Minnesota had its best game of the season and lost by 23 points. As Vonnegut would say, "So it goes." By contrast, the identity of the team was lost. Nebraska loaded the box and dared Leidner to throw, which he did successfully for much of the game.
The Gophers came out with the correct game plan for the first time all season. Limegrover dialed up quick screens in trips sets to stretch Nebraska vertically, and was willing to program in a number of deep balls. Some of them even worked. Mitch Leidner completed 17 of his first 19 passes. Most of these passes were short completions or glorified run plays (the screens), but he showed good touch and power on most of them. In a different world, a world where the Gophers could have run the ball even a bit, Leidner's performance would have been perfect. While unnecessary to rehash the debate about his overall talent at the position, it's hard to argue with his initial stat line in the context of the offense.
Minnesota remains a power run team that is unable to consistently run power. The line failed to get push. The following chart plots the variance of yardage by play type.
Recall that the lines represent the median play. By down, the median for run plays was 2 yards, 2.5 yards, and 2 yards. 2 yards is not acceptable for a power run team. It continues to be obvious that the biggest losses from last year's offense were Epping and Olson. Minnesota's offensive line was beat all day by Nebraska's defensive line. They were unable to drive the Cornhuskers backwards, and regularly failed to get to their second level blocks. Consequently, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks were almost always met in the backfield by at least one Nebraska defender. On passing downs, Leidner was frequently rolled out by design to give him more time to make plays.
Smith's ability to make yardage out of nothing resembled David Cobb. Both running backs have been brights spots for an inconsistent offense. Brooks's fumble in the first half was costly, and I find excusing mistakes because of youth to be a tad silly for players who have been playing football for years, but fumbling has not been an issue before, and I am confident should be a one off for Brooks. The freshmen has a lot of potential.
An advantage of live charting is that this chart returns. Recall that this chart is not causal, but rather a description of the personnel grouping with the yardage gained by down. Minnesota had comparative success all game with two tight ends on the field. Most of these plays were passes with max protection, and Leidner was able to find Lingen, Maye, and Carter with regularity. Lingen has emerged over the past three games as a nice receiver, and I expect him to play more snaps the rest of the season. Eric Carter had two nice catches early in the game.
KJ Maye had a good game overall. While I thought that he dropped a potential touchdown, the rest of his output was solid. He found open spots in Nebraska's zone, and made some difficult catches to help his quarterback. In addition, the Gophers effectively used him on reverses multiple times.
I like the fake power to reverse play, and hope it continues to be part of the Gophers playbook. It's far better than the awful jet sweep with Maye, and gets him in space with a blocker against the contain defenders.
Minnesota had 14 plays of 10 yards or more against Nebraska, 12 of which were passes. This is somewhat unsurprising because Nebraska's pass defense could generously be considered porous. The following chart plots these plays by down
Minnesota had half of their explosive plays on first down. Most of them came from a Trips formation, which seems to be the Gophers preferred passing formation. Credit to Limegrover, they also went against tendency by throwing out of two tight end sets, which I described above. Two long plays were effective TE misdirection that Nebraska played poorly. For the rest of the season, I'd like to see them incorporate more Run Pass Option (RPO). The quick screens can turn into big yardage if the defense has to key in on the run.
Prior to the game, if I had been informed Leidner would complete 17 of his first 19 passes, I'd have bet the Gophers would have won by 10 points. Sadly, we do not live in that wonderful, chair filled world. Going forward, Minnesota will have to be able to run the ball in some capacity to keep defenses honest. Even so, the Gophers would be well advised to continue the short passing game. The offense looked noticeably more controlled, and picked up positive yardage. Without the threat of a run game, the passing game will become even more important over the rest of the season.