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Minnesota Football: Charting the Offense Against Purdue

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Explosive plays are a beautiful thing.

According to sources, this is a player that wants to be tackled
According to sources, this is a player that wants to be tackled
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After the dumpster fire that was the Northwestern game, rewatching Minnesota against Purdue was downright pleasant.*

Minnesota put up a strong performance on the ground against an overmatched Purdue team. The Gophers used Power to great effect, with the line able to get to the second level in the second half. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks used good vision, power, and speed to get past defenders. All told, Saturday was a classic Jerry Kill offense. Minnesota ran the ball 48 times for 328 yards and passed just enough to keep the defense pseudo-honest.

Offensive Drives

For those viewing this series for the first time, the bars represent Minnesota's drives. I purposely left off the two token play calls at the end of the first and second halves. Each drive is colored by outcome, which is shown in the legend at right. The bar begins at the starting field position of the drive.

There are a few stories to take away from the chart. First, Minnesota had excellent starting field position throughout the game. Five of six scoring drives started at the Minnesota 40 or better. The one that did not was only two plays because Shannon Brooks laughs at Purdue tacklers. Minnesota has to take advantage in future games of good field position like they did on Saturday.

Second, Minnesota's plays per drive was highly variable. The Gophers either had a three and out, or marched down the field for a scoring opportunity. This is not surprising, but it is markedly apparent in the data.

Third, I was reminded of the San Jose State game from last year. Sometimes, TECMO Bowl play calling is the best kind of play calling.

Play Type Breakdown

No surprises here. Minnesota ran the ball on first down. The Gophers ran the ball on second down. Just for fun, the Gophers tried to run the ball on third down. A note on the data. I include screens as passes because of official statistics. If you believe that Minnesota used them as a different running look, then adjust the runs upward on first and second down by two.

Here is my favorite sequence of play calls with my comments. They come from the sixth Gopher possession.

Down Play Comment
1 Power Boom
2 Power Boom
3 Power Boom
1 Inside Zone Boom
1 GOLDEN-I WHO CARES THAT IT DIDN'T WORK? GOLDEN-I FOREVER
2 TD. Sneak

TOUCHDOWN! COULD IT BE REAL? TOUCHDOWN

The Gophers lined up in 22 personnel for every single play, save the Golden-I. One receiver was split wide, but he was a token blocker.

Offensive Variance

Here's how to read this box plot. The box is the inter-quartile range, which defines the middle fifty, the variability between the 25% and 75% quartile. The whiskers are 1.5 times the IQR. As you can see, Minnesota's pass plays by down were relatively consistent. 50% of passes went for at least 9 yards. All of thse throws were on first down. On second and third down, the Gophers tried to run screens or short TE outs to move the chains.

The run variance tells a different story because of the dots. The dots represent points outside beyond 1.5 times the interquartile range. For purposes of football, the dots are big plays. Minnesota had 12 explosive plays, or plays that went at least 10 yards. Eight of them were running plays. The longest was Shannon Brooks's 71 yard run. Minnesota had a big play on every single down running the football. They had five plays of 20 yards or more.

Big plays are the blueprint to win football games. For the Gophers, so much of their offense is low variance. Minnesota will line up with at least two tight ends or players in a blocking role, and run power or inside zone again and again. Usually, big plays come from play action off one of these run schemes. In the past few weeks, the confidence in the passing game has cratered, meaning that more explosive plays must come from the run. Big running plays are essential for Minnesota to have any chance at the Division crown.

Play Calling Thoughts

Minnesota had a conservative game plan in terms of calls, but moved around through several formations. I liked the Diamond trips set with a running back behind three blockers, and think that it will have some Run-Pass-Option (RPO) possibilities in the future. The Gophers liked to throw out a Trips formation, and that tendency will be picked up on in coming weeks.

Some mild criticism. Mitch Leidner had multiple short balls that were thrown low that resulted in short gains or incompletions. Better passes would have led to bigger gains and more receptions. That needs to be cleaned up for next week. Second, the Offensive Line struggled against bull rushes for most of the first half. Teams with better talent on the defensive line than Purdue will have a field day if that is not corrected. Third, some pass plays take far too long to develop, and leave little in the way of checkdowns. Leidner accepted two coverage sacks because receivers could not get open in time.

Overall, a good win, and a performance to build upon for the rest of the season.

*The game that is. WatchESPN's replay is a masterclass in bad streams. It has a poor fast forward function, constant unnecessary interruption for commercials, and a curious habit of restarting at a moment's notice.