Minnesota won it's season opener 28-21 over a very good South Dakota State team last night. I couldn't help but notice the jarring difference in offensive philosophies between the two squads- and despite the loss, how much better SDSU's was compared to Minnesota's. The Jack Rabbits had Gopher defenders moving- and usually in the wrong direction- all night long while Minnesota was basically doing the same thing on every play- a play-action pass or, on about 2/3 of their snaps, the return of the dreaded #RUTM. Watching Minnesota on offense I couldn't shake the feeling we were watching a Matt Limegrover offense from three or four years ago.
The Classic "Limey" formation was a QB in shotgun, a RB beside him, and then one-three TE's. Receivers? Probably one or two of those on the outside, but really none of that mattered because the defense knew exactly what was coming- a "run up the middle" by the running back, or a Mitch Leidner keeper to the outside. And while sure Leidner was a tough runner, he was the furthest thing from fast. Any opposing defense knew the Gophers were going to lineup and run right at them- over and over and over again. And if the QB kept it he wasn't getting more than a few yards. Pass? The few DB's they kept back in the secondary could handle it, and they usually did.
Sound familiar? Because that's about what SDSU saw from Minnesota. OC Kirk Ciarrocca added a bit of pre-snap motion, but the Jacks Rabbit D saw it for what it was- window dressing. They stayed home putting 7 or 8 defenders in the box knowing more often than not that the one RB in the backfield was getting the ball and running between the tackles. And on more than 60% of the plays that's exactly what happened, which is why it seemed like SDSU had multiple defenders waiting at the line of scrimmage to make the tackle. There were no designed runs for the backs outside the tackles, no counter plays that changed the direction after the snap, no quick screens to receivers (can we please take that looooooooooonnnnnnnnnnngggggggg developing wide receiver tunnel screen and throw it in the garbage? It hasn't worked in two years and it fooled no one again last night), no quick slants or hitches, and no RPO's (at least that I could tell).
Most concerning to me though was that despite the obvious struggles of Minnesota's O-line, Ciarrocca did little to help them out. No designed rollouts or bootlegs to give Tanner Morgan more time to throw and actually get SDSU's D moving away from the line of scrimmage and outside the tackle box. Ciarrocca came in with a vanilla game plan and when it was clear to everyone it didn't work instead of trying to mix it up or add in some new wrinkles, in classic Limey fashion he just stubbornly stuck with the same old thing. Was he too stubborn to change- or incapable? We shall see in the coming weeks.
Flip over to when SDSU had the ball and you saw how to run a true spread offense- and I'm sure that sounds ridiculous considering the Jack Rabbits lost, but with an inexperienced freshman QB, on the road against a Big Ten opponent, SDSU was still moving the ball all game long and almost pulled off the upset. Two crucial "freshman" mistakes from their QB killed them- and ended up being the difference in the game- but Minnesota's D was scrambling to keep up and keep track of where the ball was going from the first play.
Unlike the Gophers who were pretty transparent about what they were doing, SDSU used multiple backs in the backfield and had them going in different directions, and with a speedy QB at the helm, any of the three could be getting the ball. When they put just one back beside the QB, they could bring a slot receiver in motion for the jet sweep (and might actually give it to him!), OR sometimes do this crazy thing where they would give the RB the ball to the OUTSIDE! (I know, I told you it was crazy.) Actual runs off tackle or sweeps, which would set up not only a QB keeper the other direction but then also the play-action pass the other way. TE's leaking out, or those same backs that had gone in motion as potential runners were now sprinting downfield as potential pass catchers.
Yes, the Gopher D weren't great last night and looked out of position a lot, but the scheme SDSU ran was consistently forcing them to make decisions and NOT stay home. When you don't know what's coming or where the ball is going, it makes it a lot more difficult for even the most experienced defense to stick to their assignments and stay in position. This will serve as a great learning experience for Minnesota's D, and Joe Rossi and the coaches will have a lot of tape to help prepare for more offenses like this coming up on the schedule.
As for the offense? As bad as they were it's also only one game, and only the first game. The line needs fixing, and they need to figure out better ways to get Tyler Johnson open even when he's being double-covered. Throwing more and more to Bateman will help with that since #13 is going to torch single coverage all season long no matter who is defending him. And throwing more to other receivers will help too- Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas combined for 3 catches for 18 yards. They're both much better than that. After all the hype we heard all off-season about the TE's and how good they are and how involved they'll be the total catches by TE's were zero.
More than that though Ciarrocca and the offensive staff should join Rossi and the defense when they watch game tape, and take as many things from that SDSU offense as they can. Two of Minnesota's best players are RB's Rodney Smith and Mo Ibrahim- can you get them in the backfield together on occasion? The threat and movement of both of them- plus Morgan as a threat to keep it on the run or pass- would give an opposing defense some pre-snap and after-snap motion to actually worry about.
But since we seem hell-bent on nothing but one-back formations who about quick screens and slants, RPO's (from my very primitive and uneducated viewing last night looked non-existent), mixing in veer-options runs that take the RB outside the tackle instead of always #RUTM, and whether your O-line is struggling or not- but ESPECIALLY when your O-line struggles- bootlegs, and rollouts off your option run fakes.
This remains an offense with a ton of skill position talent and what SHOULD be a massive and talented offensive line. Now we'll find out if Ciarrocca and staff are up for fixing the issues and getting more out of them than we saw last night.