Craig Has The Scout - Minnesota 2020
You have currently viewed 1 story this month.
IlliniBoard now offers two free stories per month, for more please subscribe.
So, the DC for Minnesota is out for the game. I made some adjustments to the Scout to account for this.
Who: Minnesota Golden Gophers
When: 2:30 pm - November 7th, 2020
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: PJ Fleck. Robert likes to call him the mega-pastor, and I think that is a fitting description. I'm not sure that his over the top style will work long-term at Minnesota over time. One thing that is undeniable, Fleck can build a foundation to win like few others. Fleck fixed Western Michigan after Cubit left and built it to an undefeated regular season team with a trip to the Cotton Bowl. He then took over a pretty solid program at Minnesota and set the team record for conference wins in a season. He has upped the talent level at Minnesota. Fleck's recruiting should keep the Gophers near the top of the B1G West as long as people are buying his act.
Offensive Style: Spread that is primarily RPOs. Please stop reading and look at the cover picture again, please. If Lovie is not in the ears of the officials about illegal blocks downfield before the first play, he failed. Last year's OC, Kirk Ciarrocca, moved to Penn State in the off-season, and PJ Fleck hired co-coordinators. Last season, Ciarrocca ran an RPO about half the time. Fleck hired co-coordinators to keep the good times rolling. One of the co-coordinators is Matt Simon. Simon is a former WR who was coached by Fleck at NIU and has been with Fleck since WMU. The other is Mike Sanford, former Notre Dame wunderkind OC. Sanford left the Irish to take over as head coach at WKU and it was a disaster. Sanford is the play-caller this year. His offense utilizes TEs extensively, runs up the middle and off-tackle, and attacks the middle of the field in the passing game.
Defensive Style: A 3-4 using a Stand-up OLB at DE. Joe Rossi continues on as the DC for the Gophers, and he has started using an OLB with a hand in the ground more lately. The front looks like a 4-3 Under by alignment. Last year they ran a great deal of Cover 3 on the back end, but have started mixing coverages this year as no coverage has seemed to work.
Specialists: Minnesota's special teams haven't been very solid to start the year. The Gophers kickoff team in particular is pretty weak. I'm curious to see how they clean this up going forward.
Three Things to Watch
The Illini LBs in conflict with RPOs. The MLBs in Lovie's defenses are going to get their numbers, as the design means they clean up on tackles. The harder position is the weak side LB (and probably a reason Tarique Barnes gets more tick than Shammond Cooper). This will be the LB in conflict against the Gophers, and they beat the Illini in the RPO game last year. It will be interesting to see how the Illini defend the attack in the zones against the RPO to help the safeties.
The Minnesota OL vs. the Illini DL. Michigan put continuous pressure on the Gophers and prevented passes over 10 yards from Morgan. The Illini will need to generate a pass rush to prevent Morgan from getting comfortable. Although they lost, Morgan picked apart the middle of the Maryland defense. From a rushing perspective, Mo Ibrahim leads the nation in rushing yards per game at 173.5. Illinois should pull that average down this weekend.
Will the Illini run game get moving? Michigan thumped the Gophers on the ground. The Wolverines averaged 4 YPC taking away the two home run rushes they had. Maryland averaged 6 YPC taking away their two home run rushes. Illinois has the opportunity to get the run game moving this week.
Scouting Review - Offense
Over the course of the last couple of years, Minnesota under Ciarrocca had migrated to what might have been the heaviest RPO percentage in college football. The main play call is the run option with backside slants. Last year started with question marks at quarterback for the Gophers. Tanner Morgan improved on his 2018 performance and has cemented himself into the position. Morgan completed 66% of his passes last season en route to throwing 30 TD passes.
Morgan had two stud receivers last year in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. Johnson moved to the NFL, Bateman has returned. The combo of Bateman and Johnson was dynamic. Bateman is not putting up the explosive plays he did a year ago and has done most of his damage on passes about 5 yards downfield. Last year, Bateman averaged over 20 YPC, doing most of his damage down the middle.
Mo Ibrahim is now the focus of the offense and is a talented back. He is averaging 5 YPC, and half of those yards are after contact. The running game has been efficient (Ibrahim rushed for 4 TDs against the Terrapins) and helps the offense sustain drives.
The pass protection is the biggest issue for the Gophers. Michigan decided to challenge the pass protection and got home for 5 sacks. Maryland didn't run quite the pressure but still were able to get into Morgan's face and alter the game plan. The RPOs and play-action shots generally give Morgan a clean throwing lane, but he struggles when forced to go through reads.
Mike Sanford seems to be getting away from the pure RPO offense of last year, but it is still a large part of the offense. The RPO (Run Pass Option) look involves an inside zone blocking scheme up front, while the QB is reading the safety. The Minnesota variety of the RPO involves the backside WR running a slant. The QB is reading the safety, and deciding to give or pull based on the actions of the safety. The Gophers ran this more often last year, and have started to decrease the frequency of the look. The first play here is the give to Ibrahim
I have watched this video about 25 times. The LG jumps the snap. The RG goes into pass protection, but the QB is reading the S (#20) on the play and gives to Ibrahim when the safety stays high. Typically the OL is in pure run blocking mode heading downfield (see the post pic again). Odd to say the least. So, here are two RPOs where Morgan pulls it and throws the backside slant (or what looks more like a post in this case).
In this instance, you can see the OL was more into the run blocking mode. Morgan pulled this one very early, the safety was blitzing.
And since I suck at finding a good video to really illustrate, I pulled a 2nd video of a safety blitz for Minnesota here.
This is the play from the screenshot picture for the post though. The OL is 4 yards downfield when Morgan sets to throw. Morgan makes a bad throw but is bailed out by his WR Autman-Bell here. I think the main difference in the Minnesota offense this year is Morgan's accuracy on these throws.
The primary run play for the Gophers is an inside zone give to Ibrahim. Ibrahim is a powerful runner, but short in stature. Ibrahim is also hard to bring down and seems to get half his yards after contact. The Illinois front will need to be sure tacklers this weekend to prevent Ibrahim from breaking big runs through force of will.
Ibrahim is strong enough to run between the tackles but has enough speed to break to the edge. Sanford has changed up the offense vs. last year, and the Gophers have been taking advantage of the lead blocker in the inside zone run scheme. Here is Ibrahim as the lead blocker.
They used this look multiple times against Michigan, and in this play, the Gophers are running two receivers to the wide side and the inline TE and FB on the boundary side. The line is down blocking here and Ibrahim is coming to close out the end.
Ibrahim is one hell of a lead blocker. He blocks likes he runs, downhill, and with fury.
Minnesota used this look to create a score, which is the danger of cheating on Ibrahim in the FB position.
This play-action is very effective. The play-action look gets the front seven to cheat towards the run action. The LB corps should have been able to key on the action of Ibrahim crossing the play and covered him in the flat. The CB play-side reacted to Ibrahim opening up along the sideline, which opened the zone allowing the TE to catch the TD pass.
Minnesota will also run the outside zone sets as well. Although I have not seen many runs in the power run sets.
Again, Ibrahim is very patient and hits the hole. Once he hits the hole, he runs with aggression and maximizes the yards on the run.
The outside zone has a wrinkle the Gophers showed in this play.
The outside zone run can have the bubble screen bolted on as a play-action look. The Gophers showed the look here, but Morgan never gave much credence to throwing the bubble.
Michigan really shut down the Minnesota passing game. The Minnesota offense struggled in the 2nd half against Maryland as well, unable to muster first downs when needed. The Minnesota offense last year simplified things for Morgan, giving him clean pockets and simple reads. I'm not willing to say Morgan regressed, but I do notice Morgan staring down his receivers more this year than last. The Minnesota offense moves back and forth between play-action and RPOs, and when they go play-action Morgan is not as strong as he was last season.
Here is a play-action pass look, trying to take advantage of linebackers cheating on the run. Morgan had a single read and never looked elsewhere. If the safety was within 5 yards of this it is a pick. The LB (#44) actually played decent coverage, but Morgan was able to follow the receiver until he opened up in the zone seam. The safety was in deep coverage and allowed this to be completed. Morgan should have checked down to the out on the top of the screen when the LB dropped into the zone. Illinois has been playing with tighter safety coverage that could potentially create a coverage sack on Saturday.
Here is another Morgan stare down route off play-action.
Morgan stared down his primary read again and hit the open receiver. The receiver came open due to the corner blitz Michigan brought.
Sticking with the theme of Morgan staring down receivers, here is Morgan staring down his slant primary read. The formation is a 3x1 set, with a series of slants and a crossing route.
I'm guessing the receiver Morgan targeted was decided pre-snap. If that is not open, he would check down to the crossing route.
The Wolverines began bringing pressure early and often against the Minnesota offense. Morgan struggled with the pressure in his face, which led to a change in strategy. The play-action passing game was the initial answer.
The Gopher offense began running play-action with quick-hitting pass plays. Here the offense runs the hitch route to the slot. The WR ran a clear-out route, and the Gophers took advantage of the defender being a spectator.
When given time, Morgan will pick apart defenses though (a fairly large concern for Illini fans). In this example, the Gophers are in 60 protection and give Morgan a very clean pocket.
Bateman is a nightmare to defend, and here he takes advantage of a defensive coverage I can't understand. Morgan hits Bateman in the middle of the open zone.
Illinois has been walking safeties down all season to stop opposing run games. As a result, the Illini defense has been getting picked apart in the passing game. With Ibrahim running this week, Illinois will probably do the same. As a result, look for Minnesota to take some deep shots.
Minnesota wants to protect Morgan and give him a clean pocket, so they have 8 blockers. If you do the math, you'll see this is a two-man route.
The Minnesota offense has been able to move the ball. The Gophers have been able to establish a strong running game with Ibrahim, and Morgan is still an accurate passer. Morgan struggles to hit passes with pressure in his face, and Illinois has a chance to stymie the run game with aggressive pressure. The downside is giving up big plays to the Gophers. Although it goes against the Lovie motto of bend but don't break, I expect him to be more aggressive this weekend. As counter-intuitive as it is to make an extremely accurate passer beat you in the passing game, I believe that Lovie will do just that. Sanford and the Gophers will in turn try to establish the run and take shots in either the RPO or play-action passing game.
Scouting Review - Defense
The last time the Gophers came to Champaign, it got the Gopher defensive coordinator Robb Smith fired. Rossi streamlined the defense, stopped blitzing as often, and improved the Gopher rankings to a top-30 level last year.
The defense is struggling this year, and a big portion of that is due to the turnover from last season. The DL loses two starters, the LB corps loses two starters, and the best defender last year in Antoine Winfield Jr. A step back was always coming, the inability to stop anyone was not expected. The track record for Joe Rossi, talent developer, is not as good as Joe Rossi, play-caller.
I mentioned earlier that Rossi slowed down the amount of blitzing from Smith. This year has Rossi reverting to a blitz heavy scheme to generate pressure from his inexperienced front seven. The other interesting part is that Rossi has rolled out of his standard Cover 3 and is mixing coverages trying to find something that works.
So, apparently Joe Rossi has COVID, which would mean co-coordinator Joe Harasymiak will be calling plays this weekend. Harasymiak came to Minnesota in 2019 taking the spot vacated by Robb Smith. Harasymiak came to Minnesota after being the Head Coach at Maine. Harasymiak is a young guy - 34 - and able to "connect" with players. He is often described as high energy, which means his Rockstar fueled head coach loves him. Harasymiak ran a 3-4 at Maine, so the Gopher defense will be very familiar to him.
The base defense again is a 3-4. Primarily this year they appear to be running a Cover 2 behind it, but again are mixing coverages. Here is the base look.
The coverage was Illini-esque on this play. The pass rush has not been there this season, so Rossi has relied more on line stunts and slants more this year to generate pressure. Here is an E-T stunt. Harasymiak is a DB coach, while Rossi is a DL coach. Expect the line stunts to be minimized as they use the back-7 to generate pressure
The loss of contain was pretty horrific here, and it is plays like this that allowed Maryland to march back into the game last week. The other interesting part is that the first two opponents for the Gophers has involved athletic quarterbacks, and with Taylor, the Illini will make it three in a row.
Again, the Gophers have been trying to find something defensively that has worked. The result is a bevy of defensive coverages to try and slow down opposition passing games. Here are three different versions.
There are a couple of Man coverage looks there, which Minnesota will avoid with Bhebhe. The middle is a Cover 3 Robber look, which is interesting as this is a look that would confuse Taylor. The good news for the Illini is that Taylor has not really looked to throw across the middle.
The other method of bringing pressure is a series of blitzes. In the last two weeks, Rossi has turned into Joe Exotic with his blitz packages. The Gophers have blitzed corners often, use LB blitzing, and then a combination with the LBs and Safeties. Let's look at the Corner blitzes first. The fingerprints of Harasymiak on the Gopher defense falls right here. Last season, the Gophers were pretty resistant to blitz packages. Harasymiak was very aggressive with blitzing at Maine from the film I watched. I suspect this will be a larger part of the game plan with Harasymiak calling the defense. With Rossi, I would have assumed more slanting and line stunts. Now, I expect more pressure coming from the defensive backfield
In the first blitz, the corner is in press coverage and sets the edge well. The horrible tackling of the LB allowed a big play. In the second, they brought the corner out of a cushion look. I'm hoping Rod Smith takes advantage by leaking TEs into the flat and getting numbers on the edges if Minnesota is going to take chances.
The LB blitz was used by the Gophers in standard run downs. They were using it to attempt to get Michigan behind the sticks.
This blitz involved a stunt with the DE, the DE slants inside with the LB taking the edge. Michigan won big here as they went pass. The LB on the top of the screen was actually not blitzing (he eventually dropped in coverage), he was cheating on the run that heavily. Maryland took advantage of that aggressiveness with a heavy diet of RPOs.
Rossi has been employing a dual blitz of the LB and S to try and slow opposing rushing attacks. This is an extremely aggressive way to attempt to slow an opposing run game. Rossi has reverted to it though since nothing else has been working. Here it is against Michigan.
And the same blitz against Maryland
Rossi must feel like he needs to do this due to the experience of the secondary and the inexperience of the front 7. And the other DC in his ear about it
Michigan and Maryland both torched the Gopher defense by spreading the Gopher D. They allowed the QB to make pre-snap reads, then ran a simplified playbook. Michigan did damage in the screen game along with a power rushing attack. Maryland ran a power rushing attack with an RPO passing game. Illinois should be able to use parts of both of these to move the chains. Minnesota will be looking to stop the Illini with early pressure and shooting for turnovers. If Illinois can eliminate turnovers, they should be able to move the ball.
What does it mean?
This is a battle of the two worst teams in the West by record. The loser drops to 0-3 and is pretty well relegated to a 7th place West finish. Both defenses have been gashed this year - Illinois in the passing game and Minnesota in the run game. This game is going to be an opportunity for one of these teams to get right.
For Illinois to Win:
The Illini offense has struggled mightily, but the Minnesota defense has been a cure for offensive woes. Maryland ran a heavy RPO game last week against the Gophers and used the mobile quarterback to go crazy in the 2nd half. The Gopher defense has struggled to pressure the quarterback which should allow Taylor to settle and get the offense on track.
Morgan struggles with a rush, and the Illini DL started showing real signs of life last week. Consistent pressure should help the secondary. Coupled with Lovie's commitment to stopping the run, the Illini can derail the potent RPO attack and bottle up the Gopher offense. The Illini need to be ahead in the turnover battle as well.
For Minnesota to Win:
Fleck said in his conference call this week, "We've got a lot of really good players, but they're just inexperienced and they're getting experience right now. Especially with the COVID season, you usually benefit from all that offseason work, but everybody's in the same boat right now, and we got to find a way to be better." He better get an oar in the hands of the defense so they can start rowing that boat. The good news for Minnesota is that Illinois has struggled to sustain drives which is the Gopher Achilles Heel. The defense should show a big improvement this week.
The rushing attack for Minnesota has been good all year, but the Illini rush defense has been effective this season. The Illini pass defense though has been horrific this year and Morgan is accurate enough to make this game a shoot-out. The Gophers need to avoid self-inflicted wounds to win.
This game feels like a shootout game to me. Illinois' issues at the QB position mean that the Illini are going to rely on big plays against a Gopher defense that has been porous YTD. I'm not sure the Illini can string together enough to win. Minnesota has top-flight receivers and an accurate passer, which should allow them to pull away in this game.
YTD Against the Spread: