As Georgia Southern linebacker Rashad Byrd scooped up a fumble and sprinted into the end zone, the Gophers experienced their biggest scare of non-conference play.
After a blocked field goal and fumble were each returned for touchdowns, Georgia Southern led 32-28 with 3:47 remaining. For the second straight week, Minnesota faced a deficit in the final minutes. Again, they had to find a way to win.
With the offense trailing by four points, a holding call backed the Gophers up to 3rd-and-29 from their own six-yard-line. Quarterback Tanner Morgan escaped the pocket to find wide receiver Demetrius Douglas over the middle for 21 yards. On the next play, Morgan moved the chains when he fired another 4th-and-8 pass to Douglas.
The Gophers slowly moved up the field and wide receiver Rashod Bateman made an explosive play in space for 25 yards. On 2nd-and-goal from the Georgia Southern 2-yard-line, Tanner Morgan tossed a fade to wide receiver Tyler Johnson. Johnson hauled in an acrobatic two-yard touchdown grab with a cornerback draped all over him.
A last-second drive filled with improbable plays helped lift the Gophers to a dramatic 35-32 win.
Johnson led the way with 10 catches for 140 yards and three touchdowns. On the Gophers’ game-winning drive, Morgan completed 7-of-10 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. Despite a turnover, blocked field goal, and multiple unsuccessful short yardage situations, Minnesota again found a way to make the winning plays.
Gophers’ defense handles triple-option
Minnesota defended the triple-option by using a 4-2-5 look. They rotated defensive backs to play the alley, including Chris Williamson, Justus Harris and Jordan Howden. The coaches aligned Antoine Winfield Jr. as a single-high safety and let him roam occasionally. With Kamal Martin (foot sprain) absent for this game, redshirt freshman Mariano Sori-Marin responded well to the triple-option challenges. He kept his eyes in the right spot, pulled off blocks and didn’t get out of run fits. Williamson also made big plays in run support and has played an integral role in the Gophers’ first three victories.
For the most part, the defense did a strong job of maintaining discipline and pushing perimeter plays back inside. Georgia Southern grabbed an early score when the defense lost the triple-option dive man and Logan Wright broke free for a 21-yard touchdown. The second score came after Minnesota was unable to convert a short-yardage situation on its side of the field. Georgia Southern quarterback Justin Tomlin plunged into the end zone for a 12-yard score.
He kept the ball out of the triple-option, but Carter Coughlin fell down trying to set the edge. The right tackle did an excellent job of scraping to linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, which caused him to fall down. Throughout the game, there were a few moments where the defense lost edge contain, but they managed to never really allow the big play. Georgia Southern was held to just 5 rushing yards in the second half on eight attempts.
In the first half, a combination of occasional explosive passing plays, short fields and offensive turnovers hurt the defense. Minnesota was beaten deep over the top when Tomlin faked the triple-option, dropped back and connected with Khaleb Hood off a post for a 39-yard gain. This was an instance where the Gophers learned they must respect the pass with Tomlin in at quarterback. The Eagles had passes of 39 and 16 yards that kept drives flowing. Georgia Southern also accumulated 14 points off short fields, including a failed short-yardage situation and Morgan interception.
On the offense’s first drive of the game, quarterback Morgan stared into his first read. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman ran a post, Morgan didn’t see the safety and Kenderick Duncan Jr. took it the distance. This is the second time this season where a misread has led to a jumped route.
A few moments later, Minnesota answered a Georgia Southern touchdown by using a stacked set with Johnson and Bateman. Johnson ran a deep slant and Bateman settled into a hitch. Johnson was explosive at the top of his route, got separation and broke free for a 73-yard touchdown.
On the next drive, Minnesota’s offense used a blend of both inside and outside zone to get running back Rodney Smith going. Smith had a 6-yard run off outside zone and also burst through the line of scrimmage for a 16-yard inside run. On one drive, he had six carries for 34 yards (5.7 yards per carry). However, Smith exited in the second half because of an oblique strain.
Morgan ended the sequence by connecting with Johnson for a 7-yard touchdown. It appeared the Gophers ran a classic double slant concept in the red zone with Johnson and Demetrius Douglas. Like every week, Johnson continued to draw attention from the Georgia Southern defense, but the Gophers’ route concepts helped get him open.
Defensive takeaway leads to points
After coming out of the gates fast, Minnesota’s offense started to fizzle. They couldn’t get adequate push up front and struggled in short yardage situations.
Again, the defense forced a takeaway to get things going.
Tomlin attempted a pass to the cruiser, Cam Brown. He hauled in the pass, but Winfield Jr. popped Brown over the middle to knock the ball loose. These are the type of plays Winfield has made all year to shift the entire landscape of games.
The takeaway led to points as Seth Green capped a 5-play, 24-yard touchdown with a 4-yard score out of the Wildcat. On two of Minnesota’s first half scoring drives, they averaged nearly 5 yards per carry. However, the trend quickly changed.
Offense gets less push as the game progresses
As the game progressed, the Gophers’ offensive line struggled to get push. Late in the first half, Minnesota had the ball on its own 34-yard-line. They were unable to get a yard on third or fourth down. Two Bryce Williams runs were stuffed and helped set up a short field for the Eagles. The issues extended into the second half as a negative play by Green and a sack stalled a drive in Georgia Southern territory.
Minnesota had serious trouble getting push in the Wildcat sets. This resulted in negative plays that put the offense in less favorable situations. On a few occasions, the offense didn’t have a numbers advantage in the box, which made it really challenging to get necessary push. If you don’t pass out of the set a few times, it becomes predictable and less effective.
Despite that, even when the Gophers had an adequate numbers advantage, they couldn’t consistently play physical. Minnesota averaged just 1.9 yards per carry, including a daunting 0.6 yards per attempt (29 carries) in the second half. At times, the Gophers’ offense became predictable, but it was the direct result of pass protection lapses and poor push in the ground game.
An underrated turning point
A sequence of complementary football was one of the most underrated moments of Saturday’s game.
During the defense’s first drive of the second half, Boye Mafe notched a key third-and-long sack to get Georgia Southern off the field. Moments later, Douglas had a 19-yard return, which placed the Gophers in Eagles territory. The offense responded when Morgan found Chris Autman-Bell for 33 yards off a simple go route.
In the red zone, Morgan also escaped the pocket to pick up six yards on third-and-5. The redshirt sophomore quarterback had two key third-down scrambles to keep drives alive. Running back Bryce Williams burst into the end zone for a key two-yard touchdown that temporarily put the game back in Minnesota’s control. If the Gophers’ offense doesn’t get points in this situation, the game may have looked totally different.
Running back Mohamed Ibrahim tweaked something in practice and didn’t play in Saturday’s game. Martin was held out because of a foot sprain. During the game, running back Cam Wiley suffered a concussion and Smith also exited.