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Analyzing the Gophers’ Explosive Passing Plays in 2019

05/19/2020, 2:30pm CDT
By Daniel House

When an offense is balanced, it becomes difficult to defend. 

Last season, the Gophers effectively utilized their personnel to create one of the nation’s most explosive passing attacks. Dynamic wide receivers and an efficient quarterback guided Minnesota in 2019. The explosiveness on the perimeter was complemented by a well-executed zone-blocking scheme. This meant opposing defenses had to choose whether they wanted to take away the run or pass. 

If teams dedicated resources to stop Minnesota’s aerial threats, the coaches countered by running the football into lighter boxes. The Gophers’ offensive line did an excellent job of creating movement and getting to the second level via outside zone. An excellent combination of inside and outside zone accompanied all of the explosive perimeter weapons. 

Not only that, but Minnesota’s run-pass option (RPO) and play-action concepts confused defenses each week. Quarterback Tanner Morgan sharply read fronts and got the ball out quick over linebackers and safeties. He identified pre-snap safety rotations and saw when linebackers crept into a gap. After burning teams through the quick-hitting game, Minnesota frequently dialed up vertical concepts to stretch the seam. This disrupted defensive discipline and allowed the offense to create explosive vertical passing plays. The blend of RPO and play-action shots often caused opposing teams to freeze in the second and third levels. When this happened, Morgan was accurate and found his wide receivers off vertical releases. The balanced and complementary nature of the offense was a work of art. 

If teams played inside leverage to take away the intermediate game, the Gophers countered by running speed cuts and vertical releases. When a defensive back is aligned with inside leverage, he wants to cut off inside routes like glances (skinny posts) and slants. Defenses often sat on these routes, so Minnesota’s receivers identified leverage and put defensive backs in a blender. In the clip below, Penn State’s secondary is sitting on the intermediate routes. Bateman identifies inside leverage, sells the glance route, attacks the cornerback’s blindspot and goes from brake to drive foot. Bateman keeps his shoulders square and rotates his head last. He immediately attacked the inside leverage and caused the cornerback to open his hips/get on his toes. Bateman snapped off the route and made an excellent tip-toe grab. His explosiveness and smooth skills in and out of breaks are traits that make him special. 

 

 

The complementary nature of the Gophers’ offense allowed them to produce such an explosive offensive attack. As I talked about in my outside zone breakdown video, the ability to horizontally displace defenders opened so many rushes creases. When teams started to put seven players in the box, they were burned by the passing game. Morgan did a sensational job of selling play-fakes, which caused the second level of defenses to bite. This is clearly one of the strengths within his skill set. 

What does the data tell us? 

When looking at all of the data, last season’s passing game was historic. The Gophers finished fifth nationally with a 0.57 passing play Expected Points Added (EPA) figure, according to CollegeFootballData.com. This was easily the most explosive aerial attack in the past decade. I created charts to include ten years of passing play data.

In 2019, the Gophers accumulated 54 passing plays that spanned more than 20 yards. The 10-year average for this play type was 36. Minnesota’s next most explosive receiving attack occurred in 2010. During that season, quarterback Adam Weber connected with wide receivers Da’Jon McKnight and Marqueis Gray. 

 

 

After filtering passing plays of more than 30 yards, you’ll notice last season significantly exceeded averages. Over the past decade, Minnesota averaged 15 plays per season within this category. In 2014, many of the explosive plays were the result of tight end Maxx Williams (15.8 yards per reception and eight touchdowns) stretching teams vertically. Last season, the Gophers accumulated 24 receiving plays of 30-plus yards, which ranked No. 26 nationally. 

 

 

In the 40-plus yards category, the Gophers averaged six total plays per season since 2010. Last season alone, Minnesota posted 14 passing plays of more than 40 yards. This figure illustrates how P.J. Fleck and his staff have elevated the passing game’s explosiveness since arriving in 2017. 

 

 

I also filtered the data to include plays that stretched more than 50 yards. Over the past decade, the program has averaged just three plays per season within this category. Last year, the Gophers had seven receiving plays exceed 50 yards.

 

 

Wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson stretched teams vertically and took advantage of favorable matchups. If teams started loading the box, there were options in the passing game. Also, when opponents overplayed the intermediate game, deep shots became available over the top. There were many situations where Johnson and Bateman both created explosive plays after the catch. The diversity within their skill sets allowed them to make an impact off detailed routes and designed plays in space. 

All Eyes on Bateman

Bateman is already earning buzz as a top 2021 NFL Draft prospect. He is going to receive even more attention this season. Later in 2019, teams were providing help to slow him down. The Johnson-Bateman duo was like Batman and Robin. When opponents dedicated resources to one of them, the other player took advantage.

I filtered data to illustrate Bateman’s explosiveness in 2019. He had 22 plays of more than 20 yards, which ranked sixth among FBS wide receivers. Bateman slotted in ahead of both Tee Higgins and Jerry Jeudy.

 

 

His detailed route-running skills, dynamic ability in space and overall awareness are several of his best traits. I plan to highlight these areas in a future breakdown. 

Looking Ahead

Entering 2020, I have one question regarding the wide receiver group. Who will step up to complement Bateman? I would expect Chris Autman-Bell to exploit favorable matchups and build upon last season. The third wide receiver job is up for grabs, though. There are several intriguing young players in the group, including Mike Brown-Stephens, Douglas Emilien and Daniel Jackson. Last year, redshirt junior Demetrius Douglas gained valuable experience and had 14 catches for 157 yards. He is a strong route-runner and could emerge as the third wide receiver.

With one of the nation’s best quarterback-wide receiver duos leading the way, Minnesota has an opportunity to build upon last season’s historic passing outputs. New co-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. will have a positive influence on the team’s vertical concepts, too. After seeing Fleck and his staff win key recruiting battles, it is clear 2019 was just the beginning for the Gophers’ offensive attack. 

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