Just about everything went wrong for the Gophers in a 39-0 blowout loss to Northwestern last week — dropped passes, penalties, poor quarterback play and porous run defense. At the moment, the Gophers are reeling in every way. They have lost ten major players to injuries this year, including four wide receivers. Minnesota currently has six healthy offensive linemen with a fast and physical Wisconsin defense on the horizon. The top-ranked rushing attack in the Big Ten will arrive at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday and things could get ugly in a hurry.
The last time Minnesota beat Wisconsin, Michael Jordan was playing in his final NBA season and Apple launched iTunes. It has been 14 years since the Gophers have held the axe and they enter this year’s Border Battle as 17-point underdogs.
So what can they learn from last week’s domination?
Why was there limited read-option?
Following a 54-21 win over Nebraska, one of the key takeaways was Minnesota’s offensive approach. They used more read-option looks and tailored the offense to the skill-set of sophomore quarterback Demry Croft. The offense sputtered in Northwestern and used read-option looks in a limited capacity. It left many people perplexed and confused about what changed. There are a few logical explanations for this decision. First, Northwestern had a very underrated front-four and consistently won the line of scrimmage. The Wildcats also actively defended the edge with size, which left limited options for the plays to be executed. Northwestern forced Minnesota to push the ball up the field, which exploited their quarterback play and limited pass catching weapons.
In addition, quarterback Demry Croft was extremely indecisive and struggled to feel pressure or recognize packages in pre-snap situations. The week before, Nebraska couldn’t defend the read-option, allowing Minnesota to run the aspect of their system that worked best. Northwestern took this option away and the Gophers didn’t have enough dynamic weapons on offense to get into a rhythm via the passing game. The Wildcats had the worst pass defense in college football, but Minnesota completed just two passes. It was surprising Minnesota didn’t establish the intermediate passing game to get Croft in a groove. He is a very rhythmic player and crossing combinations may have worked against an inexperienced linebacker corps. The Gophers may look to take this approach against Wisconsin. One thing is certain: they can’t be in long down situations against the Badgers, or it will be a long day.
Lack of pass catchers is clear
Minnesota currently lacks passing weapons with three major contributors out, including leading wide receiver Tyler Johnson. The Gophers’ wide receivers dropped six passes last week, which drastically impacted the offense. Minnesota completed the third-fewest passes in a Big Ten game since 1996 and it was largely fueled by drops. More importantly, Demry Croft and the Gophers were schemed very well by Northwestern. Croft isn’t built to sit in the pocket and win a passing duel. If teams take the option looks away by defending the edge with their coverage schemes, things totally change for the Gophers’ offense. This week, Wisconsin will likely scheme in a very similar way to place Croft in unfavorable situations. Their defense is very physical and aggressive under the leadership of first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Minnesota must run the ball well in early downs and use quick passing to get in an offensive groove. This is easier said than done with the lack of personnel, though.
Can the Gophers slow Jonathan Taylor?
The Gophers have allowed 245 yards or more to opposing running backs in four games this season. It won’t get any easier against a physical Wisconsin team with one of the best running backs in the country at their disposal. The Gophers will be seeing a top-20 rushing attack for the first time this season. They’ll need to correct their mistakes from last week’s game if they want to prevent getting carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The linebackers did not play instinctively against Northwestern, which is very uncharacteristic of the group. It allowed offensive lineman to get into the second level and block linebackers out of the play. In addition, the interior of the defensive line wasn’t maintaining their gaps and were getting driven up the field. It was essentially a snowball effect of errors against the run last week. One of the key aspects of this defensive system is being disciplined in gap integrity, especially within the interior defensive line. If this doesn’t happen and others are out of position, everything quickly falls apart.
Wisconsin is going to run plenty of power sets with a physical offensive line to open big lanes for freshman running back Jonathan Taylor. Taylor has rushed for 1,657 yards and 12 touchdowns this year, recently winning his seventh Big Ten freshman of the week award. He runs with superb vision and patience, but has top-line speed when he gets an open crease. The Gophers need to maintain gap discipline inside and their linebackers must play more instinctively to at least slow the Wisconsin rushing attack. They also must place the Badgers in third-and-long situations to send pressure. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has struggled when teams have brought the rush, forcing him to get on the run. He often will force throws in those scenarios. If the Gophers want any chance against one of the best teams in college football, they’ll need to stop the run and win the turnover battle. Perhaps Minnesota will provide extra help in the box and force Hornibrook to beat them.
Even with this idea in mind, stopping Jonathan Taylor has to happen first.