For many years, the Gophers’ offense has been built upon running the football. Three seasons later, the tide is shifting.
Minnesota is developing a lethal passing attack that requires opposing coordinators to make adjustments. On Saturday, the trio of Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell, fueled the Gophers’ 38-31 win over Purdue.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan was nearly perfect, completing 21 of his 22 passes for a career-high 396 yards and four touchdowns. Morgan became the first Big Ten player to complete 95.5 percent of his passes in a single game (minimum 15 pass attempts), according to BTN Stats. He also is the first Minnesota quarterback since Adam Weber (Sept. 25, 2010) to accumulate 350 passing yards.
The Gophers’ dynamic passing attack requires a tremendous amount of scheming. Coordinators must decide which receiver they want to take away. When they do this, it leaves one of Minnesota’s receivers in single-coverage. On Saturday, we saw how deadly this group of wide receivers can be.
The RPO Slant does wonders
The Gophers got off to a quick start by creating explosive passing plays. Purdue wasn’t giving Rashod Bateman much attention and he took advantage of the coverage matchups. Minnesota was blending in a mix of run-pass option (RPO) looks, while utilizing both inside and outside zone. On the first play of the game, Tanner Morgan stepped up in the pocket to find Rashod Bateman over the middle for 17 yards. A few plays later, he connected with Bateman for 18 yards and found tight end Jake Paulson up the seam for a 24-yard gain. Quarterback Tanner Morgan went 4-for-4 as the Gophers completed a 9-play, 75-yard scoring drive.
On the next drive, Minnesota created another explosive passing play. When a linebacker drifted inside, the run-pass option look worked to perfection. Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell ran a slant and had plenty of space to work. He broke free for 70-yard touchdown and helped the Gophers jump out to an early 14-3 lead. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca dialed up a simple slant bubble RPO. Out of a 2×2 set, Chris Autman-Bell was the Z receiver, while Rashod Bateman lined up at the X spot. Autman-Bell popped off a slant, while Bateman ran the bubble below him. It was the perfect play to run with Purdue in a single-high look. The safety got too far up the hash and it resulted in a big play.
Purdue’s defense simply couldn’t adjust and cover the deep middle of the field. The linebackers were dedicated to stopping the run and couldn’t handle the zones. Moments later, Minnesota ran the RPO slant again and the outside linebacker got caught defending a run fit. Rashod Bateman settled into the soft spot and broke free for a 45-yard touchdown reception. The Gophers kept layering different routes underneath the slant to keep Purdue guessing.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan finished the first half by completing 16 of his 17 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Minnesota also had three different receivers catch a touchdown pass.
In the second half, Minnesota made a minor adjustment and it led to another big play. Throughout the day, Minnesota stressed the Boilermakers’ secondary inside. When they least expected it, the Gophers switched things up.
Wide receiver Rashod Bateman pressed the cornerback inside and executed a beautiful double-move. He faked the slant inside and ran a go route over the top. Tanner Morgan hit Bateman in stride for an easy 47-yard touchdown reception. This is the type of game NFL scouts will watch to see Bateman’s skills on display. He ran smooth routes, made difficult contested grabs and was dynamic in space. The sophomore receiver finished the day with six catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
In addition to the passing attack, running back Rodney Smith rushed for 115 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. With Purdue making a late charge, Minnesota used the physicality of its offensive line to wear down the Boilermakers. The offensive staff occasionally rotated personnel up front. Redshirt sophomore John Michael-Schmitz saw action at center, while the coaches mixed guards Conner Olson, Blaise Andries and Curtis Dunlap Jr. It appeared Minnesota was trying to keep the offensive line fresh because Olson occasionally rotated back to center, too. It helped the offensive line pave rushing lanes more consistently and could be a strategy they deploy this season.
Minnesota’s defense still has work
The Gophers’ defense will be working on tackling fundamentals this week. There were many situations where Purdue playmakers picked up extra yards after contact. Minnesota will need to focus on technique and improve overall defensive discipline.
Following a successful onside kick, Purdue quickly erased the Gophers’ 21-point advantage. Minnesota missed three tackles on a screen pass, which trimmed Minnesota’s lead to just seven points with six minutes remaining.
The Gophers’ defense allowed big plays, but the offense managed to lift them through.
Thomas, Durr and Renner make plays
Early in the first half, a short punt by Jacob Herbers gave Purdue excellent field position and the Boilermakers quickly entered the red zone. Minnesota’s secondary clamped down to force two incompletions. Cornerbacks Coney Durr and Kiondre Thomas each had pass breakups to hold Purdue to a field goal. Defensive tackle Sam Renner also got his hands in the passing lane for a deflection. Throughout the game, Renner was disruptive and posted both a sack and tackle-for-loss. He has been doing a really nice job of winning with leverage and technique.
Rushing the quarterback with discipline
The Gophers managed to get pressure on quarterback Jack Plummer. A sack off the edge by Tai’yon Devers knocked senior quarterback Elijah Sindelar out of the game. On the same play, star wide receiver Rondale Moore pulled up with a non-contact injury and struggled to put pressure on his left leg.
Minnesota’s defensive line did create pressure, but there were at least four instances where quarterback Jack Plummer extended plays with his legs. Now, they have to do a better job of finishing sacks in collapsed pockets. When they face Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez in a few weeks, the Gophers will need to improve contain. Some of this will be aided by spying, but staying in pass rushing lanes will still be very important.
Minnesota’s defense occasionally struggled to stop the run and it was the product of several errors. It appeared linebackers were struggling to get off blocks and second-level alignments were inadequate. On Purdue’s first drive of the second half, running back King Doerue had four carries for 38 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown run. The defense was struggling to tackle well, which allowed Purdue to gain extra yardage. Entering Saturday’s game, the Boilermakers were one of the worst rushing teams in the nation. This week, they only accumulated 123 yards on 33 carries (3.7 YPC), but the Gophers have to limit the amount of explosive plays they surrender.
The Boilermakers tried to answer Minnesota’s passing attack by creating two explosive plays of their own. When Purdue reached the red zone, Jeff Brohm used pre-snap motion to determine the coverage. Brohm got the man matchup he wanted underneath. A linebacker got sucked into the pre-snap motion and it looked like an assignment was botched. Quarterback Jack Plummer found Zander Horvath off a swing pass for a 7-yard touchdown.
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was flying all over the field. He had physical tackles in the box and made several superb plays in coverage. He finished with a team-high nine tackles and continued to flash his versatility. It’s hard to put into words how much of an impact Winfield has on the defensive scheme. In addition to Winfield, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste flashed in a rotational role. The Michigan transfer had two pass breakups and could play a key rotational role this season.