Sandell's notebook: Gophers hope to fine-tune approach
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It's easy to overreact, good or bad, after one game.
For example, the struggles of the Minnesota Gophers' offense had in the early goings of last week's season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois were enough to cause some concern. It was a reminder of the issues the offense struggled mightily with a year ago.
While some of those concerns are valid, especially when it comes to the Gophers' pass game, it's key to maintain perspective. You never know exactly what you're going to get in Game 1. That was certainly true with the Gophers, who tinkered with an interesting variety of play calls and personnel options as they adjusted to Eastern Illinois' active style.
The bottom line is the Gophers got past their opener with a largely pleasing victory - a 42-20 rout. Minnesota's secondary gave early backing to their self-declaration of being one of the top units in the Big Ten. The special teams units were solid all around. Offensively, despite obvious growing pains, the Mitch Leidner-led group was able to eventually lock in and post four touchdowns.
As their first game made clear, Minnesota is far from fine-tuned. It would be hard to expect them to be at this point. Although the potential is there, the Gophers still have plenty prove before it can be determined whether or not they will be able to contend at the high level they hope to this season.
Here are a few observations and notes as the Gophers prepare to host Middle Tennessee State in Game 2 on Saturday:
• Slow starts continue to be a problem for the offense. It took the Gophers until their fourth drive before getting on the scoreboard against Eastern Illinois, putting up only 19 yards off 10 plays in their first three drives.
In 27 games since the start of 2012, the Gophers have scored only 16 total points on their first possession (one touchdown, three field goals). Last season, nine Minnesota opening drives lasted four or fewer plays and totaled less than 11 yards. Since 2012, the Gophers have failed to score on their first three possessions 13 times. They are 5-8 in those games (three of those wins came during their nonconference slate).
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover acknowledges the issue and continues to stress the point to the offense.
"That's always the challenge," Limegrover said. "We're looking at different things always. We script up a series of starts, series of plays, saying, 'Here is what we really feel is going to be successful, how they're going to react.' You want to make sure the guys feel comfortable with it."
• The Gophers defense was put on its heels at times by Eastern Illinois but ultimately saved itself with key turnovers or big third down stops. Minnesota was outgained 409 yards to 338, but Eastern Illinois got off 96 plays to the Gophers' 58. Thursday's game came to highlight the bottom-line mentality that defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has established for evaluating the success of his defense.
"This game still comes down to you got to cross the goal line and get points. It isn't about yardage anymore," Claeys said. "I think too much now you're judged on how much yardage you give up. The bottom line is: how many points do you give up?"
• Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner freely admitted nerves got the better of him on the first few drives of his start last Thursday. But Limegrover noted that he was impressed by Leidner's composure to regain stability on offense from the second quarter onward.
One of the key areas to watch against Middle Tennessee State will be how Leidner responds, especially early on, with the pressures of his first game as the Gophers' No. 1 QB out of the way.
Leidner, who ran seven times for 15 yards in the opener, has mentioned getting the go-ahead to run on an early call helps him to settle into the game more. Although the Gophers have been emphasizing a drop in the number of designed QB runs this year, will the coaching staff end up giving Leidner the green light to take off more often than first thought? The Gophers can't afford to get Leidner injured taking a bad hit on the run, but that doesn't mean they want to restrict him from running if the situation presents itself.
Quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski stressed that point with Leidner at practice Wednesday, hoping to prevent him from overthinking whether or not to tuck the ball and run.
Zebrowski told him, "I don't care how you do it, let's just get it done. Let's go back to square one. If a protection breaks down and you see a gap, take it."
• Redshirt freshman kicker Ryan Santoso has received plenty of buzz for the eye-catching leg strength he possess. His initial results lived up to the hype. Five of Santoso's seven attempts kickoff attempts in the opener went for a touchback. The Gophers had 22 touchbacks on kickoffs all of last season. Santoso averaged 63.6 yards per kick.
When thinking about the kickers he's had over the years, Kill said he doesn't know if he has had one with Santoso's level of kick strength.
"When he hits the ball, when he hits it right, there's a thud," Kill said. "It feels like the football is exploding."