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Minnesota Football: Offense up, defense down? What is this sorcery?

The TDG staff weighs in on the Gophers now that 25% of the season is gone.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The fact that 25% of the season is gone feels weird to say. Fall is flying by, and yet the early bye week has me feeling like the season is crawling along at the same time. Regardless, we’re a quarter of the way through this potential #specialseason and it felt like a good time for a staff roundtable to see what everyone is thinking about the Gophers thus far. Without further delay, I give you 3 Questions After 3 Games:

What have you been most impressed with?

IowaGopher: The passing game, more than anything. With KJ Maye gone and both Rashad Still and Brandon Lingen sidelined, I expected the worst, even as a property owner on Leidner Island. But Drew Wolitarsky has stepped up quite nicely to fill the role vacated by Maye, and Tyler Johnson and Brian Smith have both unexpectedly emerged as two of the Gophers' top receivers. Even Nate Wozniak, whose every catch seems to require a herculean effort, has played well in place of Lingen. Granted, the competition has been suspect, but I'm encouraged by what I've seen so far. I also didn't expect to see so many freshman contributing this season. Tai'yon Devers is obviously the biggest surprise, but freshmen Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, Antoine Winfield, Jr., and the aforementioned Johnson have all seen the field for the Gophers.

DarkKnight5: Mitch Leidner's poise. He's a guy who's taken a lot of heat over the years, and everyone was expecting and hoping he would take a big step forward in his fifth year. So far, against three week non-con opponents, he's met those expectations. He's making good reads in the run game, avoiding sacks and creating positive plays out of nothing with his legs, and making good decisions and throws in the passing game. I don't think he's in the running for the Heisman or anything, and I'm not sold on his NFL Draft value, but it's really good to see the program's five-year investment in developing a QB start to pay off. Hopefully, it's also insulating the guys down the depth chart and letting them learn without the weight of the starting role on their shoulders, which is what I've wanted for this program for years.

dvits14: The thing that has most impressed me so far is the efficiency of the offense, especially the last two games. I thought it would take a little time to see results from the coaching change but the offense has really responded to Johnson's offense/play calling. I understand it has been against "lower level" competition but they look completely different from a season ago.

Ustreet: As a unit, I've been impressed by the passing game. To a certain extent, I feel like we might be damning the passing game with faint praise. Mitch Leidner has performed well within the offense. His health will be a concern all season, but clearly when fully healthy is an excellent weapon for this offense. Drew Wolitarsky has developed into a nice security blanket. Tyler Johnson has been excellent early and the return of Eric Carter will be a help going forward. As a result of their development,injuries to Lingen and Still have been less impactful than I expected.

On defense, Tai'yon Devers hitting quarterbacks has been my favorite early story. If I read the stats right all he does is force fumbles.

zipsofakron: I think we knew it'd be a position of strength, but I'm still very impressed with the running back depth this team has. We thought losing Shannon Brooks from the outset was going to be a burden, but Rodney has stepped up and we seem to have found another diamond in the rough with Kobe McCrary. This team just keeps pumping out good running backs.

Also, Emmit Carpenter looks awesome. Haven't heard a whiff of "where's Santoso?"

wildcat00: I'm pleasantly surprised by Leidner's progress as a passer. We all knew he'd be better when healthy, but I'm impressed with his increased accuracy and the fact that he's distributing the ball to different receivers rather than just his primary target. This will be really helpful as we enter the meat of the season, because B1G defenses will absolutely sell out to stop the run. (Speaking of impressive, it's also nice to have good depth at RB).

What has you most concerned coming into B1G play?

IowaGopher: I'm not sold on the offensive line. I think they've played well so far, but depth is an issue and I am withholding judgment until I've seen them compete against a Big Ten defensive front. I have faith in new offensive line coach Bart Miller, but need to see consistent results on the field before I can call myself a true believer. I also have concerns about the defense, which struggled to defend the pass against Indiana State and struggled to stop the run against Colorado State. I'll give head coach Tracy Claeys and defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel the benefit of the doubt because of their track record, but we have enough youth and inexperience on defense -- coupled with four indefinite suspensions that continue to loom large -- that I'm beginning to wonder if this unit will be able to improve as quickly as the team needs them to.

DarkKnight5: Defense. There are a few questions that need to be answered. Is there enough defensive depth to win in the Big Ten? I don't know. Missing three key play-makers in the secondary is clearly hurting the defense. Looking at the three games played so far, the first game against Oregon State was clearly the best game for the defense. Then injuries and suspensions kicked in and the results in the latest two games have been mixed. The weird thing is the defense has been pretty efficient in the S&P+ sense, allowing opponent success rates of 29%, 32%, and 37% (average success rate is about 40%).

What's hurting them is big plays allowed. Most of those big plays are the result of busted coverage schemes and the inability to cover the screen pass. Those problems land at the feet of Jay Sawvel, who has not impressed me very much through three games. Maybe he's just dealing with a bunch of youth and inexperience, but I was hoping for better results in year 1 with Sawvel as DC.

dvits14: The consistency on the defense is my biggest concern. You can see the talent. You can see what they want to do. But they need to start bringing it play after play, not every third play.

Ustreet: I have not been impressed schematically with the defense regarding screens and stretch running plays. Youth and inexperience in the new 3-4 plays a role, as do the aforementioned suspensions. Nonetheless, the Gophers are struggling enough with them that Damarius Travis specifically mentioned them as areas to work on in the postgame press conference. Truth be told, the defense has done well most of the time, but they also haven't played any offense we'd describe as formidable. Minnesota needs to do a much better job across the board keeping to their assignments on run plays and obvious screen situations.

The defense also needs to tackle better. Too often, either because they were out of position or not using good form, players have tried arm tackling opposing players. The best scheme in the world will not save poor fundamentals, and BIG players will feast on mistakes.

zipsofakron: I'd say big play defense but this point has already been made by a couple others.

wildcat00: I'm concerned about the defense, and certainly more than I was at the start of the season. Against CSU, the D-line didn't seem all that great, the DBs never really turned around, and run pursuit and speed to the edge was lacking. That's troubling, especially as B1G teams will be better on offense than CSU.

Any change to your prediction for Minnesota’s record?

IowaGopher: I predicted 9-3, with road losses to Penn State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Nebraska and Wisconsin have both looked as good as advertised through the first four weeks of the season, but Penn State is looking more like a toss-up than I originally expected. But even if the Gophers beat Penn State, I'd be a fool to think they won't drop a game somewhere that they shouldn't, even with Iowa showing serious vulnerabilities the last two weeks and Northwestern looking like a trainwreck. I'll stick with 9-3.

DarkKnight5: I'm going to go ahead and adjust my preseason 8-4 prediction. I expected the defense to be the relative strength of the team, and the offense the relative weakness. I expected the defense to be a top-25 to top-35 unit similar to what they were last year. Instead, they're outside the top-50 right now. Hopefully getting some players back on the field will help, but I don't know if it will be enough to meet my pre-season expectations. The offense has been a pleasant surprise, but they haven't faced a real good defense yet. The schedule is the easiest we've seen in years in terms of Blue Blooded opponents, but the fact remains that there are only four home games left and five road games. The road games will all be tough, unless Illinois makes zero progress under Lovie, and home games against Iowa and Northwestern are not gimmies either. I could see 7-5 being a real possibility. If the Gophers win two of their next three games, my 8-4 preseason prediction looks pretty good. If they win only one or lose all three, I think 7-5 is the best they can finish. I really hope I'm being too ~realistic~ pessimistic. Final adjusted next-three-weeks-contingent decision: 7-5.

dvits14: I'm still all in on 10-2. I might change who the two losses are to but I think this train is about to start building some momentum as the players continue to get comfortable in what they are being asked to do.

Ustreet: I predict the Gophers go undefeated every year because it's not fun to think your team is terrible (certain commenters may differ). At the beginning of the year I put preseason probabilities into a simulation and came out with a mean of about 10 wins. I don't think anything has changed that would make me rerun that simulation. While BIG competition will be better, every team Minnesota faces has big question marks of their own. It is certainly probable that Minnesota will not go undefeated, but this is the first year of my lifetime that it's not obviously insane as a prediction.

zipsofakron: I'm a big believer in teams playing down to their competition, and I think there's a fair amount of that happening already this season. Keep in mind they've already beaten a P5 school and also a Mountain West team, so it's not like this is a non-con schedule laden with cupcakes. I was a 9-3 guy before the season started and I'm sticking with that prediction. Anything less than 8 wins and something will have gone horribly wrong.

wildcat00: I can't remember my original prediction. I still see 2-3 losses on the schedule, but any more than 4 losses would be a disaster, IMO.

Facts back the #TAKES

My thoughts are very similar to those above, so rather than add repetition I thought I’d look at how the stats thus far match up with two consistent points raised above: big play defensive issues and continued optimism about the team’s end of season record.

Minnesota is an efficient defense that gives up too many big plays. In other words, most of the time the defense is stout, but that isn’t translating into lower point totals because we get burned by the big play too much.

There are multiple ways to look at this. On a micro level, you have stats like these:

  • Against Colorado State, the Gophers had 14 tackles for loss and 3 sacks.
  • Against Colorado State, the Gophers gave up 15 plays of 10 or more yards.

In advanced stats, this is expressed via the defense’s Explosiveness (IsoPPP) and Efficiency (Success Rate) numbers. Here’s how Bill C defines IsoPPP:

IsoPPP is the Equivalent Points Per Play (PPP) average on only successful plays. This allows us to look at offense in two steps: How consistently successful were you, and when you were successful, how potent were you?

...and here’s how he defines Success Rate:

Success rates examine your efficiency and consistency in staying on schedule and putting yourself in position to move the chains.

On defense it would mean your ability to keep teams from moving the chains. So how does Minnesota rank?

  • IsoPPP: 75th in the country
  • Success Rate: 19th in the country
(all data via Bill C’s Minnesota Advanced Stats profile)

In other words, you’re getting not a lot of yards or a bunch of yards against the Gophers. There is good news to be found in this summary. First, you’re better off being a team that consistently plays efficient defense and gives up big plays than one which plays horribly inefficient defense (regardless of big plays) in my opinion as there is likely less to fix. Second, while there is no guarantee Minnesota fixes the problem their big play issues seem to stem from fixable causes (bad tackling, poor positioning, suspended starters) rather than a huge talent deficit or horrid coaching. Third, Minnesota is trending up in IsoPPP (jumped 30 spots from week 2 to week 3) and could be in solid shape if the improvement continues.

Minnesota is in position to finish with a nice record. Ultimately, the schedule is still soft. While S&P+ still relies on preseason assumptions, the model is starting to draw heavily on the current season. And based on what the model sees, it likes Minnesota’s chances (data still via Bill C):

The model sees Minnesota as having a 98.4% chance of making a bowl game and thinks the two most likely outcomes are 8-4 or 9-3 (54% chance of those two outcomes combined). In fact, S&P+ thinks Minnesota is almost as likely to go 10-2 as they are 7-5, so optimism is still warranted.

Ultimately, the specialness of this season could really come down to the next two weeks. Pick up a win on the road at PSU and beat Iowa at home and on paper Minnesota should be looking at being 9-0 coming into their night game at Nebraska.