[Guest author situation: Still Seth.]
Previously: The Defense
Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft, like you, is looking at the word Offense in the headline above and wondering if it ought to contain square quotes. “Probably,” he thinks, as his teammates studiously avoid looking at him, lest he see their disgust.
Demry Croft sees, and does not begrudge them that disgust. It is entirely reasonable after Demry has just killed their first 4th quarter drive by running out of a perfectly clean pocket to the side with zero receivers, taking a sack because nobody but Demry Croft (and some Iowa players) would ever think to wander out to the side with nobody to throw to.
Coach is probably pissed. Coach with his funny sayings and his go-getchya attitude and his funny shoes and football sensibilities learned from playing a ton of Madden. Demry Croft isn’t a Madden guy, really. Breath of the Wild is more his thing. Just exploring, seeing the world open up. What’s over that mountain? What’s in this cave? What do they do with the other half of the field on a half-field triangle read? Nobody had ever explored over there until Demry Croft. Let’s go look!
oops, we died. back to the save point.
What they think doesn’t really matter, anyway. Demry Croft is here, taking snaps, wearing a helmet that says “ROW” on the foreguard and “THE BOAT” in stacked letters on the stripe, because this is a metaphor his coach will use to replace all of the Demry Crofts with Big Ten-caliber players eventually. Until then, nobody is pulling Demry Croft, he of the sub-100 college QBR, 42% completion rating, and 4.4 yards per drop-back, right now. That would mean going back to Conor Rhoda, who is basically Demry Croft except he didn’t lead a near-comeback against Michigan State and can’t run at all. If you’ve got to choose between two Demry Crofts, take the one who can run some, that’s what Demry Croft always says. Maybe that’s what Ski-U-Mah means.
You know what, No on the scare quotes, Demry Croft decides. They’d probably mess with the link, and then nobody would learn a thing about the 2017 Minnesota offense. Hup-Hup!
Personnel: My diagram gets bigger when you click it, but it won’t get any better.
[The rest of the breakdown, after THE JUMP]
The part about Minnesota you probably already know is the backs. RBs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are the best pair of ball carriers to come through the Twin Cities since those other guys. Smith (627 yards on 153 carries for 2 TDs) has finally emerged ahead of Brooks (79 carries, 369 yards, 5 TDs). They’re joined by a bruising transfer, Kobe McCary, who’s at 5 YPC and 5 TDs in 58 carries. On tape, those low YPCs—4.1, 4.7—are clearly an effect of the offensive line problems.
About that: the left side is pretty good. The one guy getting consistent movement in Minnesota’s simplistic zone running game is LG Garrison Wright, a Mason Cole-like guy who was game for tackle earlier in his career but has an NFL future inside. LT Donnell Greene didn’t give up a pressure all game despite facing Iowa’s most dangerous DE.
The right side is a pair of second-year players who came with neither stars nor grapes. Right tackle Nick Connelly quit football a few weeks ago due to concussions and after trying just about anything else the Gophers have settled on redshirt freshman RT Sam Schlueter, who’s bad at pass pro and bad at run blocking. Classmate RG Conner Olson gets discombobulated every time the defense so much as slants. Neither freshman contributed in the run game, because Minnesota schemed to keep it that way. OC Jared Weyler struggles to get any push but gets the line in the right checks usually. The only depth is former starter and walking trouble spot Vincent Calhoun. Every other OL on the roster is a true freshman.
Michigan’s right tackle situation might not be the only thing Minnesota envies. Their passing game is a mess, despite an emergent star receiver in Tyler Johnson, and two good and experienced multi-use tight ends in draftageddon fave-rave Brandon Lingen and 6’10”/280 Nate Wozniak. Both TEs are plus blockers and able to contribute as targets. The rest of the receivers struggle to get open on simple routes.]
Because QB Demry Croft is so limited the TEs are often called upon to block long-developing play-action with just two or three targets in a pattern. Statistically Conor Rhoda, who started the first five games, is better, but holistically Croft is the best Minnesota has right now.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? P.J. Fleck is a spread zealot, no foolies, but they do have an Ace package. That package always uses jet motion.
When not doing the jet thing, Minnesota is in a three-wide shotgun. When they’re four-wide it’s because a tight end wandered. One of their favorite running plays from this was a quick pitch to the backs.
They also run a lot of RPOs.
There are only three really base formations, and three or four things they’ll do from each. The plan is very space-age, though: they want to get the ball away from the offensive line and put their backs in space with tight ends as the primary blockers.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? They’re a mostly inside zone team with a few power things that aren’t so much “running power” as “getting our crappy right side of the line as far away from the ball as possible and hoping you’ll follow them.” To this end they’ve stolen an interesting counter from Urban Meyer:
The Gophers will do all sorts of stuff—motioning the TE, lining him up way outside, even going unbalanced—to get their tight ends and receivers out there. And it’s an veer option play too—if you don’t respect the pullers the quarterback gets an escort around your back edge. The play-action off of this is pretty sweet. They’ll also run plain ol’ Fielding Yost take yo’ jug veer in your face:
But like most of the offense, that’s a gimmick. It works because they’ve run inside zone and outside pitches so much that the playside DE dives inside and gets sealed by the first puller. Next time they showed this it got stuffed.
There isn’t one thing they can do consistently well except line up both tight ends off the left side and cave in your DL for two yards:
Hurry it up or grind it out? Like Rutgers, Minnesota won’t huddle, but they set up slowly and regularly move guys on and off the field, especially the backs. Twice in this game they tempo’d. The first they lined up in an unbalanced formation and I was like “oh this is gonna be cool:”
But Iowa slanted into the frontside and the back ran into a wall.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Croft will take off and run but he’s a loper, not a shaker. Do you remember where we put Russell Bellomy on this scale? Was it a 5? I feel like this is a 5. Like, he’s average. This is top speed:
Right? Five? A DT isn’t going to catch him, and he did get out of bounds, and he’ll gain like 300 yards on a full season at 4.4 YPC. Notably, Croft would not agree with my Five. He’s sure he’s a 7 or an 8. Often he’d pull the ball on an RPO, try to break the pocket because that was the wrong read, then go down after two yards.
Dangerman: The running backs you know. When they can free themselves from the offensive line troubles you’re in for a show. Here’s Smith on that veer I mentioned before, doing the thing to Iowa’s safety that happens to Iowa safeties:
Here’s Brooks as the jet man operating:
Smith as the “better idea than dying”:
Smith is a complete back: he’ll make you miss, power through you, threaten as a receiver, and block like a fullback. Brooks is a magical little bastard who operates best when the defense is sure he’s got no space.
The Dude you certainly hadn’t heard of before this year but ought to know by now is the Big Ten’s breakout receiver de la saison, Tyler Johnson. At first Iowa put Rugumba on him but you can’t single up TJ and give him any cushion:
After that Iowa put its own emergent star, cornerback Josh Jackson (who is really really good you guys and yes it bothers me too that all these Big Ten West guys are Michael Johnson and John Jones) on TJ and a Burbridge v. Lewis battle ensued. Chained to a mediocre quarterback, Johnson definitely lost that battle. That is until he found his way across to Rugamba’s side again:
ignore the drawing and watch the WR on the bottom of the screen.
Croft threw 29 passes this game; 12 were Johnson targets. He caught just four, for 92 yards. Johnson also tagged State for 106 yards and 3 TDs. I gave Long a star this week to match Hill’s; if they’ve got them still by next week they’ve earned ’em.
Zook Factor: P.J. Fleck plays Madden as much as you do. He knew to set up 4th and short when he could, and go for it on 4th and 1. also ran play-action on 4th and goal from the 3, and got their 6’10” tight end all alone in the end zone (Croft overthrew him).
They also opted for a field goal late on a 4th and 3 to make it 17-10. On one hand, you’re supposed to go for it there because you’re going to have to go for it when you’re down a TD later anyway and it’s best to know sooner rather than later if you’re going to get that touchdown you need. But no coaches think this way, and, like: 17-10. Fleck is anti-Zook.
HenneChart: Demry Croft ladies and gentlemen:
wooooooooof. Is this an all-timer? For reference Rescigno, the mediocre Rutgers quarterback we faced last week, was 60% in downfield success rating. I found a couple of backups we rated when they were on their way to being backups: Lagow was at 45% versus Penn State. Sindelar was 48% versus Louisville. Chris Laviano managed 46% versus Ohio State. The nearest we’ve got in our annals is Florida’s Treon Harris hit 40% against FSU in 2015.
And…yeah. Croft has no idea what he’s seeing, or sometimes even what play they’re running. There are no receivers on the right side of this pattern:
Even when he does see the thing in front of him, a good third of his passes just miss the mark. The 6’10” TE should have had two touchdowns in this game. On one he could have run under the ball instead of backing up. On the other Croft had some guys in his face and left it short.
OVERVIEW: Claeys left whoever came to clean up his mess a terrible quarterback situation and compounded it with a terrible offensive tackle and receiver situation, except for that one star. The parts Kill put together (the TEs, the left side of the line, Smith & Brooks) look like the 8-4/9-3 Minnesota teams Kill put together, but they could all be gone after this year. The only good player on this offense who signed after Harbaugh was hired at Michigan is Tyler Johnson. He’s really good. He’s one guy.
Minnesota was already not a good offense when they lost some key pieces (an offensive tackle, some young receivers) and switched quarterbacks. If you’re still talking to your one Michigan friend who thinks our offense is the worst and will never move the ball on non-Rutgers opponents ever again, his vision of Michigan’s offense is pretty close to what Minnesota’s actually living through.
A lot of that comes down to the quarterback situation, and what defenses don’t have to care about because of it. Watch #8 the slot receiver on this one:
He has to cut to the sideline because they’re rolling Croft that way. If Croft was in the pocket and this was a thing, you’d think the receiver could turn that post step at the 35 into an actual post route, and with Iowa’s free safety coming down hard before the snap that would be open for days.
That safety can come down because he has no fear of a post going behind him. Meanwhile the safety rolled up on the slot receiver doesn’t even flinch when that deathly post step occurs.
Still, they’ve got some Players. I don’t know if they’ll get to keep Smith and Brooks now that they’ll be draft-eligible, but Johnson’s only a sophomore. There’s a future here. Only Wright and the tight ends won’t have the option of seeing it.
In the present, there are a lot of freshmen, and they’re running the same few simple things in the simplest ways to not overload them. Their formations can best be described as “the way we line up” and “the jet thing we do.”
Those run-pass options came in two forms. Bubble/Inside Zone, which read the slot defender:
and Split Zone/Slant, which read the backside safety:
The RPOs were never successful (the other time they ran the slant Jackson broke it up, which is why he’s so ready for it above). A lot of that was on Croft not seeing his reads and then freaking out when he found himself in the pocket with nobody to throw to.
The coaches did try to mitigate Croft by running on first down a ton, but early runs for no gain into stacked up lines resulted in a lot of long situations.
The lengths Fleck’s staff was going through to keep their offensive linemen from having to determine the outcome was magnificent and telling. This is the quick pitch formation that got a lot their rushing yards:
The quarterback attempts to freeze the defense with some inside zone action that’s probably meant to trigger an RPO read in the backside safety. Then the RB flares out some and Croft flips it to him. The offensive linemen just have to stand around and maybe get in a guy’s way. All the important blocking is happening from the slot.
In the 2nd half they offset the TE a little more to facilitate his block.
The whole point here is to mitigate the lines entirely and play TE/WR blockers versus DBs with excellent running backs in space. It wasn’t the worst idea; it got predictable and the counters (the RPOs ad regular inside zones) weren’t effective enough to hold them down. One time they ran this as an actual (perhaps accidental) speed option play, but Croft freaked out at the linebacker coming at him and ate a TFL instead of pitching it.
The other thing that worked was two TEs to the strongside and cave in that side of the line, with the back squeezing out 2-3 yards. That’s some Woody ball right there and was effective if they ever got into 2nd and 4 or 3rd and 2. This one included a zone read on the SAM:
They’ll also run it as an RPO. It’s consistently effective. It gets two yards.
It’s a sad, bad offense. Their one saving grace is if it’s cold and rainy and miserable tomorrow night it’s not like they can get much worse, while their opponent’s offense can. Ski-U-Mah.