[Things got a little pushed back this week in part due to the basketball preview. FFFF is going up now, obviously, and the recruiting roundup is bumped to Friday. There will be a final basketball outlook piece this afternoon and I'll be covering the NMU game tonight.]
Just for you, Brian
Thanks to some DVR-related hijinks and the scarcity of Minnesota football torrents, this week I'm breaking down the Minnesota-Wisconsin matchup from two weekends ago, a game that ended in a 38-13 Wisconsin victory. This was the first start for true freshman Philip Nelson, who looked like a freshman but not an entirely overwhelmed one, and an awful game for the Gopher defense, which ceded 337 rushing yards on 6.2 ypc.
To the breakdown!
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Very, very spread—before I stopped charting with the score 38-13 midway through the fourth, Minnesota had run exactly two offensive snaps from under center, one coming on a third-and-short.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Mostly zone read stuff for the Gophers, though they'll also mix in some gap blocking principles.
Hurry it up or grind it out? With a freshman QB, Minnesota wasn't going too high-tempo; this isn't unusual, as they currently plod along at 110th in the country in adjusted plays per game.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Assuming Nelson sticks at quarterback, which is the plan, the Gopher QB provides a running threat but not a big-play threat; aside from a 17-yard scamper when he shockingly juked Chris Borland in space, Nelson averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and didn't get any yards that weren't provided by the blocking. I'll give him a 5; if quarterback-turned-receiver Marqueis Gray is forced into action, Michigan faces a much better athlete that probably merits an 8.
Dangerman: The aforementioned Gray is Minnesota's best athlete at any position. He's only got eight catches this season as a result of bouncing between receiver and quarterback, but he's the only Gopher who really poses a major matchup problem at 6'4", 245 lbs., with impressive athleticism. Nelson targeted Gray frequently against the Badgers, though their timing was often off; he's a big target and a nice safety valve to have on the outside.
Zook Factor: Nothing too egregious from Jerry Kill on this day, though after Minnesota's touchdown late in the third quarter, he attempted an onsides kick by lining up practically his entire kickoff team between the hashes—rather obvious, guys—instead of going for a surprise onsides kick. Wisconsin recovered with relative ease.
Hennechart: Nelson was most accurate when going up the seam off play-action, largely because those plays (one of which is detailed in the breakdown below) usually netted a wide-open receiver. When asked to read coverage or fit a pass into a small window, he struggled—not surprising for a freshman throwing his first career passes:
Asterisks denote a BRX or INX—an especially bad read or inaccurate throw—and Nelson had one of each on his pair of interceptions; the first came on an ugly overthrow on a deep hitch that allowed a recovering defensive back to jump and grab, the second when he threw a slant into an unseen linebacker in underneath coverage.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown, including one of the better-blocked runs you'll ever see (by Wisconsin, of course)]
Minnesota was run-heavy when the score was close—which wasn't for long—and stayed relatively balanced even when they fell behind. They rely largely on the quarterback to create yards on the ground, either through the zone read, inverted veer, or frequent QB draws. The running backs were ineffective: Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood combined for 11 carries and 28 yards. Kirkwood, the faster of the two and the nominal lead back, had a huge day last week against Purdue—as we know, a terrible run defense—but hasn't found much success against Syracuse, Iowa, or even Northwestern. There's not much to fear for Michigan from the Gopher running game.
A large part of this is due to the offensive line, which is undersized—three of the five starters, including left tackle Marek Lenkiewicz, are under 300 pounds—and fails to get much of a push up front. They're relatively quick linemen that can get to the second level, but that doesn't matter much when double-teams are necessary to effectively block the defensive line. Even though Minnesota didn't go downfield often in the passing game, they gave up a fair amount of pressure in pass pro, as well; Nelson found himself bailing out of the pocket on multiple occasions.
Outside of Gray, the receiving corps isn't much to worry about; against Wisconsin, open downfield receivers didn't happen often, and when they did it was usually a product of play-action instead of a receiver beating the coverage. Michigan's pass defense is currently tied for first nationally in yards allowed, and while much of that is due to facing a slate of below-average passing offenses, guess what? This is a below-average passing offense.
Minnesota was able to score two touchdowns against Wisconsin, and both came on play-action passes that went up the seam; in fact, most of Nelson's passing success on the day came in this fashion. To tally their first score, Minnesota lined up with three receivers to the field side with a running back, Williams, on the boundary, bringing him in motion before the snap—they'd shown this look before and run either an end-around or read option:
Here's how the play looks just after the mesh point; the outside receiver will run a streak, while the two inside receivers to that side run matching posts:
Wisconsin is playing two-deep coverage with underneath zones and five men rushing the quarterback. The blitz doesn't hit home, which is trouble, as the slot receiver clears the short zone and occupies the safety, the cornerback has to stay on the outside receiver, and there's nobody left to cover the middle of the three:
The play works so well that Nelson would've been justified in passing to the slot, who needed only to beat the deep middle safety to reach the end zone. As it was, he made the right decision:
Here's the whole thing in video form:
This play is designed to exploit a Cover 2, and in this case worked to perfection.
Base Set? 4-3.
Man or zone coverage? Minnesota played mostly man and paid for it dearly, as their cornerbacks—especially #23 Michael Carter—were repeatedly beat downfield by Jared Abbredaris. This was a long completion on a one-man route off play-action:
On this play, Joel Stave inexplicably decided to pull the ball down, scramble, and throw it away:
And Abbredaris flat-out dropped this touchdown pass:
There were more, including a big chunk play on a simple streak over the top of the defense, but I think you get the point.
Unfortunately, Michigan doesn't have anything resembling a Jared Abbredaris; there should be room to operate in the secondary regardless, especially off play-action.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? As you'll see, while Minnesota's line is surprisingly not awful, their linebackers are; as a result, the only way they can successfully stop the run is through a Herculean effort by the line or a well-timed, well-placed run blitz. The Gophers therefore blitz more often on standard downs than passing downs and have a lot of boom-or-bust plays against the run; one look at the Wisconsin box score will tell you the approximate boom:bust ratio.
Dangerman: Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite is undersized at 244 pounds, but while he's not great when teams run directly at him, he chases plays down well from the backside and has recorded 6.5 sacks this season. Minnesota's line got good pressure on Stave and he was a big part of that, recording a sack among his 1.5 TFLs and generating a handful of hurries.
We'll start with the good: Minnesota's defensive line can create pressure on the quarterback with just a four-man rush, as both Wilhite and DT Ra'Shede Hageman are very tough to handle one-on-one while the rest of the linemen are small, quick dudes that get off the line well.
There, that was the good.
Now for the rest of it. What makes the line good at rushing the passer—quickness—becomes a negative as this undersized bunch (only Hageman breaks 300 lbs., and he's 301, while the top four DEs weigh between 237 and 244) tear upfield against the run and leave gaping holes that their linebackers rarely fill. If a lineman doesn't impact the ballcarrier in the backfield, it's trouble, and that happened much of the time against Wisconsin.
The linebackers were generally terrible unless a blitz got them into the backfield without having to take on a blocker. When that didn't happen, they spent the day getting rudely escorted out of the running lane. This was a touchdown as James White reached the end zone untouched—the boxes represent where the inside linebackers began the play, and the arrows point out where they are as White (#20) reaches the hole:
You'll note that Wisconsin didn't feel the need to block any defensive lineman with more than one guy, allowing the tight end (#15, second Badger from the left) to get out and pick off the overly-aggressive safety. White only needed to cut back slightly in order to run 48 yards to paydirt.
The biggest culprit for Wisconsin's huge running day was middle linebacker Mike Rallis. This turns into a 34-yard touchdown run for White; Rallis is the guy being pointed out by the arrow, which is necessary because he's in the process of being driven completely past the play and into the backfield on the opposite hash by a pulling guard:
You'll note safety Derrick Wells (#13)—the same safety that was far too aggressive on the White TD run above—is now caught completely flat-footed; he'll catch air and little else on a diving tackle attempt as White again runs unimpeded into the end zone. The Gophers are 84th in the country in rushing defense, give up five yards per carry, and by all appearances it could be worse.
The secondary, as you saw above, got repeatedly torched in man coverage; only corner Troy Stoudermire—a dangerous return man, as well—came away largely unscathed. Joel Stave finished 7-for-15 for 106 yards only because he's not very good; he missed two shoulda-been touchdowns (the Abbrederis crossing route above and an overthrown seam to the TE in the end zone) and Abbredaris dropped another, and that pass could've been more catchable given the separation.
Just to emphasize how bad this run defense is, let's look at the defensive version of this (sorry). Wisconsin comes out with White alone in the backfield—he takes the direct snap and starts heading off-tackle:
Wisconsin leaves the backside end unblocked, while three blockers manhandle the three remaining linemen:
The linebackers, well, they're in deep doo-doo. Every single one of them eats a blocker before White even hits the LOS:
The tight end (#48) peels off and gets a piece of the safety...
...who dives but can't trip up White as he tightwalks the sideline and into the end zone:
And that, my friends, is how you give up 337 yards on the ground.
While Michigan's offense obviously looks pretty different from Wisconsin's, the gameplan should be similar—run, run, run some more, then hit them over the top with play-action. As long is Denard is healthy—and even if he isn't, provided Devin Gardner hasn't entirely forgotten how to throw a football—this should work well enough for a comfortable victory.