There is no preseason in college football, which means teams must immediately adjust to live action and contact. The first game always provides challenges associated with new schemes, coaches and players. South Dakota State had returning talent, but a new quarterback and coordinator led to small systematic changes. Throughout the night, Minnesota’s coaches had to adjust.
The Gophers also made their own mistakes, including picking up stunts and being out of alignment defensively. They also got inconsistent push up front and didn’t put themselves in favorable down-and-distance situations.
In this piece, I’ve diagnosed and identified the strengths and weaknesses from the Gophers’ first game of the season.
The biggest takeaways from Thursday night’s game came in the trenches. Minnesota struggled to get adequate push up front on both sides of the ball. The most glaring issues were in pass protection. South Dakota State schemed well and used stunts to cause headaches for the Gophers’ offensive line. The main purpose of this specific scheme is to confuse offensive linemen. A main key for the guard and tackle is to recognize when a stunt may be occurring. The defensive end will take a few steps up field, hesitate and loop. In this type of stunt, the three-technique will move forward about three steps and force the tackle to pick him up. On Thursday, South Dakota State used this stunt and also looped the three-technique occasionally. On four occasions, Minnesota inadequately picked them up and didn’t execute the proper technique. The vast majority of pressure was the result of South Dakota State incorporating stunts into the scheme. Despite Minnesota having a size advantage, the Jackrabbits recognized they could utilize their speed and leverage.
No matter what type of stunt a team is deploying, there are key things to remember. First, it’s about making sure your guard and tackle are at the same depth to ensure you have adequate time to read the stunt. The most critical thing: the guard and tackle have to remain square and communicate. If one of the players opens their shoulders to chase the defender, you’re basically opening a door for the “looper” to rush the gap. The guard and tackle can also switch too early and should try to be hip-to-hip and square when doing it.
In the Gophers’ instances below, guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. opened his shoulders and it led to pressure. The second play in the sequence was communicated well and passed off, but Blaise Andries didn’t sink his hips and get position. During the third play, the nose tackle stunts to the outside, things get jammed up inside and the looper goes untouched. Finally, in the fourth clip, Blaise Andries allows pressure immediately, opens his shoulders and there is simply no opportunity to pick it up.
This week, the Gophers will spend plenty of time working on the two-man stunt drill in practice. These lapses can be fixed and will tie up many of the loose ends related to pass protection. Based upon Fresno State’s past tendencies and front-seven structure, we can expect to see stunts, varied fronts and blitz packages.
Without quarterback Tanner Morgan’s ability to escape and extend plays, many drives would have ended on Thursday. Outside of a poor read that led to an interception, Morgan managed the offense well and made a few excellent throws on the run.
The Gophers’ offensive line did enough on the ground to pull off a victory. However, the running backs averaged just 3.1 yards per carry and 0.8 yards per rush in the third quarter. Minnesota didn’t consistently show the same level of physicality we witnessed at the end of last season. There were certain stretches where the blocking scheme was executed, though. The Gophers benefited from using 12 and 13 personnel to get multiple tight ends on the field. Tight end Jake Paulson was crashing and blocking the edge to help open creases off counter looks. On Minnesota’s 18-play scoring drive, they utilized three tight end packages (13 personnel) six times. Throughout the night, they ran counter plays to help the running game.
Here’s a look at Minnesota’s personnel grouping usage during Thursday’s game:
11 personnel: 33 (56.9%)
12 personnel: 12 (20.7%)
13 personnel: 7 (12.1%)
10 personnel: 6 (10.3%)
Of the Gophers’ 58 alignments, they used multiple tight ends sets on 32.8% of their total snaps. They had rushing success in those formations and will likely continue using them. Overall, the scheme was rather simple and it is clear Minnesota wanted to set the tone by running the ball. They didn’t get very nuanced with their route concepts, but that will occur as the season progresses. The Gophers also had some trouble with timing and blocking on tunnel screens. Those type of plays were called in spots where they didn’t have the right coverage, deployed the set in a predictable spot, or had poor spacing. Moving forward, I would expect the passing game concepts to evolve. The offensive system is going to strategically begin simple and continue to become more nuanced.
South Dakota State also schemed to take away wide receiver Tyler Johnson, which provided favorable matchups for sophomore Rashod Bateman. The young receiver was dynamic after the catch and flashed his explosiveness in space. He also grabbed a one-handed catch to secure a 42-yard touchdown. Based upon Bateman’s improvements (route running, physical differences, etc.), he has the chance to be a breakout candidate.
Finally, I think the Gophers can build upon the final six minutes of the game. This was their most consistent stretch on Thursday night. It’s where we saw the offensive line firing off the ball, playing physical and finishing to the whistle. I cut up the film and sequenced it to show the progression over three plays:
Fresno State has a talented front-seven and will test the Gophers’ offensive line. The Bulldogs will be mixing fronts and coverages the entire night, which will test every single player on offense.
Defensively, Minnesota did enough to win the football game, despite struggling on first down. South Dakota State had 31 first down plays and accumulated 231 yards (7.45 yards per play). When breaking this down even further, the Gophers’ defense surrendered 134 rushing yards (7.44 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. On tape, the interior struggled to get push, fight through blocks and control their gap. The edge contain and gap discipline was inconsistent, partially because players were trying to do too much. One one play, the Jackrabbits pulled the guard and tackle, but ran to the backside of the formation. In that situation, if you lose edge contain, it’s over.
There were also a few plays where run fits were inadequate and the interior couldn’t get off blocks. In this example, the interior can’t control its gaps and linebacker Braelen Oliver gets caught inside.
The Jackrabbits used 21 personnel, diamond formations, and motion/misdirection to test the Gophers’ defensive discipline. They continued to add various wrinkles and groupings throughout the game to make Minnesota adjust. In the play below, they used misdirection to show zone read, option and end-around looks.
With linebacker Kamal Martin out, the team had to start sophomore Mariano Sori-Marin. The only veteran at the position was Thomas Barber, which limited overall scheme flexibility. Despite showing some of this on tape, it took live experience to develop the discipline needed to handle the wrinkles. Many of the coverage breakdowns were the result of lapses in the second-level. Antoine Winfield Jr. was flexed all over the field and extremely valuable, but even he had situations where he looked like he was overcompensating. Everyone was flying to make plays and that led to poor alignments.
When Minnesota dropped into zone, the linebackers bit on the play-fake or got too far up the field. Again, the issues on first down continued through the air. In those situations, South Dakota State completed 8 of its 13 passes (61.5%) for 97 yards and a touchdown. I clipped up some of the lapses below, including three instances where linebackers appeared to be confused or out of position. The entire defense was occasionally over-playing and trying to do too much.
Jackrabbits’ wide receiver Cade Johnson was fantastic and Minnesota had trouble covering him. South Dakota State schemed to get the ball out quick and the Gophers had to defend them underneath with limited pass rush. The lack of success on third down also impacted their ability to get creative and send pressure. Overall, the combination of South Dakota State’s scheme and Minnesota’s trouble in early downs, put the Gophers in unfavorable situations all night. In order to rush the passer well, the opponent has to be in third-and-long. Of the Jackrabbits’ nine third down attempts, five of them required less than five yards. They also had just one third down situation in the second quarter because they were accumulating explosive plays.
Outside of the front-seven and backend, I thought the cornerbacks played pretty well. When in press-man technique, the cornerbacks were physical and redirected routes. In situations where they were in off-man or zone coverage, they made excellent reads and broke on the ball. Cornerback Coney Durr has progressed every year and put together a strong performance on Thursday.
The defense can also build upon the final six minutes of play. They didn’t post a single tackle-for-loss until the final minutes. Defensive tackle Micah Dew Treadway got inside leverage, pulled off the block and blew up Pierre Strong Jr. in the backfield. In the same sequence, edge rusher Tai’yon Devers stunted inside with defensive tackle Esezi Otomewo. They put the game on ice with a huge sack. It was the lone moment where the defense created a negative play to set up a long-down. Minnesota was only in a 3rd-and-8-plus situation three times and they got off the field twice. It illustrates the importance of improving in early downs.
As the Gophers head into the Fresno State game, the entire unit will need to play more disciplined. Quarterback Jorge Reyna can extend plays with his legs and is moved frequently by design. Alignments and discipline will again be very important to prevent big plays.
The Bulldogs also have some dynamic pass-catching weapons, including Derrion Grim and Chris Coleman. Head coach Jeff Tedford is one of the best offensive minds in college football, so he will dial up an interesting scheme. If Minnesota can’t stop the run and play disciplined, they were struggle to control the game and rush the passer.
(Credit: clips were cut from the FoxSports game replay)