Football: Wildcats prepare to face Minnesota offense 2.0

Huzaifa Patel, Reporter

When asked in his Monday press conference how much he looked at last year’s game against Minnesota to prepare for Saturday’s tilt, coach Pat Fitzgerald detailed the process of preparing for a Big Ten West opponent.

“You try to overturn every stone,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not only this year’s games, but we go through a pretty extensive offseason study of every opponent… what they’re going to do against us, and then always how they evolved in all three phases.”

After reviewing last year’s Northwestern-Minnesota matchup and this year’s TCU-Minnesota matchup, it’s easy to see what Fitzgerald is talking about.

Historically, Minnesota has been a smash-you-in-the-mouth kind of team offensively. In 2014, quarterback Mitch Leidner averaged just under 20 pass attempts per game. But through four games in 2015 Minnesota is asking much more of Leidner, who is now throwing the ball 34.5 times per contest.

Fitzgerald and his players say not to mistake this shift for a change in identity. The Gophers are still a ground-and-pound team, employing a combination of freshmen running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.

“We know it’s going to be a dogfight,” sophomore running back Justin Jackson said. “They’ll get under center and they’ll just run the ball down your throat.”

An increase in pass attempts could be due to personnel problems on the offensive side of the ball, which sounds like the talent-specific evolution Fitzgerald was referring to. The Golden Gophers lost star running back David Cobb to the NFL, which, to an extent, could be a reason why they’re throwing the ball more. But counter to that, they also lost tight end Maxx Williams, who was responsible for nearly 30 percent of Leidner’s completions in 2014.

So why are they throwing the ball more? The Golden Gophers are currently hurting on the offensive line, with multiple starters missing games this season. This has hampered their run-and-gun and play action model, with their yards per carry decreasing from 4.7 in 2014 to 4.0 in 2015. Because of their poor run game efficiency 91st nationally according to Football Outsiders the Golden Gophers have encountered more passing situations and have had to throw the ball more.

The advanced stats follow this theory. According to Football Outsiders, Minnesota’s adjusted run rate this season ranks 65th in the nation, down from 8th in the nation in 2014.

Minnesota has made a subtle shift, playing with a faster tempo and even operating out of the no huddle at times. While they’re still a run-first team, the Wildcats should expect to see a quicker pace and a little more usage from Leidner in the passing game, particularly with short passes.

This transition in style can be seen from two different Golden Gopher drives, one against the Wildcats last year, and one against TCU in week one of 2015. Against NU, Minnesota took six and half minutes to run an 11 play, 63-yard touchdown drive, while against TCU, they took just over five minutes to complete a 12 play, 77-yard touchdown drive. Game situation aside, the Golden Gophers picked up the pace and threw the ball five out of 12 plays against TCU, compared to just two out of 11 plays against NU.

So the Wildcats should expect to see a faster pace from Minnesota compared to years past. But in terms of the actual plays being run, not much has changed. The Golden Gophers still employ a gap-scheme rushing attack, featuring a multitude of power and trap plays mixed in with a dose of read-option and Leidner scrambles. Fitzgerald said it is similar to the rushing attack used by Duke, which NU defended well in week three.

“There’s a lot of similarities (with Leidner) to the quarterbacks we faced that are pretty mobile,” senior defensive end Deonte Gibson said at Monday’s press conference. “But he presents a different challenge because I would say he’s somewhat more physical when he runs the ball. He can take a hit.”

Gibson also highlighted senior receiver KJ Maye, a 5-foot-10-inch, 194-pound speedster as another guy Minnesota likes to give the ball to in space. Junior receiver Drew Wolitarsky, a bigger receiver at 6 feet 3 inches, will also be a player to watch against the smaller Wildcat corners.

Regardless of how Minnesota’s offense attacks NU this Saturday, they can be sure of one thing: The game won’t be easy.

“Coach Fitz was talking about it earlier in the team meeting, (out of) the past eight years, six out of the eight games have been one score games,” Jackson said.

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