Craig Has The Scout - Minnesota 2019
Who: Minnesota Golden Gophers
*When: 2:30 pm - October 5th, 2019 *
Where: TCF Bank Stadium
*Head Coach: PJ Fleck. *This could be a big year for PJ Fleck. For all the rah-rah stuff, he has a team with a pretty stout record coupled with a pretty weak schedule. If things break only sort of his way, he should be looking at a 9-3 season. With the number of high profile jobs looking to open, Fleck may find himself as a beneficiary and moving on up in the coaching ranks.
*Offensive Style: Shotgun Power Spread. *Fleck has run this offense since his days at Western Michigan. It is not a fun watch unless he has better athletes than his opponent. It is shockingly effective though and has been adapted to be very efficient passing this season.
*Defensive Style: 3-4 with primarily Cover 3 behind it. *The Illini ran Robb Smith out as DC in Champaign last year, and I'm surprised Fleck didn't leave him on the tarmac. Joe Rossi took over as the interim last year and was named the full-time successor based on the performance change under him. Rossi has simplified the defense and doesn't do anything particularly interesting. What they do though, they do very well.
*Specialists: *It is hard to believe, but the Gophers have only returned 4 kickoffs this year. Illinois will have an advantage in special teams, though the Gophers are solid in this facet as well.
Three Things to Watch
*Illini DEs against the read-option. *The Illini will see a large amount of read-option again this week. Tanner Morgan won't keep often and prefers to pass rather than run it. If he does run, he breaks off chunks. The Illini DEs will need to play square to the line of scrimmage and bottle up the Minnesota rushing attack.
*Peters passing accuracy. *Minnesota plays basic zone coverage and will force opponents to string together drives to score. Peters will need to stay within himself and be accurate to keep the chains moving.
*Illini pass defense. *Minnesota has struggled to run this year compared to previous seasons. The Gophers are averaging 2.6 yards per carry, and their top back (Smith) is averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Morgan, on the other hand, is completing 73% of his passes, and averaging 11.6 yards per attempt. The Illini defense has struggled to slow down opposing pass offenses, allowing 60% completions and 8.1 yards per attempt. Minnesota has completed 50% of their 3rd down conversions this year, and Illinois is coming off a game when they allowed 58% completion.
Scouting Review - Offense
Kirk Ciarrocca has been with Fleck, to quote PJ, six amazing years. This is year seven. Ciarrocca has fully embraced the Fleck way of doing things, and Fleck has given him free rein running his offense.
Ciarrocca showed incredible improvement on offense while at Western Michigan, replacing the Bill Cubit spread with a power rushing spread. Western Michigan showed tremendous ability to transition, which was greatly aided by the fact Western Michigan out-recruited the rest of MAC by a half-mile.
Last season the Gophers were incredibly young and pretty careless with the ball. Statistically, they actually improved offensively vs. 2017 though. This season, they are a year older and taking better care of the ball. The main issue for Ciarrocca, he has a power spread run offense that can't run, but a quarterback who has become incredibly efficient in the passing game. Oh, and the top receiver in the conference in Rashod Bateman.
The mainstay of the Minnesota offense is the Inside Zone Read Option. Morgan is less of a threat to keep than Peters, but Minnesota does a nice job of moving his read and giving him pass options. Here is the basic play, reading the Nickel.
I'm unsure what the Purdue NB was doing on this play, but he helped snuff it out by confusing Morgan on the read.
Here is the same play, with Morgan getting a much cleaner read:
Morgan's top two options are to give or pass. He does a really nice job on the read here, giving the RB a big gain.
Minnesota will motion to change the defensive setups and reads. In this play, they motion the H back, then move the read to the LB.
There are other motions they will use to create confusion on opposing defenses while keeping things simple for Morgan.
When Morgan is not giving on the read, he is most likely hitting the RPO options for the inside zone. When Morgan has his read on the ILB, he is most deadly in the passing attack.
If you are unsure if this is a play-action pass or an RPO, notice the OG blocking four yards downfield. Shockingly, Morgan decided to target Bateman on the pass.
Minnesota mixes up the route trees on these RPOs, usually having an In route, a Dig route, then a Seam or Post route to blow the top off if allowed. Here are three versions of the RPO.
As you can see, Minnesota tends to break big plays off this Inside Zone RPO game. Morgan defaults to Bateman in route trees, but all of the above feature a different receiver breaking a big play. Morgan is proficient at picking apart intermediate zone coverage.
The Gophers also run Outside Zone, with the RPO game attached. This look is more similar to what Nebraska uses, but Minnesota lacks the explosive backfield the Huskers brought to Champaign. Here is the base Outside Zone.
Morgan actually misreads this. The read on the DE would be to keep, but he will be pretty reluctant to keep the ball.
Here is one where he reads it correctly, and the bubble screen RPO is in play.
This is a nicely executed play and will stretch the Illini LBs. The DEs are being read on the backside, but if they chase the play they leave a gaping hole on the backside (see the previous video).
When the Gophers run Outside Zone after motion, the RPO game is essentially off. The Gophers, similar to Nebraska, like to provide motions to confuse reads and assignments for the defense. Here is an H-back Motion Outside Zone Dart play.
You'll notice on this play there are no receivers running quick-hitting routes, this is a pure run.
Minnesota will use this same Outside Zone action as play action in the passing game.
The OL shows zone action, but they lack a single OL 4 yards downfield. Bateman gets the look here, but the backside post was also available to Morgan. The key for Illinois is to get Minnesota into obvious passing situations so this type of play is moot.
The Illini shutting down the run game will mean they have to shut down the RPO game too, and the Gophers like to RPO the OZ as well.
Morgan is reading the backside LB here, and when he freezes, Morgan goes over the top into the hole in the zone. Morgan doesn't panic and has a nice read.
Morgan does a nice job in the passing game and keeps his eyes up. Minnesota's OL is porous in pass pro, so they try to limit obvious passing situations. Minnesota goes for broke passing on standard downs, and have quite a bit of success. They led off the Purdue game running outs, a crossing route and a deep in.
Morgan does just enough movement in the pocket to allow the play to develop and hits the deep in. When forced into obvious passing situations, the OL struggles.
Mind you, that was Georgia Southern with a 3 man rush…
Since Ciarrocca likes to use motion so much, at least once they will run a Jet sweep against Illinois.
This is a homerun chance for the Gophers, and they like to use it to keep the LBs honest.
Minnesota runs a pretty simple offensive gameplan but does a really nice job of moving the read around on the defense to keep them guessing. Against Illinois, they will be seeing a 4-3 for the first time this season. 4-3 defenses had the highest level of success against the Gophers last year (even though Illinois gave up 438 yards), so expect the Gophers to slow the pace and take advantage of the soft Illini pass defense.
Scouting Review - Defense
Joe Rossi is a very unlikely fit as the Minnesota DC. He is a 3-4 guy, but of a completely different mold than Robb Smith, Fleck's DC last year (until his Illinois incident). Rossi was Kyle Flood's DC at Rutgers, and nobody really felt like that was a successful run. He moved to Minnesota in an off-field role, moved to DL, LB, and then DC.
After Smith was canned last year, Rossi employed a different strategy. Rossi has simplified the defense to Hardy Nickerson levels, but they improved by speeding up the response of the defense. The idea was to simplify reads and let the defense play fast. Last season it resulted in a dramatic improvement with an experienced defense. This year, it has allowed the Gophers to bring in some new blood and quickly assimilate them into the scheme.
When Minnesota is at its base set, they are a 3-4 Cover 3 scheme. They use this to help bottle up the run while avoiding giving up very long pass plays. Here is a similar set, although they are running a hybrid coverage on this play:
The opportunity for Illinois is to attack it passing just like Fresno State did, holes in the zones at the 10-15 yard depth.
The other common theme is the 3-4 Cover 2 Man. The Gopher linebackers resemble the Illini LBs in pass coverage. They are very good at dropping to zones, but struggle covering deep and crossing routes.
This route is just the RB down the seam. Corbin could easily run this, but I suspect Illinois would try to get Daniel Barker in single coverage with the LBs. Tedford designed this nicely too, with the slot receiver (their TE) occupying 2 safeties to open the seam.
In the Cover 2 scheme, the DL are going to stunt against Illinois. The idea is to force the OL to hand off the DL while bringing the 4th rusher from different sides and create overall OL confusion.
The Illini zone run scheme can struggle with this, allowing a free rush in many cases for a DL in the backfield. I think the Gophers will stunt, but I'm not sure on the Cover 2 back shell on these plays.
Instead, if I were calling the defense for Minnesota, I would probably run blitz around every other down using Cover 3. The Cover 3 back end allows the Gophers to bring the strong safety and still cover the deep routes.
In this play, the SS, Howden (23), is coming downhill at the snap. He had no reads, he was just coming hard as an unaccounted for defender in the box. Fresno State is not a big RPO team, which would help counter this, so the Gophers gambled they could blitz and cover behind. With Peters struggling under pressure, Illinois should expect to see the same. This is probably the default set up for the Gophers.
If a single blitzer is good, many are better, right? When Illinois gets into passing downs, I think the Gophers will bring the heat to upset the Illini pass game.
Illinois has struggled providing a clean pocket for Peters, and he seems to lack recognition when he gets one. With no Bateman running routes, this is a chance for Minnesota to pick on the Illini.
What does it mean?
This is going to be a game determined by which team can impose its will on the other. Illinois needs to be able to run, and Minnesota is going to try to break down the Illini pass defense. In both cases, the complementary part of the offense (Illinois pass vs. Minnesota run) needs to support the other part for the victory. Whichever team has the most success away from their inherent strength wins. I would expect both defenses to be incredibly aggressive to wreak havoc on the other.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois has to continue generating turnovers, and they need to pick apart the Minnesota zone defense. The Illini run offense will generate big plays, but they need to sustain drives to win. The Illini defense is incredibly poor at defending shorter fields, so the field position game will be key to an Illini win.
For Minnesota to Win:
The Gophers' defense needs to contain Illinois. The Illini are one of the most explosive teams in FBS but are very boom or bust. Taking away early downs is the key for Minnesota, and I believe they will run blitz while stunting early and often. They may allow Corbin or Brown to explode once or twice, but bottling up the run game should allow Minnesota to get an early lead and then suffocate the Illini offense.
This is the type of game Illinois should cover against. Yet, I have been all kinds of wrong so far this season. Therefore, in pure reverse jinx fashion, I will take Minnesota to cover this. All hail, the worst 4-0 team in the country. Also, a Minnesota cover would be entirely too on-brand for Lovie after the Gophers struggles so far this season.
YTD Against the Spread: