by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)
Each week, the Gophers continue to show they can beat teams in a variety of different ways. When opponents stack the box and send pressure, the offense counters with quick run-pass option (RPO) or play-action passes. After getting beat through the air, teams often need to play more coverage or deploy two-deep safety looks. This was even more apparent in the Gophers' 52-10 win over Maryland.
Torching Cover-0 Looks
Last Saturday, the Terrapins decided to frequently play with stacked boxes. Most of the time, they moved seven or eight players into the box. I was very surprised to see how agressive they were with Cover-0 blitzes, specifically in the red zone. This coverage scheme creates man coverage matchups with no safety help over the top. During two of Minnesota’s red zone touchdowns, Maryland sent Cover-0 blitzes and it gave the Gophers’ wide receivers man-to-man matchups. In the first clip below, the nickel cornerback is playing with inside leverage, but Tyler Johnson still broke his ankles. Johnson’s patience, angles and sudden releases allow him all strengths of his game. His ability to be precise is what separates him from many top wide receivers in college football. He's deadly off these type of intermediate slant routes.
In the second Cover-0 clip, wide receiver Rashod Bateman used a double-move to set up a fade in the red zone. Prior to both of these snaps, quarterback Tanner Morgan appeared to make pre-snap adjustments. In the live broadcast clips, it looked like he adjusted the protection to help his offensive line pick up the Cover-0 blitz pressure. These are the type of mental processing decisions that have quietly played a role in the team's offensive success. Morgan perfectly placed the fade to Bateman, who got position and made the touchdown grab. Morgan’s ability to be accurate and confident inside the 20-yard-line has helped the Gophers convert in these type of situations. Minnesota currently ranks No. 3 in red zone touchdowns (32), behind only LSU and Ohio State, according to CFBStats. The Gophers are converting red zone trips into touchdowns, which has increased their offensive efficiency.
Minnesota's Outside Zone Usage
In the running game, Minnesota's offensive line continues to perform at a high level. After the game, Rodney Smith and Tanner Morgan both discussed the unit’s ability to execute the details. In the outside zone scheme, they have been thriving and opening creases for the running backs. This has quietly become a nice complementary option to Minnesota’s bread and butter scheme — the inside zone. A week prior to the Maryland game, running back Rodney Smith said position coach Kenni Burns told him 92 percent of his explosive runs have been outside zone plays. It’s been a tremendous way to take advantage of Smith’s vision and elusiveness. The available rushing creases, including backside options, place Smith and the running backs in favorable situations. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has indicated the outside zone takes advantage of how teams are defending the inside zone scheme. It’s also a strong way to exploit stout defensive lines that aren’t athletic or struggle moving sideline-to-sideline.
This week, my favorite outside zone play resulted in an explosive play by running back Mohamed Ibrahim. Center Conner Olson did a nice job of reaching the defensive tackle and guard Blaise Andries got to the second level. Andries cleared out the linebacker and left tackle Sam Schlueter cleared the edge. The left side of Minnesota’s offensive line was paving big creases the entire day. Mohamed Ibrahim took the bang read and created an explosive rushing play:
Blaise Andries and Sam Schlueter each had two of their best performances of the season. Schlueter may be Minnesota’s most improved offensive player. He has made tremendous strides as both a run blocker and pass protector. The Gophers’ offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack in three games. Over the same time frame, the unit ranks No. 2 nationally in quarterback sack percentage, according to Team Rankings. In recent weeks, they’ve also managed to improve against stunts and cleaned up communication in that area. Minnesota’s offensive line is consistently showing growth and it’s helped the Gophers’ offense achieve maximum balance.
Chris Autman-Bell Needs Attention
The wide receivers have of course been a driving force behind the team's offensive surge. We all talk about Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman (rightfully so), but Chris Autman-Bell deserves as much attention. Autman-Bell is a red zone threat and reliable third-down target. He has helped move the chains in high leverage situations and hauled in one of the biggest catches of the year against Fresno State. During Saturday’s 52-10 win over Maryland, he posted the highest average expected points added (EPA) metric of any Minnesota offensive player (1.715), according to College Football Data. He was efficient and hauled in two huge third-down grabs. After helping move the chains, Tanner Morgan went to Autman-Bell again on first-down. Minnesota used an RPO slant and Morgan fired a pass over the middle. Autman-Bell snapped off the slant and nicely tracked a pass outside of his frame for 17 yards. He may have the most reliable hands of any wide receiver on the roster. Whether he needs to track the ball or make a play in traffic, you can count on Autman-Bell.
The Heavy Personnel Packages Worked
Finally, I wanted to point out the Gophers’ effective usage of heavy personnel sets. They brought in six offensive linemen to set up a heavier 13 personnel look. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca evidently saw Minnesota had a clear strength advantage, especially if they could equalize the numbers up front. They got hats on defenders, while tight end Ko Kieft and running back Mohamed Ibrahim scraped into the second level. Seth Green ran very hard and took advantage of big creases. Minnesota has been occasionally attaching pre-snap jet motion to the Wildcat, which injects some spice to the direct snap. They’ve done a nice job of adding a few different wrinkles to the formation and haven’t needed to run many of the potential auxiliary options.
With the combination of jet motion and passing potential, the Gophers can show plenty of new looks down the stretch. Also, plays like this have tremendous success because of the tight ends. Brevyn Spann-Ford had his best blocking performance and is gaining valuable experience in this area. Ko Kieft also plays a very important role in Minnesota’s blocking scheme and deserves recognition. There are numerous plays where he clears the edge or drives defenders downfield for five yards. He shows excellent effort and it helps create big creases for the running backs. The performances by the offensive line and tight ends have helped the running game take off. This week, Minnesota’s rushing EPA jumped 14 spots to No. 46 (0.18), per CollegeFootballData.
Diving into the Cover-1 Robber
On defense, the Gophers’ secondary put together another fantastic performance. Antoine Winfield Jr. and Coney Durr had interceptions and continue to play a big role in the team’s defensive success. Durr has been thriving and is someone we don’t frequently discuss. He has superb transition quickness, so he matches up nicely with shifty receivers. Durr has made huge strides with his technique and quarterbacks are forced to toss contested throws into his coverage. He stays tight to receivers out of breaks and frequently gets into passing lanes. Excellent performances by Durr and the entire secondary are allowing the Gophers to get creative schematically.
This week, the Gophers' defense moved from No. 14 to 11 in overall defensive EPA, according to College Football Data. They also jumped from No. 6 in pass defense EPA to No. 3 (-0.097). There only two teams with higher EPA ratings in the secondary — Ohio State and Missouri. Minnesota has also posted the second-lowest opponent explosive passing play metric (0.997), per CFBData.
Due to Minnesota’s ability to play man on the outside, the coaches have more flexibility to disguise coverages and send blitz packages. For example, the Gophers were making alignment switches at the snap. There were a few instances where they aligned with two-deep safeties and shifted into Cover-1 Robber at the snap. The clip below can better illustrate exactly what this means. Minnesota is aligned with two-deep safeties in pre-snap. At the snap, Jordan Howden drops to single-high and Antoine Winfield Jr. shifts to the underneath middle. Winfield Jr. becomes the unassigned defender or “robber.” This allows him to flow underneath in coverage and creep into the box for run support.
This essentially means there is man coverage across the board. Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste are shading to the sideline, Chris Williamson handles the slot and Tai’yon Devers drops into coverage. This type of package takes advantage of Antoine Winfield Jr.’s awareness, athleticism and instincts. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and his staff are doing an excellent job of utilizing Winfield's versatility in the scheme. They continue to show pre-snap coverage disguises and then occasionally marry front-seven blitz packages to them. In the above clip, linebacker Thomas Barber blitzed up the A-gap and Mariano Sori-Marin looped around him.
Earlier in the game, Minnesota ran another creative blitz package. This time, they were in their NASCAR pass-rushing package, which features Esezi Otomewo, Carter Coughlin, Boye Mafe and Tai’yon Devers. On this play, Coughlin is aligned inside and draws a double team. Linebacker Josh Aune blitzes in the B-gap, but the running back picks him up. Braelen Oliver looped and blitzed behind Aune for a sack. Oliver was very effective in the pressure packages and can be a weapon when he’s deployed like this.
Overall, the Gophers are improving every single week and their efficiency metrics continue to rise. They are sixth-least penalized team in the country (4.1 per game) and have played very disciplined. Opponents haven’t earned additional yardage or extended drives because of mistakes. After the Fresno State game, the team got right back on track. Minnesota’s running game is also ticking, which allows them to play their style of football. The Gophers rank No. 2 nationally in time of possession (34:51). The ability to play disciplined, control the clock and run the football, are all recipes for success.
Stay tuned for more content next week, including a look at key matchups before the Gophers’ biggest game in recent memory. I’ve started to dive into Penn State’s film and I love how these two teams stack up against one another! It should be a very entertaining game!
Also, in case you missed it, I recently posted my feature with quarterback Tanner Morgan’s father and his kinesiologist. Find out how postgame drives, Gatorade, candy bars, upside down graduation desserts and a kinesiologist shaped the Gophers' QB:
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Tag(s): Gopher Football