by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)
When your team is placed within difficult situations, you have to find a way to win. In high leverage moments, top-tier players must step up, make plays and rally the team. If you’re making mistakes on the road, it becomes even more critical.
During Saturday’s dramatic 38-35 overtime win, the Gophers committed key penalties and turnovers. Three third down penalties kept Fresno State drives alive and pulled the Bulldogs within striking distance. Not to mention, Minnesota had five fumbles (three lost), each of which changed the game’s landscape. Despite all of those mistakes, they found a way to make winning plays when they needed it most. Every time the Gophers had to answer and make a play, it felt like a new player was ready to step up.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan was composed and helped lead the offense in high leverage situations. On third and fourth down, Morgan completed four of his five pass attempts for 69 yards and two touchdowns. Most of those throws came during important portions of the game where Morgan had to move the chains. Many of those passes required him to keep his eyes downfield and extend plays.
I compiled the list of throws below:
3rd-and-9 - 15 yards (Bateman TD)
3rd-and-12 - incomplete
3rd-and-10 - 16 yards (Bateman)
3rd-and-18 - 18 yards (Bateman)
4th-and-13 - 20 yards (Autman-Bell TD)
The biggest throw was the deep go route to Chris Autman-Bell, who made a tremendous catch in the back left corner of the end zone. Many people don’t realize how difficult this play was for both the quarterback and receiver. Morgan had no margin for error on this pass and had to deliver it with perfect touch and placement. Autman-Bell was covered really well and displayed fantastic body control and awareness to get his left foot down in-bounds.
When it comes to the specific anatomy of this play, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca dialed up a play to take advantage of the matchup. Fresno State was doubling Rashod Bateman and bracket covering Tyler Johnson. With this thought in mind, Fleck and Ciarrocca knew Bateman would get a 1-on-1 matchup on the outside. On 4th-and-13, Morgan made the perfect throw and Autman-Bell got enough separation to haul in an incredible grab. The safeties were both helping cover Bateman and Johnson, so Autman-Bell had just one man to beat over the top. This was a high leverage situation where Minnesota managed to make a big play.
As we discussed in the Fresno State preview, the coaches had to exploit the middle of the field against this defensive front. Minnesota used posts out of both RPO and play-action to take advantage of this mismatch. On this first quarter play, the safety is on the hash bracketing Tyler Johnson, so there is plenty of room over the middle for Morgan to find Bateman.
Just a few plays later, Kirk Ciarrocca continued to dial up strong plays off the opening script. With the way the Bulldogs emphasize covering everything underneath, it took some manipulation to create a successful short passing play.
In the red zone, Ciarrocca dialed up a sweet route concept to clear the middle of the field for Bateman. Minnesota lined up with an empty backfield out of 11 personnel with running back Rodney Smith split out-wide. He runs a slant at the top of the formation and tight end Jake Paulson settles into a hitch, which causes conflict among the linebackers. This route essentially helped set a pick for Bateman because the weakside linebacker bit on the hitch in the middle. It cleared space for Bateman, who muscled through the jam at the top of his route and redirected into the shallow crosser. This was a beautifully executed play and perfectly attacked this type of single-high look. In order to make it work, you had to cause conflict among the linebackers in the second-level. Ciarrocca did a nice job of working the middle of the field and hashes via 2x1, 2x2, and 3x1 sets. This helped spread the field and stressed the weak areas of Fresno State’s coverage schemes.
Rashod Bateman’s ability to execute the small details and be comfortable in big moments is far beyond what you would expect from a sophomore. His route-running, instincts and skills after the catch make him a lethal weapon in this offense. When teams give Tyler Johnson so much attention, Bateman is going to get better matchups. In this game, he had three huge third down grabs to keep drives alive.
During Saturday’s game, Minnesota’s defense did a better job of forcing more third-and-long situations. In Week 1 against South Dakota State, the Jackrabbits faced 3rd-and-8-plus three times and Minnesota got off the field for two of them. The Gophers significantly improved in this area and forced seven 3rd-and-8-plus situations in regulation. They got off the field for five of them and nearly had a 100 percent success rate. However, penalties by Tai’yon Devers and Jordan Howden extended Fresno State drives.
Minnesota slightly improved its first down run defense, but still surrendered 4.64 yards per carry (14 carries for 65 yards) and a touchdown. The bigger issue on first down was the Bulldogs’ passing success. Quarterback Jorge Reyna completed 9 of his 11 first down passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. When factoring in both first down pass and rush defense, the Gophers still surrendered 7.8 yards per play and two touchdowns. However, they stepped up on second down and forced enough long-downs.
By creating more second/third-and-long situations, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had the flexibility to deploy pressure packages. He was occasionally lining up pass rusher Carter Coughlin in the A-gap and stunted him inside on a few occasions.
In the clip below, defensive tackle Micah Dew Treadway takes three steps out of the one-technique position and draws attention. Carter Coughlin stunts to the opposite B-gap, Thomas Barber takes on two blockers near the B-gap and creates a free lane for Chris Williamson’s downhill blitz. There were numerous situations where Rossi was getting creative and moving players around.
Coughlin also had a sack where he used a speed rush with a bend/dip around the corner to take down quarterback Jorge Reyna. The Gophers’ pass rusher has been playing a limited amount of snaps, but is impactful when he’s on the field. Also, check out the inside pressure and double team commanded by defensive tackle Keonte Schad:
The Gophers’ run defense improved with linebacker Kamal Martin on the field. He had 13 tackles and a pass breakup. He has the physicality to fight through blocks and is in the right alignment to execute a run fit. In the example below, Martin squared up in the hole for a key third-down run stop. His versatility helps provide so many potential wrinkles for Joe Rossi to deploy.
There are still moments where the Gophers need to maintain better run fits and pull off blocks, but the run defense was more consistent on Saturday. Fresno State averaged just 2.1 yards per carry and the bulk of their yardage came on first down. This is one area where the Gophers have to clamp down, get better push and more consistently execute run fits.
In coverage, there was one golden moment for cornerback Kiondre Thomas. It’s tough to tell from the angle (college football needs All-22), but it looks like Fresno State is running a stick concept (or some coaches call it an Ohio concept) into Minnesota’s two-deep safety look. The inside receiver runs an out route, while the Y is starting a "go route" up the sideline. In the first clip below, Thomas sits on the out and allows a 20-yard completion over the top. If you watch the sidelines closely, you’ll see cornerbacks coach Rod Chance sprint to Thomas and give him instructions.
A little later in the game, Fresno State tried the same concept again and Thomas looked like he was going to sit. However, he baited the quarterback into throwing the pass deep and made a leaping interception. This was an excellent adjustment by Thomas and led to a big takeaway for the Minnesota defense.
The two-play sequence by edge rusher Boye Mafe to end regulation was impressive. He used a pair of bull rushes and teamed up with Esezi Otomewo to get push. In the clip below, Mafe uses a bull-rush to cause a quarterback pressure. The Mafe-Otomewo duo will see more action in the future. Each of them have a chance to develop into very special players in this system.
Of course, we have to talk about the incredible game-winning play by Antoine Winfield Jr. First, this was phenomenal play design by Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford. I need to introduce a second quarter play to set the stage for Winfield’s interception.
Earlier in the game, Tedford utilized a similar look where the tight end ran a post over the middle and safety Jordan Howden committed to the route. This created a mismatch over the top where Thomas Barber was asked to cover the running back’s wheel route up the seam. It was a post-wheel concept with a jet sweep attached to it. In some cases, a coach will have the jet motion player run the wheel route up the seam. Instead, Tedford disguised it by having the running back take this responsibility. Tedford’s play design helped create a mismatch on the linebacker.
On the final play of the game, he ran a similar wrinkle to stress the seam. This time, he pulled a classic concept out of San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. This is a play that has been passed down from Mike Shanahan, Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennision, to Kyle. Many NFL teams run this play, but it’s frequently used by Shanahan. The play, “Y-Throwback,” is designed to stress the safety over the top. I pulled an All-22 example from 49ers film. The tight end drags across the formation and turns into a wheel route. While all of that is happening, a post route is occurring to cause conflict for the two-deep safeties. In the example below, the safety gets caught too far up the hash and is looking at the route underneath. Due to this, he has no shot to even make a play.
After witnessing early success off a similar “seam stressing” play, it’s clear Tedford wanted to keep attacking this area. Winfield Jr. may have even recognized it himself. In this situation, the awareness displayed by Winfield is absolutely phenomenal. He just let his football instincts take over. The spacing of this play wasn’t executed well either, which gave Winfield a chance to make this play. If the post isn’t so deep, Winfield may have had a longer run. You can see in Shanhan’s example how everything is aligned spatially.
It’s incredible how Winfield swivels, turns away and closes on the ball. So many safeties would have just played the deep-half there. He recognized Howden had the post and instinctively finished the play. You simply can’t even begin to describe the impact of Winfield on this defense. He’s a special, special player and made the big-time play when Minnesota needed it most. Winfield's athleticism, natural instincts and football IQ will gain attention from NFL scouts.
Overall, the Gophers managed to grind out a road win against a talented team. Despite making timely mistakes, the team overcame them and executed in big spots. There’s no doubt Minnesota can learn and expand upon situations they were placed in during this game.
Now, if they can find a way to clean everything up, and play a complete game, we will get a glimpse into the group’s complete potential.
(Credit: CBS Sports and the NCAA. These videos are intended for fair use.)
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Tag(s): Gopher Football