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Updated: September 10th, 2013 3:02am
Breaking down state of Gophers offense after victory vs NMSU

Breaking down state of Gophers offense after victory vs NMSU

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

Nate Sandell breaks down the performance of the Minnesota Gophers' offense in a 44-21 victory at New Mexico  last Saturday, which put the Gophers out to a 2-0 start to the season.

The inconsistencies that existed in Game 1 against UNLV popped up again, but the Gophers compiled 469 total yards and helped aid in a second straight lopsided final score. The "U" offense was once again slow to kick into gear. But when it did, the ground game looked top-notch against a shoddy NMSU defense.

Run game

• Even with starting tailback Donnell Kirkwood out, the Gophers wore down and bowled over the Aggies' defense for 342 yards -- Minnesota's first time rushing for more than 300 yards since 2007.

• In 2012, the Gophers had four plus-100-yard individual rushing games (Kirkwood with three and former QB MarQueis Gray with the other). They got two in the same game on Saturday from sophomore tailback Rodrick Williams (147 yards) and sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson (122 yards).

• Minnesota ran the ball 74% of the time, with Nelson passing on only 15 of the Gophers' 58 plays. Against UNLV in Game 1, they ran on 38 of 62 plays for 221 yards (61%). The mid-60% range is likely where their output per game will hover.

• Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was rotating between Williams and junior running back David Cobb early on.

However, Limegrover's move to go back to Williams even after Cobb had 39 yards on the Gophers' first touchdown drive paid off. New Mexico State didn't have the personnel to take a down a bruising, power back like Williams once he got into the second level of the Aggies' 5-2 scheme. Of his 147 yards, 107 of them came on the Gophers' final drive of the second quarter and opening drive of the second half. 

• Nelson became the Gophers' first quarterback not named MarQueis Gray to run for 100 or more yards since Asad Abdul-Khaliq in 2003.

• Entering the season, the "U" coaching staff indicated it would like to keep the number of carries Nelson shouldered per game in-check. But the defenses the Gophers have faced in the first two games have set up perfectly to open him up to a high run count.

Nelson has accounted for 33% (27 of 81) of the Gophers' rush attempts this season and a team-leading 205 of their 563 total rushing yards. His carry average is 7% higher than it was in the seven games he played in last season. He already has 21 more yards than he did in 2012, albeit against much weaker competition. Nelson's speed and play vision is noticeably improved from his freshman season.

• As the season goes, the Gophers have to be careful with Nelson. They can't afford to have him wear down. Backup Mitch Leidner has been in on only seven plays so far, all in the game's final minutes. Watch for the Gophers to eventually try to get Leidner into the mix earlier in the game in an effort to take some pressure off Nelson.

Passing game

• While the Gophers haven't really needed it yet, the "U" passing game is still lacking rhythm and consistency. Nelson was 8-of-15 for 127 yards after going 10-of-22 for 99 against UNLV.

Through two games, Nelson and the Gophers have the lowest completion percentage (47.4) in the Big Ten, just barely in front of Michigan State (47.5). But they also have the fewest pass attempts in the conference (38) -- nine less than Wisconsin, who ranks 11th in attempts.

• Nelson started the game a respectable 6-of-9 -- 104 of his 127 yards came in that stretch. Two of his misses were overthrows to receivers Isaac Fruechte and Derrick Engel. Nelson

However, he ended on a 2-of-6 streak, including a bad interception in fourth quarter where he didn't wait for the play to develop and forced a pass up the middle that the defender stepped right in front of.

• Redshirt freshman Maxx Williams was the only tight end/full back thrown to Saturday after Nelson mixed between Williams, fellow tight ends Lincoln Plsek and Drew Goodger and full back Mike Henry in Game 1. Williams made catches on two of the three passes thrown his way for 37 yards.

• The Gophers' pass game continues to be most effective out of play action. Nelson passed out of play action eight times against the Aggies, picking up 94 yards off a 5-of-8 completion rate. In total, Nelson has completed 10-of-16 passes on play action this season, accounting for 150 of the Gophers' 226 passing yards.

Current outlook

What the Gophers have shown in the first games is that their offense remains very much a work in progress. There are positives to be had -- the run game has been at times dominant, the offensive line is starting to gel and Nelson has a legitimate receiving threat in tight end Maxx Williams.

But the slow starts that have occurred in both games are worrisome. It took until their fifth drive, which came in the second quarter, for the offense to started stringing plays together. The Gophers were 0-of-4 on third down to start the game

Minnesota is set up to grind teams down with the run and periodically pick up a solid gain through the air. The Gophers have to be able to establish themselves earlier in game or they are going to be exposed again come Big Ten play.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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