“On the offense last year, they had great spacing. That’s what I remember. Great spacing, great shooters, like Nik Stauskas, who’s not there right now. But they always have someone to fill the roles. They have a cutting offense, kind of hard to guard.”
Yes, Fee Fi Foe Film lives on until Brian pries it from my cold, dead hands or, well, threatens to withhold my paycheck (my staunch moral stances are only so staunch, people). This week, I'm insane enough to take in not just the entire Minnesota/USC game from week one, but also a decent chunk of last week's Gopher loss to North Dakota State—if you want to test your love for football, try watching multiple Gopher games in the same day.
Despite the fact that Michigan is going to annihilate Minnesota, barring a catastrophe of Horror-level proportions, it's still worth looking at what the Gophers could potentially do on offense to put up some points. Here are a couple plays that stood out to me from the USC game, which was conveniently uploaded to YouTube (first half, second half). No torrent/YouTube video exists for the NDSU game, mercifully, so you'll just have to take my word when I go over that game later. On with the show...
ZONE READ... WITH A TWIST: A lot of what Minnesota runs with MarQueis Gray at quarterback resembles Rich Rodriguez's offense, but the Gophers sometimes have a few extra bells and whistles on their zone read plays. One of their most successful plays of the game came when they brought the slot receiver in motion and ran a sort of triple option zone read. Confusing screencap, ho!
The Gophers use an H-back as well as a tight end on most plays, and like to run either from the pistol or in the shotgun with the halfback offset and a yard or two behind the QB. As the above picture so clearly illustrates, on this play the slot receiver comes in motion and is the first read on this play, forcing the defense to stretch out to the sideline to protect against a potential jet sweep. After that, it's your basic inside zone read, and in this instance the jet sweep fake does enough to open up a seam for the running back inside his left tackle:
As you can see, the rush linebacker (#4) gets too far upfield and loses the edge—if this was a Michigan game, Brian would surely be screaming "RYYYYAANNNNN" and confusing all the blue-hairs—creating enough of a gap for the running back to pick up the first down. The most glaring weakness on Michigan's defense this year has been their inability to consistently keep contain, so expect the Gophers to try this one out, though they surprisingly didn't motion the slot man on any of their other zone reads despite this play's success.
DEFENDING THAT ONE GOOD THING MARQUISE GRAY DOES: Minnesota likes to utilize a lot of pre-snap motion with their H-back and tight end, and often follow that up by also motioning the slot receiver. They'll often load up one side of the formation, as you can see here (the arrow indicates that the H-back went in motion):
From this look, they can either run a QB power to the strong side or, in this case, a QB draw to the weak side, taking advantage of the defense shifting to the overloaded side of the field:
A note on Gray: he seems very iffy on the zone read, and—much like Denard at times last year—usually hands the ball off even if that isn't the correct read. This resulted in multiple plays in which Gray handed the ball to a RB who had just enough time to give his QB a "WTF man?" look then get crushed by three defenders. Most of Gray's rushing yards came from designed runs in which he didn't have to make a read, like the play above, or (most often) on passing plays in which he looked for his first read and then, if it wasn't open, took off. This is when he's at his most dangerous, although it also severely limits the effectiveness of the Gopher passing game and also sometimes results in Gray running right into sacks.
With a severe lack of depth at wide receiver only adding to the passing issues, this makes it easy for defenses to load up against the run and dare Gray to throw—the key is making sure the defensive line maintains lane responsibility and doesn't allow Gray to escape into open space. In this game, with Gray's scattershot arm and shaky receiving corps, the Wolverines should focus more on bottling him up in the pocket than going all-out for the sack, at least when it comes to the front four.
OH HEY, I TOTALLY RECOGNIZE THAT PLAY: Remember that motioning H-back? Remember what Michigan did with Kevin Koger last year to keep defenses honest against the zone read? Tell me this play doesn't look like it was ripped directly out of the 2010 Michigan playbook:
Like the Wolverines last year, Minnesota likes to have their H-back seal off the backside of the play on the zone read, setting up the play-action fake with him leaking out into the flat. This is another play where the Wolverine outside linebackers will have to be on full alert, which honestly makes me kinda nervous. Again, however, the Gophers had success with this play and inexplicably ran it just once all game—their playcalling is questionable, IMHO.
A few quick bullet points on the offense:
- Because of Gray's poor passing, Minnesota consistently runs on first and second down, hoping to get close enough on third down to make Gray's legs at least a threat. Their early-down passing was non-existent, and this was against a USC secondary that was absolutely terrible last year and—even with the game against Minnesota—is only 64th in the country in pass efficiency defense this season. Mattison should be able to get very aggressive with his blitzes this week.
- Not helping Gray's deficiencies throwing the ball is his offensive line, which allowed consistent pressure even against simple four-man rushes. Their depth chart at the two tackle spots consists of one sophomore—starter Ed Olson—and four freshmen. Redshirt freshman right tackle Jimmy Gjere simply stood still and blocked nobody on one passing play despite having a defensive end line up right over him, and he would have given up an embarrassing sack had Gray not broken the tackle in the backfield and thrown the ball away. Craig Roh and Jake Ryan should have success coming off the edge as long as they keep contain on Gray and can haul the 240-pound quarterback to the ground.
- Minnesota's non-Da'Jon McKnight receivers aren't very good at catching the ball even when Gray actually can find them, and that goes for the tight ends as well.
- The one bright spot beyond Gray's running ability is the speed of the Gophers' running backs, especially Duane Bennett and Donnell Kirkwood. They found little-to-no success between the tackles in the games I watched, but could spring a big gain if they found room on the edge. So, yeah, please continue improving on that, Jake Ryan.
On defense, the Gophers stay in their base 4-3 on most every play, in large part due to a very inexperienced secondary that includes not one, but two position-switch starters. Ignore ESPN's inability to spell "former" and Shady Salamon's incredible name and look at that starting secondary: