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How will the Gophers attack South Dakota State?

08/23/2019, 12:30pm CDT
By Daniel House

When the Gophers take the field for their season opener next week, they will be tested by one of the FCS' top teams. The FCS coaches poll was announced last week and South Dakota State ranked No. 4. They have a large stable of returning talent, particularly at the skill spots. However, following the gradation of veteran Taryn Christion, the Jackrabbits have big shoes to fill at quarterback. The team will also have new coordinators on each side of the ball, which could impact the team's overall philosophy. 

South Dakota State announced last week that redshirt freshman J’Bore Gibbs will be its starting quarterback. Gibbs, a dual-threat quarterback from Chicago, will be stepping onto the field for his first official college game on Thursday. His high school film shows a quarterback with scrambling ability, so Minnesota will need to contain on the edge and stay in lanes to prevent unnecessary big plays. Nobody has much film on Gibbs, but we know he’ll have plenty of weapons to throw the ball to. 

Junior Cade Johnson is a versatile weapon, who can line up in the slot or outside. In 2018, Johnson grabbed 67 receptions for 1,322 yards and set the school’s single-season record with 17 touchdowns. His quick feet, releases and versatility are a tough matchup for opposing cornerbacks, especially when South Dakota State flexes a tight end or lines up a physical wide receiver alongside him. Wide receiver Adam Anderson has become a complementary option and has the physicality to stretch defenses up the seam. South Dakota State has its top two receivers returning, which should help a young quarterback adjust. 

Not to mention, the Jackrabbits’ offense features three running backs with different skill sets. Pierre Strong Jr. is an elusive back with excellent vision. Strong rushed for 1,116 yards and 11 touchdowns, including numerous explosive runs. Among his 11 touchdown runs, he averaged 44.4 yards per score. He is complemented by Mikey Daniel, a physical runner, who picks up yards after contact. The coaches also utilized sophomore C.J. Wilson in the receiving game and as a change of pace back. South Dakota State has plenty of playmakers, but the team’s biggest question mark is in the trenches. 

One of the main areas where the Gophers hold an advantage is up front. Minnesota has developed a strong and diverse rotation on the defensive line. In fact, it may be the position group that has taken the biggest step forward this offseason. Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe are two rotational pass rushers the coaches can deploy in certain situations. Tai’yon Devers has also progressed and may earn increased snaps this year. With the combination of these players, and veterans like Carter Coughlin and Micah Dew Treadway, the Gophers’ defensive line could be a quiet x-factor in 2019. 

Last year, the Jackrabbits’ offensive line paved the way for nearly 3,000 rushing yards and allowed the ninth-fewest sacks in the FCS. However, left guard Tiano Pupungatoa and right tackle Tyler Weir both graduated and will need to be replaced. This year, left tackle Evan Greeneway is the only returning full-time starting offensive lineman. Guards Eddie Miller and Eagan Lickiss both started at least six games, but don’t have an extensive amount of in-game experience. Early in the season, the entire South Dakota State offensive line will be developing. The unit has been a strength in the past, but it will likely take time to see results in 2019. On Thursday, we can expect to see a glimpse of the Gophers’ defensive scheme, which may feature a variety of different packages, fronts and looks. 

Defensively, the Jackrabbits’ entire front-seven is returning. When watching their games in 2018, I was drawn to a pair of players. The first was cornerback Jordan Brown, a seventh-round draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals. After zoning in on Brown, I was distracted by the performance of linebacker Christian Rozeboom. As the team’s middle linebacker, the four-year starter ranks fourth on South Dakota State’s all-time tackling list. He is a physical and quick downhill run defender with range to make plays in coverage. Rozeboom is the heartbeat of South Dakota State’s entire defense. The Jackrabbits have excellent depth and talent at linebacker, including the length and blitzing skills of junior Logan Backhaus. 

Despite having linebacker depth, there are two areas I think Minnesota will exploit against the Jackrabbits. In 2018, South Dakota ranked 78th among 124 FCS programs in rush defense. They surrendered 4.76 yards per carry and 188 yards per game. Their front-four struggled the most with physical offensive line units. It was specifically noticeable in the FCS semifinal and Sept. regular season matchups against North Dakota State. In the semifinal, the Jackrabbits allowed a whopping 439 rushing yards and surrendered five runs of more than 28 yards. Top defensive tackle Krockett Krolikowski’s absence certainly played a role, but even when he was healthy, they struggled to get consistent push. 

Every starting defensive lineman is returning for South Dakota State this year. They don’t have a single key interior defensive lineman that weighs more than 285 pounds. Minnesota’s offensive line is extremely physical and I expect the scheme to center around running the football. 

They can also use play-action to push the ball downfield against this defense. The Jackrabbits’ secondary is filled with inexperience. Starting safeties Brandon Snyder and Makiah Slade both graduated and top cornerback Jordan Brown was drafted by the Bengals. Cornerback Marshon Harris is the only returning starter in the secondary and it’s unclear who will start opposite of him. There’s a real scenario where at least one redshirt freshman is playing a key role in the secondary. 

When factoring in the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, Minnesota can attack South Dakota State in a few different ways. The primary focus will likely be on the ground as Minnesota takes advantage of physical differences. As the game progresses, the Gophers can use a variety of different route concepts (high-low crossers, smash-divide, dagger etc.) to exploit the Jackrabbits’ young secondary. On defense, Minnesota will need to stop the run and keep South Dakota State’s rushing attack from controlling the game. Defensively, they can draw up stunts/twists and various packages to create pressure. However, disciplined pursuit and contain is key to prevent quarterback J’Bore Gibbs from extending plays.

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