MINNESOTA PREVIEW: Go-pher Broke

Want to make a bowl? Better win this one!

INFO AND STATISTICS:

COACH: P.J. Fleck, 5th season (29-21 at Minnesota, 59-43 overall)

2021 RECORD: 3-2 (1-1 Big Ten)

POLL RANKING: N/A

SP+/FPI/F+ OVERALL RATING: 38th SP+/55th FPI/44th F+ (Nebraska: 24th SP+/22nd FPI/26th F+)

VEGAS SPREAD (as of Thursday, Oct. 14): Nebraska -3.5, 48.0 Over/Under

SP+ NEBRASKA WIN PROBABILITY: 51 percent

SP+ SCORE PREDICTION: Nebraska 27, Minnesota 27 (Not a typo! This is the actual prediction it gives; NU has a 0.2 projected advantage)

Fleck is the quintessential “CEO coach” who doesn’t have a ton to do with the weekly gameplanning but focuses on team culture, organization and recruiting. Whether or not you find him annoying, it’s hard to argue with the results he’s gotten for Minnesota — he’s the schools winningest coach since 1951 and won 30 games at Western Michigan. He’s also an incredible developer of wide receivers, turning Corey Davis at WMU and Rashod Bateman at Minnesota into first round picks.


PERSONNEL:

BEST PLAYERS:

  • Tyler Nubin, Safety, #27: Nubin is Minnesota’s primary deep safety and an elite coverage player. He’s been targeted 12 times this year and allowed just two catches for 25 yards and intercepted two of the passes. He is not a super physical player or a particularly good tackler but rarely plays in the box. The junior picked off the pass last season against Nebraska when Luke McCaffrey came in for two plays when Adrian Martinez’s helmet broke.

  • John Michael Schmitz, Center, #60: Schmitz, a fifth-year senior, is the anchor of an experienced Minnesota offensive line, starting for parts of the last three seasons. He’s allowed one pressure in 122 pass blocking snaps this season and is a higher-graded run blocker by Pro Football Focus.

  • Boye Mafe, Edge Rusher, #34: Mafe is a speedy, bendy edge rusher who Husker fans should remember from last year’s sack that forced a fumble on Martinez in the third quarter. A member of Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List” in 2020 for being able to to run a sub-4.6 40 at 260 pounds, Mafe has five sacks in his last three games and five other hurries.

  • Chris Autman-Bell, Wide Receiver, #7: Autman-Bell’s numbers or grades haven’t been good this season because he suffered a lower leg injury in fall camp and has slowly worked his way back into the rotation the last few games. But he was Minnesota’s best receiver last year, posting one of the 10 highest receiving grades in the Power Five on contested targets by PFF, and he should be closer to full health coming off the bye week.

COOLEST NAME ON THE ROSTER:

Jaqwondis Burns, Linebacker, #15

The freshman from Texas redshirted last season before seeing the field for the first time in his Gophers’ career in the last game, getting a sack and a tackle for loss against Purdue. Talk about a great introduction! If someone introduced themselves to me and said, “Hi, my name’s JAQWONDIS,” I’d already be impressed enough!

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WHEN MINNESOTA’S OFFENSE IS ON THE FIELD:

STATISTICS:

UNIT SP+/F+ RATINGS: 

  • MINN OFFENSE: 44th SP+/52nd F+

  • NU DEFENSE: 26th SP+/19th F+

YARDS PER PLAY (national rank in parentheses):

  • MINN OFFENSE: 5.25 yards per play (94th)

  • NU DEFENSE: 5.01 yards allowed per play (35th)

POINTS PER DRIVE (national rank in parentheses):

  • MINN OFFENSE: 2.13 points per drive (67th)

  • NU DEFENSE: 1.54 points allowed per drive (24th)

RUSHING:

  • MINN OFFENSE: 192.20 rushing yards per game (6th in Big Ten, 38th nationally)

  • NU DEFENSE: 133.86 rushing yards allowed per game (10th in Big Ten, 55th nationally)

PASSING:

  • MINN OFFENSE: 141.8 passing yards per game (14th in Big Ten, 124th nationally)

  • NU DEFENSE: 207.7 passing yards allowed per game (6th in Big Ten, 43rd nationally)

20+ YARD GAINS PER GAME:

  • MINN OFFENSE: 3.80 20+ yard gains per game (1.2 rush, 2.6 pass)

  • NU DEFENSE: 4.42 20+ yard gains allowed per game (1.42 rush, 3.0 pass)

HAVOC PLAYS PER GAME (tackles for loss, sacks, passes defensed, interceptions, fumbles forced):

  • MINN OFFENSE: N/A Havoc plays allowed per game

  • NU DEFENSE: 11 Havoc plays per game

COORDINATOR:

Mike Sanford, Second Season

Sanford took over as offensive coordinator last season for Kirk Ciarrocca, Fleck’s right-hand man who left for the Penn State OC job (and was fired this offseason). Sanford has had his hands in a variety of systems, everything from more traditional pro-style stuff at Boise State and Notre Dame and more Air Raid/spread stuff at Western Kentucky and Utah State. But Minnesota has just continued running its previous offense with him at the helm, not changing much.

SCHEME:

Primary Formations: Shotgun

Primary Personnel: 11, 12

Tempo: Sometimes

Motion: Almost Never

Run Concepts: Split Zone, Duo, Outside Zone

Pass Concepts: Posts, Overs, Deep Slants, Heavy Protection Play Action Shots

Standard Downs: Zone Runs, RPOs, Play-Action Shots

Third Downs: Empty Formations, Quick Game, Praying Tanner Morgan Gets A Stronger Arm

Minnesota’s offense is not complex: Zone runs until the defense stops them, then throw RPO slants and heavy play action in-breakers off the runs. That worked pretty well in 2019 when the Gophers had Tyler Johnson, Bateman, Rodney Smith, Mo Ibrahim and a giant, physical offensive line. But with that talent matriculating out of the program or suffering injuries over the past two seasons, things have been … not as rosy. Their offensive SP+ has fallen from 7th in that 11-2 season to 18th last year to 44th through five games against bad opponents this season.

Minnesota’s main two rushing plays are “duo” and outside zone.

Duo is a play that looks very similar to Inside Zone but has a few slight blocking variations that make it more of a power run. With inside zone, your linemen are moving in concert in a certain horizontal direction. But Duo has the center and backside tackle work down against the grain of the play, hoping to form multiple double teams on defensive linemen on the interior of the play. Here’s a little explainer:

I’ve talked about outside zone in-depth in the newsletter before; see the Illinois preview for a better breakdown. One interesting thing the Gophers will do with outside zone is to run it to the weak side of the formation. Not many teams at any level are able to do this, as it requires extremely athletic linemen who can get move over a gap to get around the defensive linemen.

One other thing to watch with Minnesota’s run game is their use of extra offensive linemen. They’ll play one or sometimes two offensive linemen at tight end to get a blocking advantage. Duo and outside zone are both plays that go a lot better with a tight end on the field — duo, in fact, can’t be run without a tight end on the field — so the Gophers go all-in for blocking on these plays by bringing on a sixth and seventh o-lineman.

They’ll then take both of these run concepts and put second-level defenders in conflict with RPOs. Their 2019 season was famous for running a “short post” route RPO with Bateman and Johnson off these run concepts, deeper than a slant at an 8-yard break, but not quite a full post route, either. This is Minnesota’s bread-and-butter play:

Will Honas (good luck with the rehab, KING) has two responsibilities here: Serving as the edge run defender and dropping into a short pass coverage zone in Nebraska’s Cover 3. Minnesota’s goal here is to put Honas in conflict: If he prioritizes his pass responsibility and drops to the short post, the quarterback hands off and there’s one fewer defender in the box. If Honas prioritizes his run responsibilities, there’s a vacated space in the passing game and the quarterback pulls the ball and throws to a receiver who’s galloping into the secondary.

Ibrahim, the running back, was incredible in this NU game and looked solid in the opener against Ohio State, but he suffered a season-ending injury at the end of that game, and their backup went out for the season last week.

When Minnesota gets in third downs and has to ask quarterback Tanner Morgan to throw downfield or make plays, it really struggles. Morgan does not have a lot of arm talent or ability to do anything outside the structure of the offense.

HOW NEBRASKA CAN DEFEND IT:

Last year, Nebraska stayed in a light box most of the game and tried to take away the pass-elements of the Gophers’ RPOs, and got run on for 200+ yards. I don’t know if its tact will change this year — the Huskers’ front is playing much more physical and gap-disciplined this year than it was last year, so maybe they can. But a couple things I definitely expect NU to do are: (a) changing up the looks in both the front and secondary all game to keep Minnesota’s staff from being able to get a clear picture of who to put in conflict; and (b) playing more 1 High safety looks and man coverage to get extra bodies in the box and make people’s pass responsibilities clearer. Expect a season-high in Cover 1.


WHEN MINNESOTA’S DEFENSE IS ON THE FIELD:

STATISTICS:

UNIT SP+/F+ RATING: 

  • MINN DEFENSE: 36th SP+/43rd F+

  • NU OFFENSE: 30th SP+/29th F+

YARDS PER PLAY (national rank in parentheses):

  • MINN DEFENSE: 5.11 yards allowed per play (41st)

  • NU OFFENSE: 6.75 yards per play (19th)

POINTS PER DRIVE (national rank in parentheses):

  • MINN DEFENSE: 1.72 points allowed per drive allowed (32nd)

  • NU OFFENSE: 2.46 points per drive (46th)

RUSHING:

  • MINN DEFENSE: 77.0 rushing yards allowed per game (2nd in Big Ten, 5th nationally)

  • NU OFFENSE: 221.86 rushing yards per game (2nd in Big Ten, 18th nationally)

PASSING:

  • MINN DEFENSE: 230.8 passing yards allowed per game (10th in Big Ten, 72nd nationally)

  • NU OFFENSE: 270.0 passing yards per game (4th in Big Ten, 36th nationally)

HAVOC PLAYS PER GAME (cumulative tackles for loss, sacks, passes defensed, interceptions, fumbles forced):

  • MINN DEFENSE: N/A Havoc plays per game

  • NU OFFENSE: 7.28 Havoc plays allowed per game

20+ YARD GAINS PER GAME:

  • MINN DEFENSE: 3.2 20+ yard gains allowed per game (0.2 rush, 3 pass)

  • NU OFFENSE: 6.13 20+ yard gains per game (1.71 rush, 4.42 pass)

COORDINATOR:

Joe Rossi, Fourth Season

Rossi took over as interim defensive coordinator late in the 2018 season after Robb Smith was fired for allowing Illinois to score 55 points. Rossi did well enough to get the job full-time and turned what was an atrocious defense in Fleck’s first two year into a solid unit for their 2019 run. The Gophers’ D struggled last year but seems to be back to a solid level this year. Rossi’s previous experience as a defensive coordinator came at Rutgers and Maine.

SCHEME:

Base Defense: 4-3 Even Front

Coverage: Cover 4, Cover 6

Blitz: Almost Never

Third Down: Base Defense But A Little Spicier

Minnesota’s defense is not complex, either. They line up in an Even front almost all of the time, prioritize not getting beat deep in coverage, and take almost no risks. They blitzed at the third lowest rate in all of college football last year, and played man coverage on about 10 percent of their plays. Their going to line up Mafe outside the tackle, and their favored coverages are going to dictate they are almost always playing with two high safeties. They’re basically going to line up like this no matter what you do:

This is a better Gophers’ defense than Fleck has had most seasons; a somewhat unexpected development considering they were one of the most maligned units in the P5 last year. They are fifth in the country in rushing yards per game allowed — though that is a little fools’ gold, considering four of their games came against two MAC teams, Colorado and Purdue. Their secondary is less good, but this is a decent unit! Don’t be surprised if they give NU a little trouble.

OW NEBRASKA CAN ATTACK IT:

Nebraska had a ton of success in last year’s game against Minnesota by stealing extra gaps on the Gophers’ four-man front with motion and pullers and using the quarterback in the running game to get a numbers advantage:

So expect a lot of counter, power, trap and other gap-scheme runs. With as wide and aggressive as Minnesota’s edge rushers play, this might be a good game to see the return of the Down-C play I talked about in the OU recap, which has disappeared since. There will also be NU’s now typical dose of triple option to contend with, too. They also seem to like to bust out some midline option against even front teams, as well.

In the passing game, Minnesota runs Cover 4 on about 60 percent of its plays, so expect a lot of what I talked about before the Northwestern game and a lot fewer of the man-beaters you saw last week.


SCORE PREDICTION:

Nebraska 24, Minnesota 14

Nebraska is the better team by just about every metric but does face some uphill stuff here: eighth straight game, on the road, opponent coming off bye week, the existential knowledge that your football team has been cursed by the gods. Fleck always seems to have Minnesota really fired up to play Nebraska, too, so they’re probably going to get the Gophers’ best shot. But I think I actually do believe what this Huskers team says when they talk about leadership and other intangible stuff being different with this group. Nebraska gets a win, and everyone heads into the bye week happy. GBR.

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