One of the biggest surprises of the college football season has been the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Head coach Jerry Kill has turned around the program over the past four years, and they are now one win away from a division title. That would give them an opportunity to play for their first conference title since 1967.
Minnesota’s revival has been sparked by a run heavy attack on offense. Last Saturday, the Golden Gophers defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers 28-24 in a game critical to the division race. As I watched the game, I was very impressed by the gameplan of Kill and his offensive coordinator, Matt Limegrover.
Minnesota’s offense is built on the power running game. Inside zone and power, both downhill running plays, are run more than any other. The Golden Gophers are a physical team, as they almost always have two tight ends on the field and often have a fullback as well.
Minnesota most often runs inside zone from a two tight end shotgun set. This is just a basic inside zone read, with quarterback Mitch Leidner reading the end man on the line of scrimmage. The read defender, this time a cornerback, stayed outside so Leidner handed to his back, Donnell Kirkwood. Kirkwood burst the first level untouched for an 8 yard gain.We’ll see later in this post how Leidner can attack an overaggressive defense with the quarterback keeper on the inside zone read. But first, take a look at the play the Golden Gophers’ second and third touchdowns of the game came on: power.
On a 2nd and 3 early in the third period, Minnesota lined up in an I formation with both tight ends to the right side and ran power. The line blocked down, backside guard pulled through, and the fullback kicked out the playside end. The blocking was great and running back David Cobb had a huge hole open up in front of him. Cobb was able to run right down the middle of the field untouched for a 17 yard touchdown. On a 4th and 1 later in the quarter, Minnesota went back to power. The set was similar, but this time the formation was balanced as the split end was aligned to the left. The key defender here was the cornerback. He was the force defender and was in the right spot to squeeze the run inside.Fullback Miles Thomas made a great block to seal the corner inside, and running back Rodrick Williams bounced the run outside and was able to run 19 yards around the edge for a score.
Minnesota’s base passing game is playaction off of these power runs. On a 3rd and 5 in the first quarter, the Golden Gophers lined up in an I formation with both tight ends to the left. The play called for Leidner to fake the handoff to Cobb and drop to pass. The route combo was flood.Leidner hit a wide open Thomas in the flat, as the two deeper routes served as picks, keeping the defender away from the fullback. Thomas was able to run all the way to the one yard line after catching the ball, setting up a score on the next play.
While they are, at the core, a downhill running offense, Minnesota perhaps impressed me most in how they use formations, shifts, and motions to create openings in the defense. Inside zone and power will always be the base, but it is important to have constraints to keep the defense off guard. Limegrover’s scheme puts a lot of stress on the defense because, even though the base plays are simple, the window dressing and misdirection puts the defenders in conflict.
The first way Limegrover attacked Nebraska was with unbalanced formations.
Facing a 3rd and 6 early in the first quarter, Limegrover went to an unbalanced formation to create an opening in the defense. The Golden Gophers aligned with three receivers and a tight end to the left side, with only a running back to the right. This made the tight end an ineligible receiver. Nebraska defended this set by shifting to the left, leaving only three defenders to the right of the ball at the snap. Minnesota ran an inside zone read play, hoping to get Leidner on the edge.The Cornhusker’s end crashed on Cobb, so Leidner pulled the ball.Leidner had all sorts of open space, and he gained 22 on the play. Nebraska had no one in position to defend the quarterback run because they had overshifted to the unbalanced formation.On a 2nd and 5 early in the second quarter, Limegrover went back to this same formation. Rather than run inside zone to the strongside, Minnesota brought slot receiver K.J. Maye in motion and ran the inverted veer/power read.The end crashed to take away Leidner on the inside, so the handoff went to Maye. Cobb got out in front to block the safety, while Maye was able to easily get to the edge and pick up the first down on a 7 yard gain.Minnesota did not always use the formation as a decoy to attack the weakside. Here, the Golden Gophers lined up in an unbalanced power formation with two tight ends and a fullback split to the right and ran right behind them. Donovahn Jones, the flanker, was aligned by himself to the left and came in motion for the inverted veer/power read.The end crashed to tackle Leidner, so the handoff went to Jones.Minnesota had a blocking advantage on the edge because of the formation. Jones had a running back, fullback, and two tight ends out in front blocking on the edge. He followed them for a gain of 8 and a first down.The next way Limegrover decided to attack Nebraska was by using shifts to create openings in the defense. On this first quarter play, Minnesota lined up with two tight ends and two receivers to the left. Leidner then signaled for both tight ends to flip to the right side. As soon as the tight ends were set, Leidner signaled for Maye to come in motion from the slot to run the inverted veer/power read. Following the shift, Nebraska had only moved one extra defender to the right side in response. Minnesota now had two extra blockers in the tight ends, plus the Maye coming in to the right on the motion. The Golden Gophers created a numbers advantage on the right side with this shift. The end moved inside, to Leidner handed the ball to Maye. With two tight ends and a back in front of him, Maye was able to get to the edge and pick up a nice 8 yard gain. Maye was then hit after he went out of bounds, adding 15 yards to the total. Limegrover also used the shift as window dressing to force an overreaction. On the first play of their second drive of the game, Minnesota lined up in the Maryland I formation with a tight end, fullback, and running back in the backfield, and a tight end and split end to the left. Leidner then signaled for the tight ends and fullbacks to shift into a bunch right formation. This shift resulted in the defense scrambling to get numbers to the right side. At the snap, Nebraska was still in confusion. The play Limegrover called for a quick fake handoff and rollout to the weakside, with Cobb slipping into the flat as the primary receiver. The fake froze the defense just enough and Leidner completed the pass to an open Cobb in the flat for a gain of 7. The shift and fake created confusion for the defense, and no one was able to defend Cobb in the weakside flat until it was too late.One last way Limegrover likes to create confusion in a defense is with motion. Here, Leidner took the snap from under center with two tight ends to his left and two receivers to his right. The playcall was split zone, with a fake fly sweep.
The fly motion held the defense, as three defenders stepped outside in defense. This opened up a cutback lane in the middle of the field for Cobb.Cobb burst through the first level untouched and ended up with a 9 yard gain.Earlier in the game, Minnesota called a play that was a counter to their inverted veer/power read. The Golden Gophers lined up with two tight ends to the right and two receivers to the left. The play design was for Maye to come in motion, and Leidner to fake the handoff to him, then rollout left. Maxx Williams, the offset tight end, slips in the flat as the primary receiver. The play was designed to attack the flat defender. The hope is that he would move inside with the motion and leave the flat route open.The playfake caused the flat defender to move inside.
The flat defender got too far inside, and Williams was wide open. Leidner completed the pass to him, and then Williams ran for a gain of 14 yards.Overall, Minnesota’s gameplan was impressive. The Golden Gophers’ base scheme is simple; run, run, run, and run some more. What sets this scheme apart is the lengths Limegrover goes to in order to make the offense difficult to defend. Minnesota did as good of a job versus Nebraska as any team I’ve seen this season at using simple formations, shifts and motions to create openings in the defense.