MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers opened the 2019 season with a win, but it didn’t come without adversity.
In a second half where Minnesota averaged just 3.2 yards per play, it took a last-minute surge for the Gophers to knock off South Dakota State on Thursday night. Minnesota trailed by one point with 3:26 remaining, but a key turnover by Jackrabbits quarterback J’Bore Gibbs set up a short field. Mohamed Ibrahim found the end zone and the Gophers’ defense managed to fend off one final South Dakota State drive.
The Gophers’ defense didn’t record a single sack or tackle-for-loss until the final minutes of the game. However, when they needed it most, defensive linemen Tai’yon Devers and Esezi Otomewo sacked quarterback J’Bore Gibbs to seal a 28-21 win.
Minnesota’s running backs averaged just 3.1 yards per carry and the offensive line struggled to protect stunts. Leaky offensive line play and defensive lapses helped keep South Dakota State in the game. Jackrabbits wide receiver Cade Johnson was explosive and had six catches for 90 yards. On the other side, defensive end Ryan Earith was disruptive and successful when stunting inside. The Jackrabbits also had a strong offensive scheme to take advantage of Minnesota’s weaknesses, especially in the second-level.
Although it wasn’t pretty, the Gophers found a way to win against one of the FCS’ top teams. As they enter this week of practice, there are plenty of areas they must fix before making a trip to Fresno State next Saturday.
Bateman shows off his explosiveness
An electric one-handed grab late in the first half was just a glimpse of what Gophers’ wide receiver Rashod Bateman can accomplish in 2019. When the lights came on for the first time at TCF Bank Stadium, the sophomore wide receiver showed why he will be one of the team’s biggest offensive weapons. He ran smooth routes, made explosive plays after the catch and hauled in a highlight-reel 42-yard touchdown grab.
On the first play of the season, Bateman had a man coverage matchup and ran a deep curl for 24 yards. It was just the beginning of a spectacular night for the sophomore wide receiver.
The Gophers’ first touchdown drive was the result of a long 18-play, 91-yard drive over 10:05. Minnesota ran the ball 15 times and slowly drained clock. The key play of the drive was a 31-yard reception by Bateman. He ran a deep curl and used an explosive cutback to break free for a big gain. It’s clear the Gophers wanted to run the ball, control clock and get matchups they could exploit on the outside.
In the second quarter, Rashod Bateman used pure speed off the release to torch cornerback Don Gardner off the release. Gardner was tripping halfway through the route, but Bateman made an incredible one-handed grab and sprinted into the end zone for a 42-yard score. He finished the night with five catches for 132 yards and a touchdown. Bateman dedicated the performance to his uncle, who recently passed away.
All season, Bateman will receive quality matchups, especially when teams try to double or bracket cover wide receiver Tyler Johnson. It’s a strategy many opponents will continue to deploy in future games.
Issues in the second level of Minnesota’s defense
Throughout the game, South Dakota State ran 21 personnel with two running backs and used pre-snap motion and misdirection to mess with the Gophers’ defense. Early in the game, they used this formation set and ran an end-around to wide receiver Cade Johnson for 25 yards. They occasionally mixed in these type of sets and even used a fullback to help clear the edge. South Dakota State schemed really well and forced the Gophers to make adjustments.
When Minnesota struggled defensively, it was the result of poor run fits or alignments. An explosive Pierre Strong swing pass was called back, but Braelen Oliver was out of position. Upon first glance, there were many situations where run fits weren’t adequate and coverages were not executed by linebackers and safeties. On one play, Mariano Sori-Marin got sucked inside and bit on the running action. Tight end Zach Heins slipped across the formation for an easy 13-yard touchdown. Kamal Martin did not play in Thursday’s game (coaches decision), so Minnesota had inexperienced linebackers on the field all night. The Jackrabbits’ use of misdirection and motion caused headaches for the Gophers defense.
The return of Antoine Winfield Jr. was felt throughout the entire defense. Late in the game, Joe Rossi sent linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin up the A-gap and Antoine Winfield Jr. followed behind him. The snap was already low, Gibbs faced pressure and tossed an errant interception that was returned for a touchdown by defensive back Chris Williamson. Throughout the night, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi was moving Winfield all over the field to take advantage of his unique skills. He had a textbook tackle in space to set up a third down sack that put the game on ice for Minnesota.
Offensive line struggles with stunts
Minnesota’s pass protection was leaky the entire night. Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele each had multiple reps where they allowed pressure and forced Tanner Morgan to escape. Sam Schlueter also surrendered three pressures, but Morgan managed to escape and find wide receiver Rashod Bateman up the sideline.
The offensive line as a whole was struggling with stunts South Dakota deployed. In the third quarter, Ryan Earith stunted inside and it was not passed off correctly by Sam Schlueter and Blaise Andries. Tanner Morgan took a third down sack, which ended a key second half drive. These type of packages require the offensive line to communicate and pass off their assignments. The offensive line also struggled to get consistent push against the Jackrabbits’ defensive line.
Despite the pressure, Morgan helped extend plays and kept his eyes downfield. His most critical mistake came early in the game. Morgan tossed an interception when he stared down his first read and tried to fit in a read-option slant. Instead of the anticipated man-to-man coverage, South Dakota State dropped its linebackers into zone and Josh Manchigiah jumped the route for an interception. Otherwise, Morgan was effective throughout the night. He managed the game well and completed 13 of his 18 passes for 176 yards, a touchdown and one interception. His ability to escape the pocket and make throws in the intermediate game helped the Gophers’ offense take advantage of 1-on-1 matchups.