Craig has the Scout - Minnesota 2018
Who: Minnesota Golden Gophers
When: 2:30 pm - November 3rd, 2018
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: PJ Fleck. A used car salesman with a football team, Fleck has energized people with his charming personality. In a B1G West devoid of personable coaches, he stands out. The results so far have only been seen in recruiting. He finished 6th in the B1G West last season, and is currently tied for last now. The Gopher's under Fleck though have avoided the soul crushing losses and are competitive in most losses (end of last season notwithstanding).
Offensive Style: Power Spread. Kirk Ciarrocca is back for his second season with the Gophers, and is still hammering away with the run first spread option scheme. It is more important to run the ball this season for the Gophers as the QB position is a bit of nightmare.
Defensive Style: 3-4. Robb Smith is the DC, and has adapted nicely to the 3-4 or 3-3-5 look. Illinois will see more 3-3-5 looks as they spread out the box. Smith leans more in the bend but don't break mold, but will be more blitz happy against an Illini offense that struggles with pressure on the edges.
Specialists: Minnesota has the a premier punting unit, and win a lot of the field position game by limiting returns. YTD, the Gophers are giving up 1.5 yards per punt return, good for 6th in FBS.
Three Things to Watch
Illinois' interior DL vs. the Minnesota interior OL. Teams the last few weeks have brutalized the Illini in the perimeter run game. Minnesota's bread and butter is the outside read option though, and teams that are stout in the middle take away their best play. If the Illini interior can hold up against this, Minnesota becomes more limited.
Illini big plays. Maryland's highlight real against Minnesota was nothing but huge plays. And every play is one that Illinois is adept at running. Illinois is going to struggle to sustain against the Gophers, but they can break big plays. If Illinois turns the game into a shootout, they have a real shot in this game.
The Illini secondary vs. Tyler Johnson. With the backup QB running the offense, Ciarrocca is going to rely on his playmakers more often. Tyler Johnson is the primary playmaker for the Gophers. He is the leading receiver in the B1G, and having a better year than the more publicized Rondale Moore. Watch for #6 on Saturday.
Scouting Review - Offense
Zack Annexstad was the starter for the Gophers out of fall camp and was replaced by Tanner Morgan last week against Indiana. Morgan showed out in the game, passing for 302 passing yards in Minnesota's victory over Indiana last week. Morgan is not near the runner Annexstad is, and really changes the options Ciarrocca has available in the run game. It does provide Ciarrocca additional options in the passing game. Teams have been able to bottle up the passing game of the Gophers running press man against the passing game. Tyler Johnson continues to break big plays against press man and is the Gophers safety valve in the passing game.
Last year Minnesota worked Illinois in the run game, primarily on the edges. Last weekend Maryland worked Illinois in the run game, primarily on the edges. Expect the Gophers to do the same this weekend. The first look will be something like this.
Thi is an edge read option look, although Morgan will rarely keep. The Illini could create havoc on this play with additional edge pressure. This will be the play Minnesota wants to run the most.
The Gophers next attack is to pound the interior of the defense, believing their OL will win most battles on the interior.
It will be interesting to see how often Minnesota runs this play. Against base 3-4 teams, they ran it extensively. They ran it at a much reduced clip against the only 4-3 tape I watched, but that was Ohio State. If they run this at a high frequency on the first couple of drives, you will see their evaluation of the Illini interior defense.
If they do respect the interior, they will not abandon running up the middle of the Illini defense. Another favorite this year of Ciarrocca is the Wham play, which teams have used quite successfully against Illinois this year.
The other main look is a stretch read option look. They ran counter read option (remember back to your Kent State horror of Woody Barrett pulling this and torching Illinois, that play) extensively against the Illini last year. I have barely seen them run it at all this season. Instead, with the two freshman QBs, they run this.
With the success teams have had on Illinois against the perimeter (think Jet Sweeps in particular) the Gophers should run this early and often. I don't think they will right away as they establish the interior run game. Ciarrocca is more comfortable pounding the middle.
The Gophers have also been running a fair amount of Wildcat with #17 Seth Green as QB. Green has 7 of the 13 rushing touchdowns on the season for the Gophers. Green runs an Aaron Bailey package, but this is the most frequent play.
Since the tape is primarily of him running, they will run a trick play out of the formation against Illinois, because Illinois. Against Nebraska they ran a reverse QB pass from Morgan back to Green. Expect something similar against Illinois.
On the normal outside zone play, the Gophers have a nice play action pass off the action. They like this action so much, they run this play more often than the run play.
I've seen 3 instances of Minnesota breaking huge plays out of this formation, so expect it early as the Gophers try and establish an early lead.
The counter they have to their normal read option is a bubble screen. Against Fresno State (who ran a bracket zone coverage over #6 Tyler Johnson) they ran this more often. Against the press man teams they barely ran it.
The play is designed to look like an RPO, but much like Maryland's action last week it is a call out of the huddle and there to isolate parts of the field.
The Gophers like to isolate Tyler Johnson when possible. As the best player on the field, he garners a great deal of attention. Against zone defenses, the Gophers have done a nice job of finding space for him to get open.
Here they have Johnson in the slot, and then use play action to freeze the lower zone defenders. Johnson then runs a skinny post and gets open. A better throw and things get real dangerous.
If Illinois goes press man (which I expect a great deal on Saturday), Minnesota will counter with the tunnel screen when possible.
Rod Smith used this quite a bit against USF, and it is very effective at breaking big plays again. This one was run to Autman-Bell, but they really like running it with Bateman as well.
In pure passing downs, the Gophers really like to work the center of opposing pass coverages. When they see zone, they work the post often.
There is a nice route combination set up here to give the QB options. Ciarrocca has been very pass happy this year versus prior seasons, and with Morgan as the QB his run game is more limited than before.
With Lovie calling the defense this week, it will be interesting to see what Illinois changes. Teams that had success limiting the Gophers have run press man, and done extensive stunting on the DL. Nebraska was by far the most aggressive doing this. Maryland and Fresno State both ran defensive schemes to shut down Johnson, while Nebraska, Ohio State and Indiana ran press man and forced the Gophers to beat them with big plays. I believe strongly that Lovie is going to take this approach and make the freshman QB win this in the air and run press man with an aggressive front 6 trying to stop the run.
Scouting Review - Defense
Minnesota is very susceptible to big plays. AJ Bush (who should start based on MJ Rivers starting the week in concussion protocol) has shown happy feet when teams bring edge pressure. This week, Rod Smith will need to call a game to keep Bush calm and take advantage of the big plays.
If you want a idea on how Illinois should attack this Gopher defense, look no further than the Nebraska game. The Huskers first drive was a QB rollout, 2 RPO stop routes on the boundary, and an outside zone read option. They moved the ball with ease against Minnesota, using personnel that Illinois matches.
Minnesota is going to try and rattle the Illini run offense, and most teams have done it with the edge blitz. USF used LBs, but the Minnesota defense sets up better to use DBs
Illinois has the chance to score on Saturday. They need to protect the ball and take more big play chances than Lovie is comfortable with to win.
What does it mean?
Minnesota is a deeply flawed team. The offense is on a backup QB who is mediocre at best. The OL is not great, but Tyler Johnson is electric. Ciarrocca is relying on the pass at a much higher clip this year to move the ball (last years yardage for the Gophers was about 60% on the ground, this year it is 40%). Ciarrocca has done a nice job using Tyler Johnson for the weapon he is.
Defensively, the Gophers are mediocre, but don't beat themselves. Last week they held in check Indiana and gave their offense a chance to win the game. They have been shredded by explosive teams though (Nebraska and Maryland in particular) which plays nicely for Illinois.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois has to stop the perimeter run game. I rewatched the tape of Illinois against Minnesota last season and did not recognize that team. The Illini DEs were very aggressive upfield and forced the Gophers to run on the interior. Illinois gave up 300 yards rushing that day, but the bigger issue for Illinois was an offense that wouldn't score.
If Illinois can hold Minnesota to similar rush yardage this year while playing pass defense, the offense just needs to perform. The Illini will score points on Minnesota, the defense has to give the offense some latitude to take big risks that may kill drives.
For Minnesota to Win:
The Gophers need to shake their road blues. They are 0-3 on the road this year, and by and large have gotten they keisters handed to them in those matchups. Minnesota has been bitten hard by the injury bug this year, so they need the next guys up to continue to perform.
Don't know why, this feels like a one possession game to me. I'll take Lovie making some adjustments this week and Illinois to cover.
YTD Against the Spread: