The Gophers were 3 minutes, 47 seconds away from closing out a dominant performance against an SEC powerhouse in the Outback Bowl on Wednesday in Tampa, Fla. That was when Gophers coach P.J. Fleck decided he wanted to put an end to Auburn’s day.
On fourth-and-1 from the Auburn 41-yard line, Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan lofted a pass that tight end Bryce Witham was able to snatch. Witham’s acrobatic catch put the ribbon on the Gophers’ 31-24 win over No. 12 Auburn. The Gophers finished the season with 11 victories for the first time since 1904.
While playing against one of the best defensive fronts in college football, Minnesota’s offensive line dominated. Collectively, the Gophers accumulated 215 rushing yards against the nation’s seventh-most efficient rush defense (EPA), according to College Football Data. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim finished with 20 carries, 140 yards and a touchdown.
The Gophers were without starting right tackle Daniel Faalele, but still controlled the line of scrimmage from start to finish. Minnesota double-teamed future first-round defensive tackle Derrick Brown, taking him out of the game.
Senior wide receiver Tyler Johnson was a star in his final appearance with the Gophers. He had 12 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns, including a key 73-yard score. Johnson decided to play in the bowl game and improved his draft stock on New Year’s Day. Minnesota’s offensive attack was extremely balanced with wide receivers coach Matt Simon calling plays. P.J. Fleck’s long-time coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca was hired by Penn State last week, but Simon executed the game plan perfectly.
Minnesota’s defense played disciplined and slowed Auburn’s creative rushing concepts. All year, the Tigers struggled when they were unable to run the football adequately. Despite seeing many different formations and motions, the defense looked very prepared. Auburn rushed for 56 yards and averaged only 2.2 yards per carry against the Gophers’ front-seven. Minnesota was physical in the trenches and held a 494-232 advantage in total yardage. When Tigers’ quarterback Bo Nix tried to extend plays off play-action, Minnesota’s secondary adequately covered the deep half.
A PERFECT MIX OF RUSHING CONCEPTS
Early in the first quarter, Auburn’s offense only ran three plays, but quickly scored 10 points as Noah Igbinoghene returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. The Gophers’ offense quickly answered behind powerful running from Ibrahim. He was thriving off inside zone and picked up chunks. The Gophers’ offensive line executed and opened lanes. Curtis Dunlap Jr. had a monstrous block to open a hole for Ibrahim’s 16-yard rushing touchdown. Center John Michael Schmitz also pushed into the second level to create another crease.
Ibrahim was picking up yards after contact and maintained his balance in the second-level. Minnesota did an excellent job of mixing up the rushing concepts. Early in the game, the Gophers heavily featured inside zone and Ibrahim was accumulating yardage. A few drives later, after setting up those concepts, Minnesota used outside zone with Rodney Smith.
Smith broke free for a 31-yard run behind excellent blocking from Dunlap Jr., Sam Schlueter, and Conner Olson. Auburn was aggressively pursuing the outside zone, but Minnesota’s inside zone success appeared to slow all of that up. On the same drive, Minnesota called a tunnel screen to Rashod Bateman, who picked up 34 yards. Minnesota ended the sequence with a short Wildcat touchdown pass from Seth Green to Witham.
Ibrahim was running through tacklers and displayed his above average balance. In the final seconds of the game, he bumped a run outside, ran through a tackler and got a first down to end the game.
Right before halftime, Minnesota moved up the field with help from Johnson. The Gophers ran an RPO over the middle and Morgan had plenty of time in the pocket. Johnson accelerated upward to make a difficult 29-yard grab. Moments later, Morgan lobbed a pass to the back of the end zone and Johnson came down with an acrobatic one-handed catch.
When the score was tied at 24 in the fourth quarter, Johnson made another huge play. He got an excellent matchup against a free safety out of the slot. The defensive back was falling to the sideline and Johnson snapped off a deep post. Morgan perfectly sold the play-fake and hit him in stride for an effortless 73-yard touchdown.
DISCIPLINE AGAINST AUBURN’S CREATIVE WRINKLES
The Gophers’ defense was disciplined against the run, which is key against Auburn. Everyone was reading their keys and the interior defensive line got excellent push. The Tigers only carried the ball nine times for 5 yards in the first half. Auburn used misdirection and many different personnel groupings, but the Gophers’ defense was very prepared.
Senior defensive tackle Sam Renner is disruptive and could become a sleeper in the NFL draft. In the second half, he was aligned at 3-technique and used a spin move to sack Nix. Renner has been a key player in Minnesota’s scheme and was impactful in this game. He finished the afternoon with three tackles (1.5 for loss) and a sack.
Auburn tried to gets its offense going by using tempo. Coach Gus Malzahn often deploys pace to start achieving a rhythm. Minnesota was playing a high volume of off coverage, so the Tigers attacked with quick passing to the hashes. Running back Jonathan Whitlow rushed into the end zone out of the Wildcat and Auburn tied the score at 24 with five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Late in the third quarter, Auburn tried a fake punt, but didn’t convert. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi used a creative blitz package on the previous play. Coughlin and Tai’yon Devers were stacked and overloaded on one side of the formation. Rossi sent a nickel blitz behind it and Nix threw the ball away on third-and-11. All of the blitzes were timed perfectly, including a fourth-quarter safety pressure package where Antoine Winfield Jr. altered Nix’s throw.
Minnesota’s defensive backs played with excellent technique, especially in man coverage. During Auburn’s first drive, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste got in perfect position to knock a pass away from Tigers wide receiver Seth Williams. Cornerback Coney Durr was also very active against the run and had several key tackles on the edge. The Gophers’ defense played in sync at all levels and limited Auburn’s explosive play output.
AN INNOVATIVE OFFENSIVE WRINKLE
The Gophers unveiled a pistol formation, which provided a different look for Auburn’s defense. When using the pistol, the quarterback is lined up about 4 yards behind the center. This package limits deep drops and helps get the ball out quickly.
The pistol also benefits the play-action game because it’s harder for a defense to identify the quarterback’s play-fake. The inside zone running concepts pair up nicely because the running back is aligned deeper and can get downhill. Throughout the day, Minnesota occasionally put this package into the game plan.