Saturday afternoon was a final tune-up for the Gophers football team before conference play begins next week in Maryland.
Minnesota used three touchdowns from wide receiver Tyler Johnson and another strong defensive performance to run past the Miami (OH) Redhawks for a 26-3 win.
The Gophers will enter Big Ten play 3-0 for the second straight season. Now, the real question is how the young team will respond when the competition bar is raised in the Big Ten.
Tyler Johnson has a big day
On the first drive of the game, quarterback Zack Annexstad was sacked for a loss of 13 yards. Two players later, he managed to find wide receiver Tyler Johnson for a gain of 20 yards off a dig route. Throughout the game, Johnson ran numerous “digs” to gain extensive separation. He had three catches for 38 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown on the opening drive. The trend continued for the entire afternoon. Johnson was dynamic off a variety of different route concepts as he hauled in nine passes for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
Johnson had concentration drop and didn’t get his head around out of the break, resulting in a second pass falling off his hands. Despite those mistakes, he managed to finish some important grabs, especially in third down situations. He is continuing to show how much he has improved technically. Johnson is one of three players in the nation to post multiple games with at least 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season, according to Big Ten Network.
Williams looks comfortable in extended action
True freshman running back Bryce Williams was tasked with filling the shoes of senior Rodney Smith. Smith will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. Williams was key to Minnesota’s success on Saturday afternoon. He ran with excellent patience and burst, but also kept his feet moving to pick up additional yards. Williams was flashing his ability to hit the hole, make one cut and accelerate. He had 33 carries for 141 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
Williams had open lanes the entire day with help from the interior offensive line and great blocking on the edge by tight end Ko Kieft. Hr also corralled a 34-yard screen pass late in the first half to fuel a 5-play, 68-yard drive. His performance in Saturday’s game is encouraging as the Gophers search for a new identity on the ground. There are still areas Williams needs to improve, such as overall vision, but this is expected from a true freshman.
Gophers’ pass protection was up-and-down
The Gophers’ pass protection was less impressive. Both sides of the offensive line were allowing pressure, even when the Gophers were providing help on the edge. The tight ends lost a few reps, while right tackle Sam Schuleter was responsible for at least one sack. With the Gophers being in max protection for a few of these pressures, it’s apparent how much they will need to improve before entering Big Ten play. The unit settled down in the second half, but there were still inconsistent stretches.
Hitting the underneath concepts, stretching vertically
The Gophers’ passing game was attacking Miami underneath with many deep crossers and slants. However, a 27-yard pass from Zack Annexstad to Tyler Johnson helped the Gophers establish the vertical passing game in the second quarter. With some protection issues taking place, Minnesota was trying to get the ball out quickly. Annexstad had just one completion of 20-plus yards before finding Tyler Johnson deep. For the most part, when the pocket was clean, Annexstad delivered the ball accurately and to the right spot.
He did seem slightly bothered by his ankle, which he appeared to injure in the early stages of the game. The passing attack started to improve as the game progressed, but moving forward, the protection will need to be better for the Gophers to fully maximize the vertical passing game. However, if they can complete a high volume of short-to-intermediate passes, it will help the team establish a rhythm offensively. Accuracy is an important aspect of this system as the Gophers try to place themselves in favorable late down situations. He completed 12 of his 20 passes for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns. More importantly, Zack Annexstad is taking care of the football and has yet to throw an interception through the team’s first three games. These two variables have helped the Gophers leave the non-conference slate undefeated.
Zack Annexstad eventually exited the game late in the third quarter with the Gophers in control. It allowed redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan to gain valuable in-game experience.
Cleaning up a few mistakes
The Gophers made a few small mistakes throughout the game. Two dropped passes by Tyler Johnson and a missed interception by linebacker Kamal Martin are just a few of the concentration errors. In addition, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Donnell Greene knocked the Gophers out of field goal range in the second quarter. Cornerback Antonio Shenault also bit on a head fake vertically and was called for pass interference as he attempted to recover. These are all little errors, but they add up, especially when the competition bar is raised during future games.
Gophers show a few different pressure packages
The Gophers deployed a few Double A-gap look with linebackers Kamal Martin and Julian Huff. Out of this package, they bluffed pressure and actually sent rushers, too. This is a defensive look the Gophers will likely use often with the type of athletic profiles they have at the linebacker position. They also shaded Carter Coughlin inside, tight to the defensive tackle, while rushing Tai’yon Devers and blitzing linebacker Julian Huff. Later in the game, defensive tackle Royal Silver also twisted inside to create a pressure. These type of packages will be something Minnesota can continue to use as they enter Big Ten play. Every week, they test a few more defensive wrinkles they can apply later in the season.
Rush end Carter Coughlin was disruptive throughout the entire game. He used a little speed-to-power for one of his two first half sacks. Coughlin created consistent pressure that won’t show up in the box score. He finished the day with three tackles (two for loss) and a pair of sacks. He continues to be one of the most important players on defense because of his rare athletic ability and playmaking skills.
Defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. recovered a fumble, cornerback Antoino Shenault picked off Gus Ragland and Jacob Huff forced a fumble to help the Gophers win the turnover battle. Minnesota had seven points off takeaways and won the ever-important turnover battle.
The Gophers’ team speed is one feature the Redhawks simply couldn’t handle throughout the afternoon.
Special teams were key in Gophers’ victory.
Punter Jacob Herbers pinned the ball inside the Miami 10-yard line three times (two inside the 5-yard-line). One of those punts helped the Gophers convert a safety as Miami running back Alonzo Smith tripped over his own feet in the end zone. The smaller mistakes in Minnesota’s territory were aided by the success the team had on special teams. In the return game, Antoine Winfield Jr. broke numerous tackles for another dynamic 31-yard return. Minnesota’s ability to play complementary football has been a huge key to their success in the non-conference slate.