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Rodney Smith runs wild in Gophers’ 40-17 win over Illinois

The Gophers’ offense is showing opponents they can win in different ways.

Last week, Minnesota used a lethal passing attack to fuel its road win over Purdue. On Saturday, a dynamic rushing attack took over.

The Gophers ran wild against Illinois’ defense, accumulating 332 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 40-17 win. Rodney Smith was making defenders miss and the Gophers’ offensive line consistently reached the second level. Smith finished with a career-high 211 yards and one touchdown. He accumulated the most single-game rushing yards by a Minnesota running back since Laurence Maroney in 2005 (258 yards). Shannon Brooks also added 111 yards, including a 21-yard score.

After Saturday’s win, Minnesota opened the season 5-0 for the first time since 2004. Dating back to 1892, the Gophers have started the year with five consecutive wins just 21 times. Since 1960, it’s only happened during six of the program’s seasons.

Minnesota gashes Illinois on the ground

Minnesota’s offense ran into light boxes because Illinois initially played with two-deep safeties. Right away, Rodney Smith ran to the edge off outside zone for a pair of six-yard runs. Illinois adjusted with single-high, but Minnesota couldn’t connect on a slant over the middle. As the game progressed, Illinois had to commit more defenders to stopping the run. After a dynamic 64-yard burst by Rodney Smith (into a seven-man box), Illinois flexed to single-high and frequently had eight players defending the run.

The Gophers ran a few outside zone concepts to take advantage of their personnel strengths. Conner Olson did an excellent job of finding defenders in the second level. During the first three drives, Minnesota’s running backs were averaging 4.9 yards per carry and it was fueled by strong blocking. Tight end Jake Paulson and right tackle Daniel Faalele had key blocks to seal the edge. Late in the half, Minnesota ran outside zone and Shannon Brooks broke free for a 21-yard touchdown run. Left guard Blaise Andries got to the second level for a key block and Brooks cut back to the outside for a score. The running backs all have superb vision and the offensive line has shown the ability to thrive on the move.

Early on, Minnesota just couldn’t get the passing game going. The Gophers didn’t fully capitalize upon a takeaway as Tanner Morgan’s red zone pass was slightly off target to wide receiver Tyler Johnson. Johnson ran a slant, and had separation, but the timing was inadequate.

On the team’s fifth drive of the game, running back Rodney Smith broke free for a 64-yard run. Left tackle Sam Schleuter did an excellent job of sealing the edge. Tight end Jake Paulson also swiped down and blocked the end. Smith got space and broke free for an explosive run. It was a big play that forced Illinois to commit more defenders to the run. Minnesota’s blend of both inside and outside zone concepts allowed them to control the line of scrimmage.

A couple plays later, quarterback Tanner Morgan drove a slant into traffic. The ball tipped into the air and wide receiver Tyler Johnson made a fantastic tip-grab in the front of the end zone. With two defenders in-between him, Johnson concentrated on the pass and shielded himself through contact. He finished the day with three catches for 38 yards and a touchdown.

Passing game catches fire late

The passing game came to life in the second half and the Gophers took advantage of Illinois’ eight-man boxes. On the first play of the second half, Minnesota sold the play-fake and attacked up the seam. The strong safety bit hard on the running play and Tanner Morgan found wide receiver Rashod Bateman for a 59-yard reception. A few plays later, wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell identified the defensive back’s outside leverage and snapped off a beautiful red zone slant. His release was perfect and he kept his shoulders square at the top of his route. Morgan connected with Autman-Bell for a 10-yard touchdown reception and Minnesota extended its lead to 13 points.

The Gophers kept attacking the Fighting Illini on the ground and they continually needed to commit defenders. Shannon Brooks broke free for an explosive 21-yard run, and just two plays later, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca stretched the seam again. Tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford was in-line, released off his block and hauled in a 12-yard touchdown grab. Quarterback Tanner Morgan sold the play-fake extremely well and connected with Spann-Ford. The young tight end will continue to be a weapon in these type of situations because of his athletic skills.

When opposing coordinators need to take away the running game, the Gophers have weapons to exploit teams through the air. Eventually, Illinois had to load the box and play with a single-high safety to prevent explosive rushing plays. Even into those stacked boxes, Minnesota stretched the Illini defense horizontally and played very physical. This speaks to the multi-dimensional features of Minnesota’s offense.

 Illinois gets two defensive scores

Two of the main offensive blemishes were the result of turnovers. It appeared quarterback Tanner Morgan was throwing into two-deep safeties, the linebackers dropped and he let go of an errant pass. Jamal Milan stunted to the edge and it was unclear where Morgan was going with the ball. It was intercepted by Dele Harding, who took It the distance for a 40-yard touchdown.

Late in the third quarter, Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen blitzed off the edge and it wasn’t picked up correctly by the left side. Quarterback Tanner Morgan was stripped by Hansen and the Fighting Illini added another defensive score. Illinois had 14 points off turnovers and never reached the end zone offensively.

Limiting explosive running plays

Entering Saturday’s game, Minnesota knew they would need to seal the edge, maintain run fits and tackle in space. Illinois ranked 32nd nationally in rushing play explosiveness (1.72), according to CollegeFootballData. Running backs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown always take advantage of poor tackling and alignments. The Gophers remained disciplined and held Illinois to 91 rushing yards on 27 carries (3.4 YPC).

It didn’t take long for the Gophers’ defense to start containing Corbin. On the game’s first drive, Corbin rushed the ball three times for 11 yards. On third down, Illinois ran a mesh concept over the middle. Minnesota covered it well, quarterback Brandon Peters scrambled and linebacker Kamal Martin knocked the ball loose. Illinois recovered, but Minnesota got off the field on third-down. A few drives later, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepted quarterback Brandon Peters’ errant pass and set Minnesota up in the red zone. Winfield Jr. was flying all over the field and continued to play a big role in the scheme. With Jordan Howden’s development, the Gophers have even more flexibility to disguise coverages and move Winfield into the box.

Late in the first half, a missed tackle on an outside zone run led to a 21-yard gain by Reggie Corbin. Illinois was moving into the red zone, but an errant pass by quarterback Matt Robinson was followed by a missed field goal. In the first half, Minnesota had one undisciplined drive where Reggie Corbin accumulated 38 yards on three carries. Prior to those plays, Minnesota allowed just seven carries for 20 yards (2.8 yards per carry).

 The entire defense was disciplined

The linebackers did an excellent job of maintaining alignments and fighting through blocks. Minnesota also set the edge and forced runs back inside. Linebacker Kamal Martin has been playing at a very high level and led the team with seven tackles. Defensive tackle Keonte Schad was also a standout performer and made a big difference against the run. He fought through double teams and ran down runs to the edge. He is also playing with excellent leverage as a pass rusher and is making a difference in that capacity. Early in the game, Schad hustled downfield and tackled quarterback Brandon Peters from behind. Peters left the game injured and Illinois turned to redshirt freshman Matt Robinson.

Minnesota kept Illinois out of the end zone and allowed just one rushing play of more than 20 yards. They also dialed up some pressure packages on third-down to get after both Peters and Robinson. At one point, Boye Mafe and Carter Coughlin lined up on the edge with Tai’yon Devers and Esezi Otomewo inside. Minnesota bluffed Double A-gap pressure, realigned and sent linebackers Braelen Oliver and Kamal Martin off the right side. These type of looks helped the Gophers’ defense finish 5-for-17 on third-down.

In the secondary, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste started and continued to perform well. He had two pass breakups and was aggressive in passing lanes. His length and agility help him get into lanes consistently. He plays with strong technique and can stay tight to defenders in man coverage. If St-Juste is healthy, he will continue to play a big role in the Gophers’ defense.


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