I’m going to skip the chit-chat and get straight to it.
The Gophers want to run the ball, and then they want to run the ball, and after that, they’d prefer to run the ball again.
That’s the game plan to expect from PJ Fleck and company as long as the score is relatively close. In their victory over Michigan State two weeks ago, the Gophers ran the ball 50 times and threw it 22 times. Running back Jordan Nubin had a ridiculous 40 carries for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns. You read that right—40 carries. I’m guessing Nubin spent some time in the cold tub the next day.
Schematically, they run it several different ways. They line up in both the shotgun and under center. They change up the personnel on occasion, but in general, they run 3 receivers, a running back, and a tight end, regardless of whether they’re under center or in shotgun. Tight end is a bit of a misnomer, really. They run more of an H-back who often functions more like a fullback on the line of scrimmage than a traditional tight end, utilizing 6’7”, 270-pound tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford and 6’5”, 270-pound Nick Kallerup as lead backers when they come in motion.
If you’re interested in trying to predict what the Gophers are doing on offense, watch the tight end. He’s either going to lead you directly to the hole, or he’s going to lead you in the opposite direction of the hole. They’ll run front-side zone until you stop it, then they’ll run a counter off the tight end motion, to the backside with either the running back or quarterback. There’s a fine line between reading your keys and reacting to the Minnesota run game, and reading your keys and overreacting. The Gophers don’t have an explosive run game, but a good number of the explosive runs I’ve seen from them this season come off the backside of the formation once they establish the front-side zone run.
Nic Scourton and Kydran Jenkins have to pick when to attack, and when to hold the edge and wait for help coming from the inside out. If either gets bored and crashes the backside, the Minnesota quarterback will pull the ball and escape out the back door. He’s not fast, and his first inclination is to hand the ball off, but if you cheat the zone read, he will make you pay. Look for Ryan Walters to use outside linebacker and defensive end twists to get Scourton and Jenkins attacking the Minnesota guards while the ends set the edge.
It’s all about stopping the run game for the Boilermakers. They have to win on first and second down because Minnesota would prefer to only pass the ball under their terms. The Minnesota passing game is at its best when the opposition doesn’t see it coming. If Purdue can force them into 3rd and longs with short gains or tackles for loss on first and second down, they can get to Athan Kaliakmanis on 3rd down and either get a sack or force a bad throw.
That brings me to the Minnesota passing game. It’s not great. Kaliakmanis is not a quarterback that can sit back and pick you apart. He’s thrown 10 touchdowns and 7 interceptions, and if defensive backs could catch, he’d have several more picks. He will put the ball in jeopardy and trusts his arm more than he should. Purdue’s defensive backs need to be ready; one pass Kaliakmanis loves to throw is the back-shoulder fade on the outside. He has giant tight ends and wide receivers who turn 50/50 balls into 70/30 balls. If you have a Gopher receiver or tight end locked up, it doesn’t mean he’s not getting the ball thrown in his direction anyway. They’re not afraid to let their big guys on the outside make plays. If Purdue gets grabby, Minnesota will run the pass interference offense until you throw your remote and storm out of the room.
The defensive backs have to make a play on the ball and not give the Gopher receivers credit for speed they don’t have. Off coverage is an auto stop route at the sticks in this offense. If the corners bail, the receiver will push him past the first-down marker and then use the cushion to make the easy back-shoulder first-down throw. It’s tempting to jump these stop routes, but beware the stop-and-go. If Purdue’s corners get too aggressive, they’ll get hit with a double move and a long touchdown pass.
The best way for Purdue to sabotage the Gopher offense is to get into the backfield and make plays. This isn’t an offense designed to play behind the chains. They need to stay on schedule and protect their quarterback with play-action passes. Purdue’s well-suited to stop the run and should make things tough on offense, but they have to play assignment sound football. Overpursuit on the front side of the defense is punished by back-side runs by Minnesota.
It’s a simple formula for Purdue: win in the trenches with their 5-man front and linebackers. If they hold Minnesota under 4.5 yards per carry without having to bring a safety into the box, it’s a win. If Purdue has to spin Kane down and make it an 8-man box, they’ll need to win jump balls on the outside because that’s what PJ Fleck and company like to do when you bring down the extra defender.
Purdue is well-equipped to stop this offense, but it can’t stop them 70 times while giving up 5 big plays for touchdowns. I don’t think they can consistently move the ball on Purdue’s defense, but a few big plays may be enough to win the game. Purdue can’t let an entire game of hard work go down the tubes because of a couple of crucial mental lapses.
Limit big plays, and I have a hard time seeing this offense score more than 21 points on Saturday. I have no idea if that’s good enough to win.