Facing former coach an intriguing subplot to Gophers' Big Ten opener
MINNEAPOLIS--Intrigue will be at a premium for the Gophers on Saturday. First, undefeated Minnesota opens Big Ten Conference play at Penn State before an anticipated crowd of more than 100,000 in Happy Valley. Second, the Gophers will need to con...
MINNEAPOLIS-Intrigue will be at a premium for the Gophers on Saturday.
First, undefeated Minnesota opens Big Ten Conference play at Penn State before an anticipated crowd of more than 100,000 in Happy Valley. Second, the Gophers will need to contain Nittany Lions' standout running back Saquon Barkley in order to retain the Governor's Victory Bell trophy.
Yet the game's most interesting matchup was hush-hush on Tuesday. That would be former Gophers offensive coordinator and current Nittany Lions' offensive line coach Matt Limegrover facing his old team and the man who fired him, head coach Tracy Claeys.
If that divorce provides added incentive to either side, neither Claeys nor Penn State coach James Franklin were letting on.
"Kids play the game, so, no," Claeys said.
Franklin said Limegrover, hired in January after being fired after the Gophers' regular season ended in November, has been a "pro" about facing the program he served from 2011-15.
"Matt's been nothing but complimentary about the University of Minnesota - the coaches, the community," Franklin said in a teleconference. "He had a great experience there. He was very appreciative of the time he had there, and now he's at Penn State. He's excited about the things that we have and where we are going."
No bulletin-board material provided, but substance remains in the matchup.
Franklin said former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill's recommendation of Limegrover was instrumental in his hiring.
"When you are Jerry Kill's offensive coordinator for 15 years, with all the success that they'd had, I think it speaks volumes about not only the type of coach but the type of person he is," Franklin said.
Claeys' reasoning for letting go Limegrover, as well as quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, was that he didn't want two play-callers. Under Kill, Limegrover called most of the running plays and Zebrowski handled passing calls. Claeys, who took over when Kill retired midway through the Big Ten season, didn't want his offense run that way.
Besides, Minnesota's offense also mired in ineffectiveness at times last season. The Gophers averaged 22.5 points and 358.9 yards a game, ranking them outside the top 100 in those categories. With new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson, the Gophers have averaged 39.7 points and 430 yards in three games.
Meanwhile Penn State hired a new offensive coordinator in Joe Moorhead, who runs a spread no-huddle attack. He went to Pittsburgh Central Catholic High, as did Limegrover.
"They've known of each other for a long time, so that was part of it," Franklin said.
Success, however, has not been immediate in State College, where the Lions are emerging from scholarship sanctions related to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Penn State currently ranks 112th in the nation with 338.5 yards of total offense, but Barkley is 44th in the country with 317 yards and has seven touchdowns (six rushing, one receiving).
Limegrover, Franklin said, "has really helped our offensive line and we've improved."
"We walked into a tough situation here a couple of years ago on the offensive line, and we are still young and developing," he added. "Matt has done a good job of building off of that. I think you are going to continue to see our offensive line continue to improve not only this year, but for the next couple of years. Matt's going to have a huge part in that. We love him and we're glad he's here."
Limegrover was not made available for an interview but in March told ESPN.com he felt overwhelmed at times last year with two roles, coordinator as well as offensive line coach.
"I'm revitalized and re-energized," he told ESPN.
But one of Limegrover's comments caught the attention of those around the football program in Dinkytown.
Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner played under Limegrover for the first four years of his career and said there is no added motivation this week.
"It's our first Big Ten game. We get to play Penn State, play for the Victory Bell," Leidner said. "That's what's really important to us as a team right now."
Minnesota tight end Nate Wozniak said he plans to say hello to his former coach.
"We just know he's there; that's kind of just as far as that goes," Wozniak said. "It's more just the focus on Penn State. The offense is focused on their defense - what we are going to do. As a team, it's all about keeping the Bell."