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Inside the Film Room: Defensive Discipline Key for the Gophers against Wisconsin

11/27/2019, 2:45pm CST
By Daniel House

by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)

Photo Credit: Ben Blair

When the Gophers kicked off the season, they had aspirations to play in huge late November football games. The program has shattered records and continues to deploy one of the most explosive passing attacks in program history. The Gophers’ offense features a tremendous amount of balance, which is very difficult to defend. During Saturday’s game against Northwestern, Minnesota diced the Wildcats through the air and blended in a dynamic rushing attack in the second half. 

Sophomore wide receiver Rashod Bateman was dominant and teams are often scheming to take him away. When this happens, a favorable matchup is created for senior Tyler Johnson on the outside. There are moments where Johnson or Bateman receive bracket attention from the opposing defensive scheme. When this happens, plenty of big-play opportunities occur. 

This week, our attention shifts to a massive game against No. 12 Wisconsin. The environment will be electric as College GameDay airs from Minneapolis on Saturday morning. Wisconsin presents many challenges for the Gophers, specifically with their rushing attack. Badgers’ running back Jonathan Taylor is one of the most dynamic running backs in program history. 

When looking through film, the Badgers’ blocking scheme creativity is what really stands out. They will run gap and zone schemes, but add a variety of different wrinkles to them. Most recently, the Badgers are using the Wildcat and plenty of jet-motion looks. 

 

via Gfycat

 

Wisconsin’s offensive line will square up in the hole and smack you in the mouth. Occasionally, the Badgers blend in some looks where they iso the fullback and provide a backside crease. Offensive line coach Joe Rudolph is one of the most creative rushing game minds in college football. Despite all of the hours I spend studying the game, deciphering Wisconsin’s rushing schemes are often the biggest challenge for me. It speaks to the details and intricacies of the system and how the coaches continually tweak things. 

Wisconsin will show a variety of different rushing looks, including Power-O (pulling guard) and lead plays. Those are all off the gap/power scheme family. Sometimes there are instances where both gap/zone principles are involved. (We’ll dive into that in a bit).

First, clip one below is an example of an inside run out of the gap scheme. The key feature to watch for is the offensive line blocking hard in the opposite direction of the running back’s gap. You see the offensive line firing off the ball downhill and not kick-stepping laterally. This is a simplified way for a casual fan to distinguish these two schemes. One of the key reasons why Wisconsin is so successful up front is because of their ability to play with such tremendous leverage and power. You’ll notice how hard Jonathan Taylor runs and keeps his feet moving. If you try to arm tackle Taylor or let him get a head of steam, he will make you pay. Tackling is going to be so key for the Gophers’ defense in this game. 

via Gfycat

In the second clip of the video above, it appears Wisconsin is using a zone lead wrinkle, which is essentially the same as a classic lead fullback play (power). This play essentially blends in both zone and gap principles. The fullback is isolated (iso) to block a linebacker in the second level. In this instance, the entire offensive line is sliding left and the fullback is helping lead block on the backside. The play also could be run to the left and a fullback could lead to that side. This is more of an inside zone-style play that heavily includes gap scheme principles with it. 

The third play above is a classic “lead” and we have an end zone camera angle to better illustrate it. Again, Wisconsin’s offensive line is focused on winning with leverage. The coaches often help with this by using motion. Sometimes the motion will move a linebacker just enough to help create better angles for blockers in the second level. In clip three above, I pulled out a pure lead example (power play). I want you to pay close attention to how the offensive line blocks away from the intended gap. That’s a signal that we have a gap scheme play happening. The right side of the offensive line kicks out and blocks the edge, so the fullback can lead, square up against the linebacker and create a rushing lane for Jonathan Taylor. 

In a zone play, everyone on the offensive line is moving laterally in the same direction, while blocking a zone. The running back is searching for creases and looking for lanes to run, rather than a specific gap. Wisconsin complements many of these gap and lead principles with outside zone. It makes the Badgers really difficult to defend because a linebacker has to move quickly downhill, take on blocks and shed free. When Wisconsin eventually hits you with the stretch/outside zone looks, it’s jarring because you’re suddenly moving horizontally and trying to stay disciplined in your gap.

via Gfycat

Moments later, they’ll counter with gap or an inside run and blow you off the ball. 

They also sometimes pair up jet-motion with outside zone and a variety of different concepts. You also have to be ready for pin and pull plays where the Badgers “pin” the defensive tackle inside and “pull” the center and guard. 

via Gfycat

The Gophers’ linebackers will need to fight through blocks and maintain discipline. Tackling is going to be so key because Jonathan Taylor will drag defenders for miles. Last year, Minnesota’s defensive line had a big game and took on plenty of double teams. The edge contain was excellent, especially when Wisconsin used jet looks to spice up the running game. During last season’s 37-15 win over the Badgers, the defensive gameplan was dynamite. Minnesota often stacked the box with seven or eight players and maintained gap discipline. I expect the Gophers will play a high amount of single-high and move Antoine Winfield Jr. all over to help in the box. I feel confident Minnesota’s defensive backs can cover the Badgers’ wide receivers man-to-man, if necessary. The second and third levels of the defense will need to have a disciplined game. This season, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor has rushed the ball 261 times. Of those attempts, 84 (32%) have resulted in first downs, which is the highest rate in the country, according to CFB Stats. Minnesota can’t put the Badgers in second-and-3 situations because their offense will start to tick. If the Gophers’ defense is in late downs, they can dial up pressure looks and potentially force a takeaway. Wisconsin has trouble taking care of the football and Minnesota has to swam to the football. The Badgers have lost 13 fumbles, which is the highest mark in the country. A key takeaway could change the entire tide of the game. 

Both of these teams have 60-plus percent run rates and love to control time of possession. The Badgers (36:44) rank No. 1 in this category and the Gophers sit at No. 7 (33:49). The team that gets off to a quick start or creates an early takeaway will put themselves in a favorable position. 

When flipping the script to the Gophers’ offense, there are a few key trends worth mentioning. First, the Wisconsin secondary has a wide array of injuries impacting the unit. Safety Reggie Pearson has been battling an arm/shoulder injury and cornerback Faion Hicks left last week’s game with a head injury. Safety Collin Wilder was also ejected for targeting and will face a first half suspension for the game against Minnesota. When factoring in the Gophers’ dynamic passing attack, there is a big opportunity for the passing game to take off. Weather conditions could play a role, but even with that in mind, wide receivers know where they are going in the snow. This often can cause trouble for back-pedaling defensive backs who are experiencing bad tracks. Both teams have to play in these type of conditions, so it evens out. 

After deep diving into the film and analytics of Wisconsin, I have found that both teams are very evenly matched. The main differences in CollegeFootballData’s Expected Points Added metric are in rushing offense and defense. Otherwise, Minnesota holds advantages in the passing attack. Despite trailing Wisconsin in the rushing offense category, the Gophers’ metric has continued to improve every week. 

When digging even deeper into the Badgers, I found a very interesting trend. 

First, Wisconsin’s opponent rushing play explosiveness metric (1.10) ranks 107th out of 130 teams, according to College Football Data. When looking at the entire defense (both rush and pass), the explosiveness ranking is 36th (1.19). However, I was particularly curious how this changed after Wisconsin’s competition level increased. When I filtered the number to a Week 8 starting point (24-23 loss to Illinois), the numbers shifted even further. It really aligns with what you notice on tape, especially on the ground. 

Since Week 8, the Badgers have the fourth-worst opponent rushing play explosiveness metric in college football (1.27), according to College Football Data. When looking at passing plays, Wisconsin ranks No. 110 out of 130 teams (1.74). From a broader perspective, over this time frame, the Badgers have the fifth-worst overall opponent explosiveness metric (1.51). This means teams are creating a high volume of explosive plays and it’s showing up through a high average EPA among plays that are labeled as successful. 

Wisconsin has not tackled well and the biggest issue has been gap discipline, especially against the outside zone and stretch schemes. I was noticing how much success Nebraska had in this area. Minnesota has been thriving with these rushing concepts, so the matchup aligns really well. The Gophers have also been tested against two of the best defensive lines in the country over the past four weeks. 

When teams move Wisconsin’s second-level laterally, they tend to over pursue or miss a big tackle in the alley. I pulled out some of the clips from Wisconsin’s game against Nebraska. Pay close attention to the linebackers in these plays. In the first one, linebacker Chris Orr (No. 54) bites on the quarterbacks’s zone read and the defensive tackle is washed out of the play. When the offensive line can get to the second level, Wisconsin’s linebackers struggle to pull off blocks or are often too far up field. 

via Gfycat

With Minnesota’s RPO passing game, I want to see how the Badgers defend it. Last year against the Gophers, Wisconsin tried to take away intermediate routes by dropping the defensive ends into passing lanes. After that happened, Minnesota destroyed Wisconsin on the ground. Everyone is talking about the Gophers’ passing attack (and rightfully so). However, this feels like a game where a nice blend of Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim could help the Gophers control clock and wear down the Badgers’ front. If Wisconsin’s defensive coaches have to dedicate more defenders to the box, then there will be favorable matchups on the outside. 

Either way, the Gophers have the necessary weapons to play multiple different styles. I expect them to try running the ball on early downs to create favorable distance situations. When that happens, they can mix in the quick RPO game.

No matter what, this is going to be an exciting game with intriguing matchups across the board. The big key for Minnesota is the defensive scheme and if they can manage to slow running back Jonathan Taylor again. 

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