COLLEGE FOOTBALL: As passing game struggles, so do Gophers
MINNEAPOLIS—First-year coach P.J. Fleck fends off any comparison to Minnesota Gopher football teams of yesteryear, but fans have endured similarly poor passing offenses year after year.
With a quarterback combination of Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda, Minnesota's passing offense ranks 116th among 130 FBS programs this season. Croft completed 31 percent of his passes for 139 yards, no touchdown and a red-zone interception their 17-10 loss at Iowa Saturday, Oct. 28.
Fleck said he saw improvement from Croft against the Hawkeyes, but it wasn't enough to beat their rival in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale. Croft likely will get his third straight start at Michigan next week.
The loss to Iowa dropped Minnesota to 4-4, 1-4 Big Ten, with two wins needed in four November games to keep its five-year streak of bowl games alive. The Gophers' best odds for wins—Nebraska (4-4, 3-2) at home on Nov. 11 and at Northwestern (5-3, 3-2) on Nov. 18—seem to have grown longer as both of those programs have beaten teams that have beaten the Gophers in recent weeks.
On Saturday, the Cornhuskers won 25-24 over Purdue, which pulled away from Minnesota to win 31-17 on Oct. 7. Northwestern beat Iowa 17-10 in overtime last week, and upset No. 24 Michigan State 38-31 in triple overtime Saturday. The Gophers lost to the Spartans 30-27 on Oct. 14.
Then there's Michigan, whose fans grew restless with backup quarterback John O'Korn before he was benched against Rutgers on Saturday. With starter Wilton Speight injured, Brandon Peters led touchdown drives in his first three series to beat Scarlet Knights 35-14.
Any offensive jolt for the Gophers will have to come from current contributors. After showing a jittery presence in the pocket in last week's win over Illinois, Croft showed a bit more poise in the pocket against Iowa while still taking four sacks. He still needs to find the balance between when to leave the pocket and when to just step up and throw.
"I thought Demry played way better this week than he did last week," Fleck said. "Now, again, we didn't win the game. Did he have a winning performance? Probably not, but I thought he played better. ... I thought he changed and grew."
Among his 29 passes, Croft targeted receiver Tyler Johnson 12 times. Nate Wozniak, Mark Williams and Eric Carter were each targeted three times.
Johnson has led the Gophers in receiving in five of eight games. In Iowa City, he had four receptions for 92 yards, including 63 on a deep ball that led to a field goal that cut the Hawkeyes' lead to 17-10 in the fourth quarter. But Johnson also had miscues. He dropped a pass in the red zone, and later in the first half, he couldn't catch a deep pass that went off his fingertips.
"If I could get those plays back, the outcome may have been different," Johnson said. "But those plays are over with."
Besides Johnson, the Gophers' second option has been sidelined or shifted.
True freshman Demetrius Douglas had six receptions in the season opener against Buffalo and then led the team with four catches against Middle Tennessee before he was sidelined for the season with an undisclosed injury. Phillip Howard and Brandon Lingen led the Gophers in two other games, against Maryland and Purdue, albeit with less than five receptions and 50 yards.
"What we have to do is continue to build around what players are showing they are capable of doing, and what they're not capable of doing," Fleck said. "... A lot of pass plays are open. A lot of things we have are there. It's either protection breaks down or the ball is overthrown, or we drop it or things like that, so we're just not executing. They are doing everything the right way; it's just the capability of making those plays that we struggled in."