It was hard to find many positives following the Gophers’ 33-10 loss at Michigan. A litany of problems on both sides of the ball have plagued Minnesota in numerous games this season. Not stopping the run or sustaining drives on offense have been two themes impacting the team’s overall success in 2017. These issues were particularly clear as Michigan rushed for a whopping 371 yards and produced three scoring plays of more than 60 yards.
So what went wrong?
Personnel issues continue on the defensive line
The Gophers had no answer for the physicality of the Michigan offensive line on Saturday night. When the Wolverines ran more power sets and counter options, Minnesota’s lack of size and mass on the defensive line was exploited. At times, the Gophers even went away from deploying an “R” rusher within their 3-4 hybrid look because they needed more size on the edges. They inserted Winston DeLattiboudere and freshman Nate Umlor into the defensive ends spots in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
This issue has subtly appeared in games throughout the season. Michigan ran more power sets to capitalize upon this weakness, which was a very savvy move. Minnesota allowed 244 rushing yards per game between games against Maryland, Michigan State and Purdue. In all three of those games, Minnesota was undisciplined and tackled poorly. The Iowa game was a bounce back performance, but the play wasn’t sustainable. Michigan schemed Minnesota well and the Gophers’ personnel issues were exploited. It will be necessary to add more mass, length and athleticism at defensive end next year to help address this issue.
Alignment and tackling mistakes
Not only was the mass deficiency a problem, but the Gophers played very undisciplined. Their alignments were poor and defensive backs took poor angles to help in the second level. It was easy to see linebacker Jonathan Celestin was battling an elbow injury, especially when he ducked his shoulder outside on a long touchdown run. Minnesota’s pre-snap alignments and reads were incorrect and it caused Michigan to produce explosive rushing plays. Many people have discussed how tackling has been the primary issue with the defense, but the alignments are impacting everything.
When players are out of position and making incorrect reads, it forces other players to overcompensate and subjects them to poor fundamentals. When a defensive back is unable to set the edge, the other players in the back end must tackle at an odd angle to make a stop. Those poor angles usually follow in a chain reaction, which leads to long plays. One of the keys to sound defense is a unit’s ability to play disciplined. A single missed tackle can be recovered by a player making the correct read in the second level. The Gophers have been unable to execute defensively and their inconsistences have been impossible to overcome.
Stagnant offense emerges
On offense, the Gophers got off to a promising start with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive last week. However, the wheels fell off and everything came to a screeching halt. Prior to the late stages of the fourth quarter, the Gophers had just -26 yards of total offense in the second half. Minnesota wasn’t executing on first and second down, which placed them in third-and-long situations. The Wolverines’ front-seven is one of the best in college football and could send a rush on third down. Conner Olson had trouble handling defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and was pushed into quarterback Demry Croft on multiple occasions. The offensive line struggled all day, allowing five sacks. They had surrendered just eight sacks entering last week’s game, but hadn’t faced a challenge like Michigan’s defensive front yet.
At times, quarterback Demry Croft was holding the ball too long, which was a key factor to the strip sack early in the second half. Timely turnovers have really impacted the Gophers in each of their losses. Croft was more decisive early in the game, but struggled to move in the pocket as the game progressed. There were a few instances where he was going through his reads, however, there were no options down the field. Again, the wide receivers struggled to gain separation vertically and it really put a strain on the entire offense.
Offense lacks originality
The Gophers’ offense lacked originality, too. They attempted to run the Wildcat formation seven times and were unable to yield positive yardage. Minnesota had to call jet sweeps or plays featuring motion to get their players out on the edge. The offense was scaled back significantly and it made everything predictable. The play-calling appears to be impacted by limited quarterback performance and a lack of explosive playmakers in the passing game. Minnesota doesn’t have many players who can be “gadget-style” athletes within their system. In other words, they lack dynamic and explosive weapons. In the past, Kirk Ciarrocca and P.J. Fleck have revolved their offense around getting the ball to playmakers in space. Right now, aside from Tyler Johnson, there aren’t many options. Next year, players like freshman Jornell Manns and Rashod Bateman will play a major role in changing this trend. With the present structure of players, the coaching staff has needed to be adaptive.
However, they will need to be even more creative if they want to put together an offense that could be competitive over the final three games of the season. With an inexperienced quarterback, a lack of playmakers and less than innovative play-calling, the offense has to execute to near perfection if they want to compete against high-level Big Ten teams. There are many variables contributing to the problems on offense, but it will take time to see if they can be solved through the next two recruiting cycles.
It’s going to require patience, especially after seeing the clear talent discrepancy on the field last week against Michigan.