Explosive plays continue to haunt Gophers’ defense in high-scoring loss

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much worse, it did. The Fighting Illini football roster features just eight seniors and 24 upperclassmen — both numbers are the fewest in the nation. Illinois still managed to pummel the Gophers with explosive plays during a 55-31 win.

Until Saturday, the only wins Illinois posted were against an FCS program and two bottom-tier teams in S&P-plus ratings.

That’s a problem.

The defensive mistakes are starting to get out of hand for the Gophers. Minnesota is allowing a whopping 44.3 points per game in six Big Ten matchups.

With six key players from the Holiday Bowl team playing on the current Minnesota defense, the continued issues are starting to become a major problem. Veterans are missing tackles, out of position and taking poor angles. The Gophers allowed five scoring plays of more than 30 yards, including three over 65 yards. Big Ten opponents are also averaging more than 30 yards per scoring play against defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s unit.

Sure, there are young players who are playing important positions on defense, but six veterans are featured in this defense, too. The regression associated with these defensive players speaks to the issues facing this Minnesota defense. Many of these key contributors were extremely successful during the Gophers’ bowl run in 2016. The question to ask is: what has changed?

P.J. Fleck must soon decide whether this scheme is one who he wants to continue running in the future. Illinois was an inexperienced team and managed to do whatever they liked against the Gophers. There hasn’t been a noticeable improvement from the Minnesota defense, especially against teams with similar spread offensive concepts.

Minnesota’s experienced linebackers were not setting run fits and safeties missed tackles in the backend on simple designed runs and read-option looks. Minnesota played soft coverage for most of the day and teams continued to run outside, testing the edge and tackling ability of the Gophers’ defensive backs.

The big takeaway: Minnesota is unable to make the necessary adjustments against teams who spread the field and use motion.

Illinois mixed in stacked sets and spread receivers to make alignments and tackling in space extra important. In the first 25 minutes of the game, Minnesota surrendered three scoring plays of more than 65 yards.

Within Illinois’ first four plays, they picked up two 72-yard rushing scores. Just 42 seconds into the game Illinois running back Reggie Corbin burst free for a 72-yard touchdown. A pulling guard sealed the edge off a read-option look and safety Jordan Howden missed a tackle in the backend to spark the long score. On the next drive, rush end Carter Coughlin was sealed on the edge and safety Jacob Huff got sucked too far up to the corner. Jordan Howden was misaligned and running back Dre Brown burst free for the second 72-yard touchdown. Illinois used a read-option look with a subtle speed option wrinkle to confuse the Gophers’ defense. It certainly worked as every level of the defense was out of position or missed tackles. The Fighting Iliini ran just 14 plays in the first quarter, but managed to accumulate 207 total yards.

In the second quarter, Minnesota allowed another big explosive play as wide receiver Ricky Smalling ran a simple quick slant for a 67-yard touchdown. The Gophers were again playing soft coverage and cornerback Terell Smith missed a tackle for another long score.

The defensive struggles continued throughout the afternoon as a 44-yard designed run by quarterback A.J. Bush set up another Illinois touchdown. Moments later, a 30-yard pass from Bush to Daniel Barker was effortless as players in the second level were squared up. The amount of mistakes in a variety of areas allowed Illinois to move the ball at will both through the air and on the ground.

When teams spread the field against the Gophers and use motion or deception, the defense has trouble staying aligned and making plays. This has been particularly evident against spread offenses when teams stack, bunch or spread receivers to make lane discipline more critical on the edge. The tackling has been almost non-existent at all levels of the Gophers’ defense as they struggle to play fundamentally sound football.

The offense runs early, slows up late

An opposing offense hadn’t punted more than five times in a game against the Fighting Illini, but the Gophers booted it away six times. The Minnesota offense had accumulated just 53 total yards in the second half until Tanner Morgan found Rashod Bateman for a 61-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Bateman had two long scores, including an explosive 86-yard score where he blew past multiple defenders. He finished the day with seven catches for 175 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

However, Minnesota’s passing game and offensive strategy were clearly impacted by the loss of left tackle Donnell Greene. They couldn’t run longer developing passing plays as the game progressed because of pressure on the left side. Minnesota had to provide help with tight ends chipping on the edge. The entire unit was allowing a high volume of pressure and quarterback hits, which placed a constraint on the play script.

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith dialed up a strong defensive scheme to take away the intermediate run-pass option game. He certainly allowed some long running plays early, but the big lead allowed them to send pressure and get after the Gophers’ offensive line.

Minnesota attempted just two passes on their first drive, but used ten carries on the ground to effortlessly move down the field. Mohamed Ibrahim was running hard and picked up 50 yards as the Gophers averaged 6.9 yards per carry on a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Three drives later, the coaches used the same approach by running a heavy dose of the Wildcat formation with Seth Green. They passed the ball twice and rushed for 66 yards on eight carries, including a short rushing touchdown by Mohamed Ibrahim. Illinois clearly schemed to take away the intermediate game through their coverage schemes. Minnesota took advantage by hitting the inside lanes and popping some outside runs for big gains. The Gophers controlled the first half time of possession, 20:56 to 8:58, but three long touchdowns didn’t require Illinois to hold the ball long.

The team simply got too far behind and it forced them to rely upon an offensive line that struggled to protect. Illinois also deserves credit for their defensive scheme, which took away many of the route concepts Minnesota frequently used in past games.