Tracy Claeys's first game as a non-interim head coach was peak Gopher. It was exciting for long stretches as Minnesota threw caution to the wind and ran deep bomb and deep bomb. Minnesota received both gifts and sorrow. While clock management at the end doomed the team, Michigan should have picked off Leidner twice. Both times would have prevented touchdowns.
Playing for the upset requires a high variance strategy. With Michigan's stout run defense, Minnesota was going to have to air the ball out, which it did throughout the game. Mitch Leidner played another solid game. He had some unfortunate underthrows, but his receivers made plays for him. Leidner was 16/33 for 317 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Lingen went over 100 yards receiving, and made multiple circus grabs.
Running the ball was a harder slog. Michigan's interior defensive line is excellent, and the Gophers were unable to get a consistent push. Even so, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks gained tough yards, and Michigan twice saved touchdowns with shoestring tackles. Michigan may not be the best defense in the country, but they were a challenge that the offense met head on.
There are several takeaways from this chart. First, Minnesota's defense is the hidden factor on this chart. They regularly pinned Michigan in places that gave the Gophers good field position. Jack Rudock's confusing shuffle pass that was intercepted also plays a role. One can read this chart pessimistically. In that reading, the Gophers left points on the table for the first 11 drives because they could only muster field goals instead of touchdowns.
Optimistically, one looks at the chart and sees a strong offensive performance that should have been enough to win the game, especially if the play calling last 19 seconds had looked different.
New chart type! The above chart is a violin plot, which is like a box plot, except that the sides show the rotated probability density function at each point. That is, how likely is it that we saw a pass on second down go for zero yards (an incompletion).
Several points jump out. First down was a challenge on Saturday. Minnesota had most of its passing success on second down. The most common yardage for both run and pass plays was close to zero. Second, Minnesota had a tremendous challenge running the ball at all. The eagle shaped plot on second down is instructive. Minnesota had lots of plays go for small amounts of yards, which led to many third and longs over the night. Absent explosive plays, the Gophers can ill afford to get off schedule.
Fortunately for Minnesota, there were explosive plays. I define an explosive play as a play that went for at least ten yards. The Gophers had 13 of them at Michigan, or almost one out of every five plays. Most of them were on second down, hence the lower median than first and third. At least two of them were straight gifts by the Michigan defense. On one, Michigan's safety let the ball go through his hands. On the other, Michigan let a fallen Brandon Lingen catch a ball while triple covered.
Not that it is a surprise, but the Gophers have success throwing the ball out of 10 personnel. Minnesota used a lot of max protection for pass plays. Usually, the two tight end sets turned into pass plays with at least one tight end running a route. Minnesota had a fair amount of success on seam routes and stick routes, two patterns that should carry over the rest of the seasons.
Matt has talked before about the coaching staff transition from NIU to Minnesota. At NIU, they had a quick pass game from the shotgun, which turned into a power run game from under center at Minnesota. On Saturday, Limegrover seemed to try to mix those two styles. I have long been in favor of more short throws like quick slants in the offense. Leidner appears to be more comfortable after hitting a few, and the offense can do a better job spreading the defense. This opens up running lanes for the backs.
One minor note. Leidner looked better running on Saturday than he has the entire season. I'm even more curious how injured he was going into the bye week.
In sum, the devastation as a fan over Saturday is because the Gophers did in fact play well and get lots of timely breaks. Almost always, that's the recipe for an upset, the poignancy of which would not be understated. Of course, bad clock management and a seeming inability to have a plan for what to do on the goalline with 19 seconds to play doomed the team. Forget it UStreet, It's Michigan.