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Football Seminar: Breaking Down a Passing Play

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

Welcome back to TDG’s Football Seminar. This week, we are going to dive into a specific play that the Gophers ran against Michigan State. The purpose of looking deeply at a play is twofold. First, we can see a general philosophy of how the Gophers look to attack a defense. Second, we can look at specific techniques from players that make the play work (in this case) or not work.

Here’s the play.

Our play takes place in the fourth quarter. The situation is as follows. Minnesota is driving in the fourth quarter and has moved into Michigan State territory. It is third down and Minnesota needs three yards for the first down.

Michigan State plays a max prevent coverage to prevent anything deep. At this point, if they have to give up yards the Spartans are content with letting Minnesota get short chunks of yardage because the clock and score are in Michigan State’s favor.

Minnesota lines up with three wide receivers, one running back and one tight end, or “11” personnel. This is a common formation under the new coaching staff. Michigan State has two safeties eight to ten yards from the line of scrimmage, and will be playing zone coverage.

On the snap, all five eligible receivers for the Gophers go into routes. Michigan State only rushes three linemen, but the boundary defensive end on the top of the image fakes as if he will also join the rush before moving to cover Rodney Smith in the flat. The safety at the top of the screen bails deep. Croft’s initial read appeared to be Tyler Johnson, which is not surprising since Johnson is the favorite target this season. Michigan State has Johnson well covered. The defensive back maintains outside leverage indicating that he’s responsible for keeping Johnson away from the sideline and will release his zone responsibility to the outside linebacker or safety respectively.

Seeing that Johnson is covered, Croft’s next read was to Smith on a swing pass. As seen in this image, the defensive end has moved to cover Smith in the short flat to take away this option. In addition, Michigan State has clearly dropped into a max prevent zone so Smith would be greeted by the defensive back as well in the event Croft threw this ball. At the bottom of the image, Mark Williams is finishing his curl route and beginning to turn around and sit in the zone. Croft’s footwork on this play is textbook. He resets his feet, turns to look at his third read, and delivers a strike to Williams.

A common refrain from both the Great Takes Less Filling podcast this week is that at the end of the day players have to make plays. Kirk Ciarrocca called a perfect play call against Michigan State’s coverage, but he relied on his wide receivers to get open and his quarterback to make a good decision and throw. Immediately after the catch, Williams made a great play to elude a Michigan State defender that came in for the tackle at a bad angle. Eric Carter made a block on the other defensive back to spring Williams down the sideline for a big gain.

This is the offense that P.J. Fleck could not wait to see. Simple concepts executed well against the coverage the concept was designed to defeat. Demry Croft exhibited excellent pocket presence and fundamentals. Every receiver ran a good route, looked for the ball, and then helped their teammate after the catch.