After ending the season with two physically dominating wins, the Gophers enter the offseason with optimism surrounding a young roster. Sixty of the 113 players on the 2018 roster were underclassmen – the highest number in the country. When injuries hit the depth chart, many young players were thrust into extended action. Minnesota’s offense featured eight key contributors that were freshmen or sophomores. When safety Antione Winfield Jr. was lost for the season with a foot injury, true freshman Jordan Howden played a prominent role. True freshman cornerback Terell Smith also started this season and performed at a high level. The Gophers prioritized adding young players for the future, rather than patching holes with junior college transfers. It’s the way Fleck has always built his roster. He has stood true to the words his mentor Greg Schiano once told him: "never sacrifice what you really want down the road for what you really want right now."
“We want to build this down the road to sustain over and over and build that cultural sustainability that a lot of teams in our conference have," Fleck said in August. "But to get there, you have to go through a lot of things that might not make a lot of sense to a lot of people.”
In 2018, many of those young players received extended action that will benefit the program in future seasons. With another top-35 recruiting class set to enter next fall, the Gophers are starting to establish depth throughout the roster. Minnesota prioritized the defensive line in this recruiting cycle and built a strong core on the offensive line last season. It's worth looking at some of the numbers to illustrate the strides this team made in 2018.
Offensive Line Development
The growth on the offensive line was clear as Minnesota averaged 242 rushing yards per game in their final three wins. The Gophers possessed so much physicality in the Wisconsin and Georgia Tech games and it allowed them to control the line of scrimmage.
Overall, one of the biggest stories of this season is the overall development of the offensive line. Position coach Brian Callahan deserves credit for the strides this group made since spring ball. With every additional rep, the unit looked more cohesive and fundamentally sound. Freshmen Daniel Faalele and Blaise Andries controlled the right side of the line for most of the season. Conner Olson also became dominant near the midpoint and showed off all of his movement skills and power. The Gophers will need to replace Donnell Greene and Jared Weyler this offseason and will likely tweak the lineup. However, they have laid a solid foundation that includes four-star guard Curtis Dunlap, who played well in the bowl game. Junior college transfer Jason Dickson is also expected to be eligible and will compete at tackle.
This unit's success helped redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim post impressive statistics. He rushed for the second-most yards ever by a Gophers’ freshman (1,160 yards). Ibrahim became the first Minnesota freshman to rush for more than 100 yards five times since Laurence Maroney in 2003. His power, feet and balance allowed him to pick up so many yards after contact. With Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks returning next season, the Gophers can divide carries and keep the rushing attack dynamic. More importantly, they all have different styles to keep defenses on their heels. Ibrahim is the type of running back to insert in the fourth quarter when teams are tired and lose tackling fundamentals.
Passing Game Takes a Big Leap
Despite playing in just nine games and starting six, Tanner Morgan managed to pass for the second-most yards ever by a Gophers’ freshman (1,401). He completed nearly 59 percent of his passes and was accurate in the intermediate game. He also managed to extend plays with his legs and added an element out of read-option and RPO looks. His performance and leadership, combined with the Gophers’ impressive wide receiver core, helped the team take a significant step offensively.
The Gophers finished the season averaging 7.8 yards per passing attempt, which ranked No. 33 nationally. This is the highest yards per attempt figure posted by a Minnesota team since the 2006-07 season (7.8 yards per attempt). In 2017, they averaged 6.5 yards per passing attempt and ranked 100 among 130 eligible programs. Prior to this year, the Gophers had not averaged more than 7.0 yards per attempt in any season since 2014.
Minnesota averaged under 165 passing yards per game in each of the past two years. This year’s squad averaged 208 passing yards per game, despite featuring a freshman quarterback. To put his into context, the Gophers have exceeded a 200 passing yards per game average just once (2015) since 2011.
Collectively, Minnesota averaged 380 total yards per game, which is the highest mark since the 2007-08 season (416). This started with the team’s ability to develop a more explosive passing attack. The Gophers fielded arguably their best wide receiver core in recent memory. Freshman Rashod Bateman posted 51 catches for 704 yards and six touchdowns, while Chris Autman-Bell added 28 catches for 449 yards. They will only continue to improve under the instruction of wide receivers coach Matt Simon and head coach P.J. Fleck. The duo joined junior Tyler Johnson, who set school records for receiving yards (1,169) and touchdowns (12). His improved route running skills helped him become one of the top wide receivers in the Big Ten.
Time of Possession is a Quiet Key
The Gophers finished No. 26 nationally and fourth among Big Ten schools in time of possession. They averaged 32 minutes per game and had a 53.8% first half time of possession share, which ranked No. 25 among 130 eligible schools. With Minnesota’s ability to run the ball, they managed to control clock and dictate the game’s tempo. This is one of the most important aspects of football and can shift the win column in favor of your team. P.J. Fleck’s teams at Western Michigan finished in the top-ten of time of possession in each of his final two seasons at the school. Against Georgia Tech’s run-heavy triple-option offense, the Gophers managed to win the time of possession 30:43-29:17. This speaks to the team’s physicality and ability to control the line of scrimmage. If they can continue to play with this style, Minnesota can compete with teams across the Big Ten.
Defense makes adjustments
After allowing 646 yards in a 55-31 loss to Illinois, the Gophers relieved defensive coordinator Robb Smith of his duties. Defensive line coach Joe Rossi served as the interim defensive coordinator. He eventually earned the permanent role after a strong end to the season. Prior to Rossi taking over, the Gophers’ defense surrendered 43 points per game in six Big Ten matchups and were unable to prevent explosive plays. They allowed 31 touchdowns and the average length of those scores was 35 yards. In addition, opposing teams were averaging 492 total yards per game over the same span. Players were out of position, missing run fits and playing undisciplined.
By making a few subtle adjustments, the Gophers’ defense started to catch stride under Rossi. He simplified the defense, was more aggressive with pressure packages/alignments and found a way to suit his scheme to players’ strengths. This proved to be effective as Minnesota’s defense locked in during the final four games. The Gophers went 3-1 over this stretch and limited a Wisconsin rushing attack that averaged 273 yards per game in 2018. In the final two games, Minnesota held two top-five rushing attacks (Wisconsin and Georgia Tech) to a 188 rushing yards per game average. The defense surrendered just 14.8 points per game, 300 total yards per game and 4.96 yards per play over the final four games. Prior to Rossi serving as defensive coordinator, the Gophers were allowing 43.2 points per game, 507 yards per game and 7.38 yards per play against six conference opponents.
By adding overall team speed and defensive line depth in the next recruiting cycle, the defense has an opportunity to improve. Not only that, but one of the team’s best players, Antoine Winfield Jr., is set to return.
Special Teams helped the Gophers play complementary football
Minnesota’s special teams units allowed the team to play effective complementary football. The Gophers ranked No. 19 in special teams efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. This includes No. 39 in field goal, No. 12 in punt, No. 26 in kick return, and No. 8 in punt return efficiency. Being in the top half of these categories has flipped field possession and placed opponents in less favorable situations. The work of players across the special teams units, has helped Minnesota strive for complementary football in all three phases of the game. Special teams coordinator Rob Wenger is a finalist for Football Scoop's Special Teams Coordinator of the Year award and deserves recognition for the unit's accomplishments this season.
As Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells once said, “What competition is – teamwork and working together and supporting each other and having the offense, defense, and special teams play complementary football and win as a team. This is certainly part of that process and the team building itself together.”
Not only that, but the team was extremely disciplined. In 2017, they were the least penalized team in the country and finished No. 5 in 2018 with just 3.9 penalties per game. There’s no doubt playing complementary football, being disciplined and controlling the time of possession will be foundational aspects of the Gophers’ program in the future.
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Tag(s): Gopher Football