Offense focuses on play-action pass

Minnesota ranked 10th in the Big Ten in total offense last season.

Left to Right: Phillip Nelson, Chris Steveler and Mitch Leidner practice with the team Tuesday, April 23, 2013, at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex.

Image by Emily Dunker

Left to Right: Phillip Nelson, Chris Steveler and Mitch Leidner practice with the team Tuesday, April 23, 2013, at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex.

by Nate Gotlieb

The Gophers football team discovered its offensive identity during its 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 28.

Just ask offensive lineman Zac Epping, who helped Minnesota match the physical play of Texas Tech’s defense, allowing the team to gain 222 rushing yards on 54 attempts that day.

The Gophers controlled the clock during their bowl game, running 73 plays and dominating the time of possession battle.

Epping said the game was a turning point in the team’s offensive identity.

“We want to be an aggressive team, a downhill running team, and be able to run [hard] at opposing defenses,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep that up.”

Through 13 spring practices, the Gophers’ offense has continued to focus on the running game and playing physically. But Minnesota has added a new dimension to its offense: the play-action pass.

The Gophers’ play-action abilities were on display during an April 12 scrimmage. Freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner laced a sideline pass to sophomore receiver KJ Maye for a 20-yard gain off a play-action fake.

Coaches want the play action to figure into the team’s overall offensive approach of gaining yards on first down and creating manageable third-down situations.

“Everybody talks about being great on third down,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said April 12. “But if you’re great on first down, you’ve got a much better chance to be great on third down.”

Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said the offense’s priority is to gain at least five yards on first down.

“Because if you’re in second-and-five, you’ve got the whole playbook,” he said. “If you’re in second-and-nine, play action isn’t quite as good.”

The offense appeared to take this logic to heart during Saturday’s scrimmage, running the ball effectively on first down and creating play-action opportunities on second and third down.

The effective running game contributed to sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson’s strong performance. Nelson completed more than half his passes and threw one touchdown.

He said the offense has built upon its run-first mentality since the Texas Tech game and improved its execution.

“It’s night and day,” Nelson said. “We’re running the same things — we’re just running them better. We’re getting different looks and knowing what to do with them.”

Head coach Jerry Kill has emphasized toughness and physicality throughout the spring. The team’s increased physicality has led to a couple of minor scuffles between offensive and defensive linemen. Coaches said they see an occasional scuffle as part of the process of building physicality.

“As long as it is controlled,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said after an April 6 practice. “You will never see us just let them go.”

Hawthorne shows ability to kick under pressure

Kill called the team and fans in attendance onto the field after Saturday’s scrimmage while senior kicker Chris Hawthorne attempted a pair of field goals.

Hawthorne made both kicks despite the artificial distractions.

The Gophers will need Hawthorne to step up this season after graduating Jordan Wettstein, their top kicker from last season.

Wettstein made 14 of 22 field goals last season, when the Gophers ranked second-to-last in field-goal percentage in the Big Ten.

Hawthorne, who made six of nine field goals in 2011, did not attempt a field goal last season. He said he has been trying to build chemistry with his new holder this offseason.