The key behind the Gophers’ offense

OC Kirk Ciarrocca almost left in the offseason. Instead, he stayed and has made the Minnesota offense as potent as ever.

A Gophers football player watches from the sidelines during a game on Sept. 16, 2017.

Jack Rodgers, Daily File Photo

A Gophers football player watches from the sidelines during a game on Sept. 16, 2017.

John Miller

It doesn’t matter who Minnesota is playing this season — their offense has put up points. Some games it takes longer for the offense to get going than others, but have no doubt about it, Minnesota has forced defenses to respect their passing and running game. 

One could say the emergence of quarterback Tanner Morgan, having three accomplished running backs and three NFL-caliber wide receivers, has been the key to making the offense go. No one can deny that having good talent is necessary to have a potent offense. However, it takes coaching to put it all together.

Arguably, the straw that stirs the drink for this offense is offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. This offseason, the Gophers almost lost him to the West Virginia Mountaineers. 

“I lost him at one point,” head coach P.J. Fleck told the media at the Big Ten Media day before the season started.

Ciarrocca had committed to being the offensive coordinator for the Mountaineers last January, but had a change of heart shortly after, choosing to return to the Gophers over a significant pay increase with WVU. 

“When I thought about this unit in January, I knew at some point, we’d be good,” Ciarrocca said. “I just didn’t know when. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when we would hit our stride.” 

Minnesota’s offense has hit their stride. Through seven games, Minnesota has had one of the most potent offenses in the country. The offense currently ranks No. 22 in the nation for points scored, averaging 36.4 points per game. Since the change of heart, it appears Ciarrocca has made the right decision. 

“I’m just proud of the kids and how hard they’ve worked to get to this point,” Ciarrocca said. “In the off-season, I knew that we had a chance if we could come together as a team. And everybody in the room be committed and fully committed on a daily basis to making themselves better. I knew we had a chance, but it was a race against time.”

Coming into the season, Minnesota’s offense had one big question mark, and that was the quarterback position. Tanner Morgan took over for an injured Zack Annexstad last year and led Minnesota to a bowl game win. However, his job wasn’t secure heading into the season, only getting the nod after Annexstad suffered a foot injury. 

Turn the page to this year. Through seven games, Ciarrocca has turned Morgan into one of the best statistical passers in the game. The redshirt sophomore is currently completing 66.4% of his passes, which puts him at No. 21 in the nation. However, when it comes to passing efficiency, Morgan has been one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. He has a 186.90 passing efficiency rating, putting him behind only Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Ohio State’s Justin Fields. That’s good company. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement in Morgan’s game.

“He sees where he can get better,” Ciarrocca said. “I think that when you have that kind of attitude, you don’t have to show a guy. You don’t have to go into this six paragraph explanation about what’s wrong with the thing. You just show him and he agrees with you, and let’s go.”

It’s not just the passing attack. Despite coming out of the gates rusty, the Gophers running game has worked its way into one of the better ones in the country, and they just keep getting better. The rushing attack is now averaging 187.9 yards rushing per game, which is No. 42 in the country. Running back Rodney Smith has had four-straight 100-yard rushing games, showing that he’s back to full strength after going down with a knee injury last year.

“I think he’s a better player right now than he was before the injury,” Ciarrocca said about the sixth-year senior. 

Despite the success the offense has had so far this season, Ciarrocca feels as if this offense hasn’t even reached their potential yet.

We’ve had some good moments, but we’ve got a lot of meat left on the bone yet,” Ciarrocca said. “There’s a lot of areas where we can improve and play better. I wouldn’t say it’s an unstoppable offense. You can’t say that because we’ve been stopped at times, but honestly I’m just proud of the kids.”