. But Minnesota couldn’t muster much of anything against that same Kent State defense, amassing just 288 total yards and scoring zero points in the second half. Minnesota rushed for just 104 yards.
“Offensively, it was a struggle,” Kill said after the game. “We did what we had to do down the stretch to win the game and get the clock out. But we struggled, and I’m responsible, I’m the head coach. You’ll sit here and ask me all the perfect questions, and I don’t know if I’ve got all the answers yet.
“We didn’t play very well, but we won the game.”
To make matters worse, it wasn’t just moving the ball that was a problem for the Gophers, it was keeping it. Quarterback Mitch Leidner threw a pair of interceptions, and Rashad Still fumbled, a dropped ball that was picked up and ran back 80 yards by Kent State for the Golden Flashes’ lone touchdown.
[MORE BIG TEN: Who's the quarterback? Buckeyes don't seem to know]
Now, this shouldn’t take away from Minnesota’s defense, which for the third week in a row was terrific. The Gophers impressed against a highly ranked TCU team in the season-opener, losing but playing extremely well on defense. Last week, Minnesota snuck away with an overtime win over Colorado State, another game in which the defense played very well.
But after those two difficult opponents to open the season, Saturday’s game against Kent State was supposed to provide an easier opportunity for a win. Instead, it was a test in survival. The Gophers passed, but those questions from Weeks 1 and 2 remain, if they haven't been amplified. The defense is great, but where’s the offense?
“We’ve just got to keep plugging away,” Kill said. “We’re not running the ball very well, and that’s where it all starts. We’re just not executing. So we’ve got to find a way to do that better. … Got to find a way to do it, that’s my job.”
Minnesota, of course, shouldn’t be expected to be stellar on that side of the ball after losing running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams to the NFL. But even with those two stars a season ago, the Gophers’ offense was not one that consistently poured points on its opponents. That’s been the case since Kill arrived in the Twin Cities.
But Kill’s tenure has also brought steady improvement from season to season. The next step in that improvement is reaching the Big Ten title game. But that hardly seems possible while Leidner and the offense continue to sputter at every turn.
“I don’t have the magical answer right now,” Kill said. “But I better get it, or I don’t deserve to be here.”