Craig Has The Scout - Minnesota 2021
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Who: Minnesota Golden Gophers
When: 11:00am - November 6th, 2021
Where: Huntington Bank Stadium
Head Coach: PJ Fleck. I had written this fun summary for PJ Fleck Tuesday night:
The insanity and pomp of PJ Fleck seems very muted this year. I wondered about that at first, then remembered the high profile openings that are available. Fleck is the perfect Plan B candidate for those that lose out on James Franklin, or he might be a replacement for Franklin. USC and LSU are both premier destinations, but Nebraska or Virginia Tech would work too. Ed Orgereon and Gary Patterson both created controversy and were walked out the door, Fleck has suddenly avoided shining light into his closets. Even if he doesn't leave, Fleck's contract for 2022 will be better than the 2021 version.
Looks like Minnesota felt the same way as they extended Fleck. Good for Fleck, bad for the B1G West.
Offensive Style: Zone blocking run scheme with RPOs. Minnesota has the 3rd best offense in the B1G this year. Which is a surprise because Mike Sanford is calling the plays. Minnesota mixes the inside and outside zone blocking with RPOs. They mesh that with a simple array of passing concepts attacking the intermediate and deep routes against defenses.
Defensive Style: 3-4 using stand-up OLB and Cover 4 extensively. Joe Rossi is the DC, and he is extremely aggressive with his blitz packages. The defense is 17th in SP+ and forces opponents to string together drives. It is susceptible to deep vertical routes, but requires great execution to deliver it.
Specialists: Minnesota Special Teams for the last few years have been less than special. So Fleck brought in two kickers and a punter to improve the kicking through competition. The results are less than stellar. Matthew Trickett, a transfer from Kent State is kicking at a similar pace as previous years. Daniel Sparks transferred in from ULM but was beat out by returning punter Mark Crawford. Crawford has stabilized but is still negative WAR for B1G punting.
Three Things to Watch
Golden Gophers rushing yards. When the offense is working correctly, Minnesota will run the ball 50 times per game. They have lost their top two running backs already this season, and are now relying on two freshmen to shoulder the load. The Illini have won games where they throttled opposition running attacks.
Illini rushing yards. Illinois needs to have the run game to be working to be in this game. If Illinois can rush for over 200 yards, they have a chance to win the game.
Tanner Morgan completion percentage. In games Minnesota has lost, Morgan is completing around 50% or less of his passes. He has completed 75% of his passes in the last three games, all convincing Gopher wins.
Scouting Review - Offense
2020 was a rough year for PJ Fleck and the Golden Gophers. The 2019 Gophers were among the most dynamic and explosive offenses in college football. The offseason saw the departure of the OC Kurt Ciarrocca and WR Tyler Johnson. Sanford did not have much practice time to get into sync with his new offense, and the offense suffered.
Sanford came into 2021 though with high hopes. All-Big Ten tackle Daniel Faalele returned after optin out in 2020. Mohamed Ibrahim, a rolling ball of razor blades at running back, was returning as well. The rushing game needed to improve for Minnesota to improve, and Ibrahim and five returning OL were ready to deliver. Ibrahim and his top back-up Trey Potts have both been hurt this season. The rushing attack is back though.
Chris Autman-Bell continues to be the main receiving threat for QB Tanner Morgan. He has twice as many catches as any other receiver. Autman-Bell is the safety net for Morgan and his default receiver. The deep threat is Mike Brown-Stephens, a sophomore averaging 24.6 yards/catch. The passing game is suspect, and Morgan is muddling through the year with a 6 TD and 5 INT season.
Sanford has quality depth, a luxury he has been afforded due to Fleck's top-notch recruiting. The main losses are in the RB room, probably the easiest position to backfill on offense. The core of the offense all started in 2019. Sanford has been able to replicate the rushing attack but the pass game struggles.
Minnesota has been doing everything they can this year to keep the run game going. Tanner Morgan went from being mentioned in the rare air of Justin Fields to mixing with such stalwarts as Spencer Petras. It's amazing what happens when a college offense loses two NFL wide receivers. Sanford and Tony Petersen have some mind meld on making run games work, and Minnesota has been employing overloads and heavy offensive packages. Minnesota has been trotting out extra OL all season. Here is the standard inside zone run play out of the heavy formation.
On the near side, Minnesota has 3 OL to the right of the center, with 2 OL on the other side for 6 total. This was part of the opening drive for the Gophers against Nebraska. They run another formation with the same personnel, seen here against Purdue.
The H-back here is lined up outside the normal OT, with an additional OL lined up outside of the H-back. They ran a split zone play here with the H-back wham blocking across the formation. The formation is something to watch for, it requires the LBs and DL to adjust and cover accordingly. If the defense is not aligned correctly, the OL has a chance to blow open big holes. The heavy look will also create a chance to take a deep shot down the field.
The pass setup is designed to isolate the receivers in single coverage. The routes allow Morgan to have a quick read. The safety has a decision on where to help, and here he chose the outside allowing Morgan to complete an easy throw down the seam.
Minnesota will run the inside zone out of the normal sets as well. Tanner Morgan is pretty good on the read, but would prefer not to run.
Here he probably should have kept. Here is the play with the correct read.
This is the split zone look, but Morgan read the end correctly. Morgan will keep as well.
Morgan read this deep, almost looking like he was auditioning for Urban Meyer's offense.
The Gophers will run outside-zone extensively as well. The offensive tackles for Minnesota are not incredibly mobile, so the plays in this case involve the OT kicking out the end man and driving them upfield. The interior OL is agile enough to reach and get to the next level.
Again, the split zone play with the H-back block across the formation. The Gophers will run a split zone look out of the pass play as well. The split zone blocking scheme will move the TEs and H-backs pre-snap, an action Minnesota uses to their advantage.
This is using the extra lineman again in the formation. The H-back flat motion slowed the linebacker flow which allowed the Gophers to get the corner on the run. They will mix in a play-action pass to take advantage of the motion.
Again, the heavy formation is in play here as well. The Illini defense will need to be assignment sound against the looks.
Robert has his issues with officials spotting the ball on hash marks. I have issues with officials not calling motion penalties on receivers moving forward at the snap. Minnesota is wildly guilty of this, and if I was coaching against Minnesota I would be in the line judge's ear before the opening kick about it.
The H-back starts to move on this play long before the snap. Here is a counter play, with a TE doing the exact same thing.
The movement in both cases is a penalty, and the Illinois coaching staff should watch for it. Minnesota has 3-4 plays per game where this happens, and the worst part is it happens on the edges of the formation.
As seen in the clip above, Minnesota will employ man-blocking schemes as well. The counter is one of the versions.
The motion freezes the backside safety in this play. The pulling guard seals the end with a solid block. This is another example of a formation with an extra OL. Here is the same play out of the standard formation
My favorite part of this play is the jab step the H-back takes prior to pulling.
The most dangerous component of the Minnesota offense is the RPO game. When it is in rhythm, it is nearly impossible to stop. Minnesota employs three types of RPOs. They are playside one-on-one routes, quick/bubble screens, and the backside slant concept. The playside routes are the deeper plays and those with the most opportunity to break big.
Morgan appears to be reading the MLB on this play, who comes up on the option look. They will mix up the routes run by the wideouts though. Here is a similar play utilizing a deep out.
The read here appears to be the OLB. Morgan decided to pull this pre-snap. The offensive line blocking indicates this is an RPO all the way though. In both instances, the receiver is Brown-Stephens. He is small but effective in space.
The second type of RPO is the backside slant. The play was used more frequently when Ciarrocca was calling the offense, but it is still a staple of their attack. The backside slants are run to more the larger wideouts like Autman-Bell. Here is an example.
This route was to Autman-Bell. These routes require the QB and the WR to be in sync on the timing. Autman-Bell is making his break as Morgan is mid-throw. Here is another example.
In this instance, the throw is later. The play works due to the wider split of the wideout and the outside leverage of the corner. Minnesota will run this early and often Saturday.
The final RPO is the bubble screen. This is again run out of the 6-OL set.
The heavy formation put the Minnesota WRs in man coverage making this more deadly. I don't believe Illinois will run much man coverage on Saturday, but in certain situations the Gophers can predict Illinois will be in it. On those downs, watch for this play.
The Minnesota passing attack is the most deadly out of the RPO scheme. The focus on the run game opens up a dynamic play-action passing attack as well though. Minnesota runs very few complicated schemes on the play-action attack, most of the play-action passes are deep shots isolating the wideouts. The most common play involves a deep post route.
The Ohio State DB is beat here and interferes on the play. The play is a two man route involving a deep cross which sucked up the safety and the deep post. If Morgan gets this ball deep enough, this is a surefire touchdown. Here is another example where the receivers are twinned.
In this case, the safety sat on the post opening up the crossing route. The play again is a 2-man route combination. They will run the play out of the heavy formation they like to use as well.
Another passing option for Minnesota on the play-action passing attack is using the TE in the flat.
The Gophers motion the TE to the side which bumps the LBs in the Buckeye zone. The WR attacks the OLB and freezes him in place, opening the flat/curl zone for the TE to come free. They will also throw tunnel screens out of the play-action passing scheme.
The Golden Gopher offensive line is full of road graders, but as seen here they are agile as well.
Minnesota do have a series of passing concepts, but they don't rely heavily on them. The passing attack are the standards seen in most spread offenses. The primary two options are mirrored routes and mesh concepts. The mesh is a favorite of most teams running RPOs; it allows TEs to slip behind the LBs.
The read on the mesh concept is simple, and if the pocket is clean as it is here the throw is pretty easy. The other major concept is the mirror routes they run. The passes are intermediate and deep mixes. The main one they run is the seam-out combinations.
The delay by the receiver isolates him with the nickel. He shook the defender and Morgan threw a strike on the play. The Minnesota passing attack is really a tool to assist the run game. If they are not forced to pass, the Gophers won't.
Penetration is key to beat the Minnesota zone running scheme. The offensive line for the Gophers is stout though which will present a challenge for the Illini. I expect Illinois to get aggressive with the front seven to force Morgan to keep when possible. The passing concepts Minnesota employs are simple, but create challenges due to the run game and the effectiveness of their RPO game. The Gophers' passing offense will take shots down field and isolate receivers in one-on-one matchups. Sanford's focus on the run game makes the play-action passes more deadly.
Scouting Review - Defense
Fleck has found a DC who matches his manic personality. Robb Smith was the DC for Fleck, and was fired a few years ago after Illinois ran them out of Champaign. Rossi was on staff and took over as the new DC. Rossi is aggressive, but teaches sound fundamentals. Rossi has toned down the blitzing this year, and is relying on a fundamentally sound defense. The defense has a fundamental flaw, a lack of pass rush.
The defensive front this season is finally starting to generate consistent pressure. Boye Mafe continues as the best defensive lineman, and Thomas Rush has become a presence with 4.5 sacks this year. The LB corps is solid and wraps up well. The secondary is set in a bend but don't break coverage. Coney Durr is the best defender in the secondary, Overall, this is a very experienced Minnesota defense.
The core tenet of the defense is to make the run fits up front. The defensive line is good at maintaining the line of scrimmage and allows the two middle backers to flow reasonably freely.
The Gophers spend a lot of their time in Cover 4. The advantage is it allows the safeties to support the run defense. The support has produced a defense allowing 3.36 yards per carry. Most importantly, Minnesota rarely allows big runs. They have allowed half as many big runs this season as Illinois.
The standard defense has the 3 down linemen, with a stand-up LB on the edge. They then layer in the two MLBs and roll another LB into the box. Against heavy run teams like Illinois, they will walk the other linebacker up to the end of line as well.
In this instance, they have walked a safety into the box as well, which is fairly common for them when they see these run formations. The beauty of Cover 4 is that it allows a defense to disguise coverage. In a typical Cover 4 setup, the DBs are aligned at a uniform depth across the back of the defense. The assignments for the corners though are to take the outside receiver in coverage. This allows the DC to disguise Cover 4 as press man at times. It also makes actual press man more effective as QBs have to wait until the DBs react to read the coverage.
The Gophers are in press man in this case, but Purdue had good pass protection allowing the route to develop.
The Gophers have an array of blitzes to attack opposing offenses. When they move to the 3-3-5 Nickel look, the blitz packages typically involve the Nickel. Here are a few examples of the Nickel blitzes.
In the second example, the Gophers were caught in man coverage and Ohio State gashed them. Another wrinkle the Gophers like to introduce is sugaring the A-gap. Sugaring LBs tests the range of the LBs as they need to get back to their zone after covering the center pre-snap. The move normally gets the offensive line protection scheme into 1:1 matchups. Here is an example.
The Gophers only rush four, and drop all their LBs. The double-team Purdue put on the end allowed the Nickel a free path to the QB. Peters will need to have his clock set to get the ball out.
The Gophers will bring LB blitzes as well. The LBs are primarily run stuffers, so they are blitzed sparingly on passing downs.
The Gophers may show more run blitzes on Saturday than normal to disrupt the Illini blocking scheme.
The Gophers are focusing this year on getting a pass rush with their front four. To assist in generating more pressure using only the front four, they are stunting their DL more. The primary stunt is the end-tackle exchange.
The stunt allows the end to get a rush up the middle. The tackle is used to contain the QB. On some occasions they will run the stunt on both sides.
And as seen here and again here
The Gophers will sugar the LB. The net effect is single pass blocking against their primary pass rush threats.
Joe Rossi runs a scheme familiar to Illinois. They played against this exact same front last week against Rutgers and struggled. Minnesota is a better version of the Rutgers defense, but doesn't sell out quite so hard with their DTs. Minnesota is flat out better too. The defense is a bend but don't break variety, and effectively limits big plays. Teams that beat Minnesota establish the run and hit their shots downfield. Illinois needs to have success on first down to reduce the chances of creative blitzes and stunt calls.
What does it mean?
Minnesota is going to pound the rock this weekend. The offense works when the run game works. They are on their 3rd string running back, so they will rely on the offensive line to generate the yards. Minnesota has been using a heavy set all year and will most likely use it extensively this weekend. The Illini defense has shown itself to wear late in games, Minnesota will utilize the rushing attack to make that happen.
The Illini offense is not a huge threat to the Gophers. Illinois has some big play options though, which Minnesota needs to contain. Defensively, I expect fewer blitzes than normal. The Gophers will rely on their senior laden defense to be assignment sound and stop big plays. Minnesota will be raising their fists often this weekend for forcing 4th downs.
For Illinois to Win:
The offense has to show a pulse and the defense has to make Morgan complete tough throws. The Illini defense has shown a lot of heart and effort the last couple of weeks, but they are seeing too many plays. The defensive efforts have kept Illinois close in games and have kept opponent scores in the 20s or lower. Illinois hasn't allowed more than 24 points since Virginia.
Minnesota is running the ball 50 times per game because they have to do so. The top two running backs are freshmen due to injuries. If Illinois can put the game onto Morgan's arm, they have a chance.
The Illinois offense is going to get into an ugly contest with a very disciplined Minnesota defense. Illinois has to sustain drives. If Illinois can avoid a crippling turnover, they have a chance to win the game.
For Minnesota to Win:
Illinois is 0-3 when giving up 200 yards rushing this season. The Gophers have to get the ground game working and wear out the Illini defense. Minnesota has a top flight OL, so the running backs will be relied upon to hit the holes they open.
Defensively, they need to keep the plays in front of them. The defense has normally been bend but don't break, but will allow some deep passes. They need to keep those deep shots in front of them this weekend.
This game will come down to Illinois forcing turnovers. If they force a few, they cover this easily. If they don't, Minnesota will eventually wear down the defense and pull away late. I'll bet on Illinois getting a couple of turnovers and covering the spread.
YTD Against the Spread: