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Fresno State provides an intriguing test for the Gophers

09/07/2018, 12:30pm CDT
By Daniel House


Saturday evening is going to be an excellent test for the Gophers’ football team. 

A talented Fresno State team poses a few interesting challenges on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs won ten games last season, despite winning just one in 2016. They completed the largest turnaround in the FBS last season. The leadership of head coach Jeff Tedford and the addition of quarterback Marcus McMaryion fueled the team’s improvement. This year, they return an experienced secondary, but will likely feel the effects of losing Robert Stanley and Malik Forrester on the defensive line. 

Fresno State is a well-coached team with quality offensive weapons and a solid quarterback. Not only that, but an experienced secondary with four upper classmen will be a big test for Minnesota’s passing game. Fresno State forced seven takeaways (5 interceptions, two fumble recoveries) in a 79-13 Week 1 win over Idaho. They also blocked two kicks and returned both of them for touchdowns. Idaho is not a talented football team, but a full assessment of Fresno State, dating back to last season can provide us with a few clues regarding what to expect. 

Expect offensive variety 
One of the reasons Fresno State was able to pull off such a dramatic turnaround was because of the offensive scheme Jeff Tedford deployed. The Gophers should expect a variety of personnel groupings, including three and four wide receiver sets and three wide and two tight end formations. They mix in run-pass option looks (RPO) and an occasional pistol look from time-to-time. They also like to overload each side of the field with a quads formation (four WRs on the same side of a formation) and bunch sets (3WRs). Out of these various formations, bubble screens can be formed, pick plays can be set and other forms of deception are possible (jet-sweeps, speed-options, etc.). They’ll hit a defense with underneath concepts and then stretch the field as the game progresses. What keeps defenses on their heels is the variety of personnel groupings and overall creativity of Tedford’s system. It’s why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired him as an offensive coordinator a few years ago. 

He loves to set things up with motion, while disguising various looks by mixing up his play calls and personnel groupings. This requires a tremendous amount of discipline for opposing defenses. The design of plays also puts dynamic weapon Marcus McMaryion in different locations in the pocket to change his launch points. With this type of ability, staying in pass rushing lanes and maintain edge contain is going to be extremely important. McMaryion is disciplined and threw an interception on just 1.5 percent of his total attempts last year. If pass rushers get too far up the field, Minnesota will pay the price. 

The offensive targets 
Not only is McMaryion a threat through the air, but he has a trio of wide receivers that draw plenty of attention. The group is headlined by KeeSean Johnson, a big-bodied target who could be a mid-round pick in next year’s NFL draft. He has a wide catch radius and is tough to bring down in space because of his playmaking ability. Johnson was targeted 135 times and Fresno State averaged 43 points per game when he tallied more than 100 receiving yards. Cornerback Kiondre Thomas or Antonio Shenualt will likely be keeping tabs on Johnson throughout the night. Complementing him is Jamire Jordan, a versatile wide receiver. He is difficult to cover because of his feet, quickness and starts. Finally, the team added four-star speedster Michiah Quick as a transfer from Oklahoma. He has been working out of the slot and also requires attention. Fresno State has a talented group of wide receivers, which will test a young player like true freshman cornerback Terell Smith. He performed well last week, but is going to be tasked with covering high-quality options in Week 2.

An opportunistic defense
Fresno State forced seven takeaways, many of which were the result of extremely ill-advised throws by Idaho quarterback Mason Petrino. However, the Bulldogs’ secondary is headlined by upper classmen. Their fast and physical playing style on defense closely mirrors the Gophers’ group of players. They have quick and skilled playmakers in the secondary who can make plays on the ball. Senior cornerback Anthoula Kelly led the team in pass breakups last year and will likely be tasked with covering Tyler Johnson. Kelly had two interceptions in last week’s game, including one he returned for a touchdown. 

In addition, the Bulldogs return their starting linebacker corps, headlined by junior Jeff Allison. Allison is one of the most impressive players on their defense. He is rangy, physical and is a guy who jumps off-the-charts on film. He led the team with 126 tackles and consistently makes plays as a pass rusher, tackler and coverage linebacker. I’m particularly curious to see the approach Fresno State takes when scheming against the Gophers’ offense. My guess: they’ll try to stack the box early and stop running back Rodney Smith. They’ll leave some opportunities on the edge for 1-on-1 matchups outside and force quarterback Zack Annexstad to make throws. They also are pretty aggressive (blitzing, stunting) in late-down situations, so being effective in early downs will be especially important for Minnesota. 

If the intermediate passing game gets into a rhythm and the Gophers’ win matchups on the outside, rushing lanes will open. If that’s the case, the Gophers need to control the time of possession and achieve success in early downs. As I’ve noted numerous times, this offense is rhythm based and short-to-intermediate accuracy has always been a major component of P.J. Fleck and Kirk Ciarrocca’s past units. Annexstad will need to make a few throws in this game to keep the defense honest as the Gophers try to get the interior running game going in the first half. 

Overall, this is going to be a great measurement for where the Gophers are at in terms of their development. Fresno State is talented, creative and well-coached. It’s how they completed such a dramatic turnaround last year. Both teams match up well together and provide intrigue at different position groups. I expect this to be a highly-entertaining game as the Gophers square off with one of the top “Group of Five” teams.

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