Although the Gophers made plenty of mistakes, they found a way to pull through competitive non-conference games.
A bye week arrives at the perfect time as Minnesota prepares to open Big Ten play at Purdue on Sept. 28. Despite facing a variety of obstacles, the Gophers made winning plays when they needed them most. Now, the entire team must self-scout and identify areas of improvement.
When analyzing Minnesota’s first three games, there are a few important offensive trends to highlight and build upon.
The Wide Receiver Talent
Each game, a new wide receiver stepped up to make a big play for the Gophers. In Week 1, Rashod Bateman burst onto the scene and displayed his dynamic playmaking ability. This offseason, Bateman added nearly 30 pounds to bolster his physical skills. He also improved his route running prowess and it’s helped elevate his game to another level. In 2019, teams have been forced to occasionally double-team him. When this happens, single coverage opportunities are often created for one of the receivers.
The perfect example of this occurred in the Fresno State game. On 4th-and-13, the Bulldogs doubled Rashod Bateman and bracket covered Tyler Johnson. It resulted in a 1-on-1 matchup on the outside for wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell. Quarterback Tanner Morgan made a perfect throw and Autman-Bell got his left foot down with a few inches to spare.
Finally, in the Georgia Southern game, wide receiver Tyler Johnson took over. He hauled in ten catches for 140 yards and three touchdowns. Johnson high-pointed several difficult grabs and broke free for an explosive 73-yard score. When the team needed to make a play, Morgan again turned to his group of wide receivers. This time, Johnson made an acrobatic two-yard touchdown grab with a cornerback draped all over him. Johnson, a future NFL prospect, dominated portions of Saturday’s 35-32 win. He is using his physicality and footwork to get open in crowded spaces.
In recent memory, Minnesota’s offense hasn’t featured this much wide receiver talent. Quarterback Tanner Morgan knows he can give his pass catchers a chance to make plays. Not only that, but we haven’t even witnessed the team’s full arsenal of route concepts yet.
Signs of an evolving passing game
Minnesota is currently averaging 9.7 yards per passing attempt. If they continue at this pace, it would be the highest total they have produced in a single-season since 2003. The Gophers have posted a yards per attempt figure above eight just three times in the past 17 years. We don’t know if they can sustain this level of success, but for now now, the statistic illustrates Minnesota’s ability to complete explosive passing plays. As offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s playbook expands, the route concepts will continue to evolve, too.
In addition, Minnesota’s red zone offense has been impressive. The Gophers have converted 12 of their 13 red zone attempts (92%). This type of execution has allowed the offense to achieve improved drive efficiency.
In non-conference play, we learned this team can handle pressure-packed situations. Tanner Morgan has orchestrated two important late-game drives. On Saturday, when Minnesota faced third-and-29 from their own 6-yard-line, Morgan moved the chains in two downs. On the game-winning drive, he completed 7 of his 10 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. During the team’s Week 2 win over Fresno State, Morgan also made a very difficult touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell on fourth-and-13.
When Morgan is placed within high leverage situations, he always elevates his game. His third and fourth-down success fueled the Gophers’ first three wins. Morgan has completed 12 of his 15 third and fourth-down passing attempts for 187 yards and four touchdowns. For many of these attempts, he has escaped pressure and found his targets downfield. This type of production is even more impressive when factoring in the length of these downs. The average to-go distance on those 15 attempts is 13 yards. Despite leaky moments up front, the Gophers’ offense is still showing signs of productivity. There were seven instances where Morgan was unable to attempt a throw. He was sacked during five of those third-down opportunities. In order to boost offensive flow, the Gophers must perform better in early downs. This starts by finding offensive balance and executing up front.
The Gophers have called running plays on 77.9 percent of their first-down snaps. During those plays, they registered five rushes of more than ten yards and averaged just three yards per carry. When including every type of play, the Gophers’ offense is averaging 3.75 yards per play on first-down. There is no doubt the offensive balance will shift as the season progresses and more wrinkles are unveiled. This will help the entire offensive identity. However, in order for this to happen, the offensive line has to make progress.
Fixing the offensive line issues
The biggest area Minnesota must fix before Big Ten play – the offensive line. This is the one position group where everyone expected to see the most consistency. Right now, they are making mistakes and still coming together as a group. The Gophers’ offensive line currently ranks 98th in line yards (2.32), according to Football Outsiders. In this formula, the offensive line gets credit for accumulated rushing yardage between 0-3 yards. In addition, they earn 50 percent credit for rushing gains between 4-8 yards. Any gain of more than eight yards is credited to the running back. In addition, lost yardage counts for 125% of the formula. Last year, the Gophers ranked 11th nationally in line yards, posting a 2.91 value. On film, there are moments where the offensive line is finishing blocks adequately. Now, it’s all about establishing consistency throughout games.
The biggest issues have occurred in pass protection. Up front, the unit has struggled with stunts, blitz pickups and overall communication. There have been a few issues related to 1-on-1 matchups, but that can be fixed through technical work. For now, developing chemistry and executing pickups will be two major goals. Minnesota’s sack rate currently sits at 13.3 percent, which is the sixth-highest mark in the country, according to Football Outsiders. This metric jumps to 18.8 percent on passing downs. With all of the talent on the Gophers’ offensive line, we know they will eventually hit stride. Many of the large scale issues can be fixed with coaching and in-game experience. Teams are utilizing a variety of wrinkles to take advantage of speed mismatches. One can expect the unit will be focusing on technique and communication during the bye week.
If this unit can improve their play, it will positively impact every other aspect of Minnesota’s offense.