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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Georgia Southern - Opponent Preview

The Eagles’ modernized option offense rolls into Minneapolis

Maine v Georgia Southern Photo by Chris Thelen/Getty Images

Just one last obstacle for the Minnesota Golden Gophers to overcome before their bye week and then the start of Big Ten conference play: the Georgia Southern Eagles.

Were they any good last year?

2018 Record: 10-3 (6-2, 3rd Sun Belt East)
Postseason: W 23-21 vs Eastern Michigan, Camellia Bowl
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 63rd

Yes. The Eagles rebounded from a 2-10 record in 2017 to reach 10 wins for the first time since 2012. It was Chad Lunsford’s first season at the helm after serving as interim head coach for six games the previous year following the midseason firing of Tyson Summers.

Can they score on offense?

It has not been smooth sailing for the Eagles offense to start the season. Georgia Southern was limited to 74 rushing yards and a field goal in a season-opening blowout loss to LSU, which also saw starting quarterback Shai Werts go down with a shoulder injury. Werts, who is currently considered day-to-day, sat out the next game against Maine. Redshirt freshman Justin Tomlin took over under center, leading an offensive attack that racked up 395 rushing yards but struggled to find the end zone. The Eagles settled for two touchdowns and four field goals in a 26-18 victory that was close late because of Georgia Southern’s red zone struggles.

Gone are leading rusher Wesley Fields and his back-up Monteo Garrett, who graduated after accounting for 50 percent of the Eagles’ rushing yards last season. Wesley Kennedy III, perhaps the most versatile athlete on the roster, was expected to lead the offense as both a rushing and receiving threat, but was ruled academically ineligible prior to the start of the season. The Eagles have been forced to turn to a pair of redshirt sophomores — Logan Wright and Matt LaRoche — to carry the load, along with Werts or Tomlin, depending on who is taking snaps.

Operating out of an option offense, the Eagles won’t air it out much, with eleven and nine pass attempts against LSU and Maine, respectively. It’s also important to note that Georgia Southern runs a different version of the option offense than Georgia Tech, against whom the Gopher defense fared well in the Quick Lane Bowl. Head coach Chad Lunsford and offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse have put their own unique stamp on the traditional option offense, frequently operating out of shotgun and pistol formations. It’s tough to argue with the results, as the Eagles were a Top 10 rushing offense last season, averaging 266.2 yards per game.

The good news is that the Eagles’ modernized version of the option offense is essentially a zone read offense. The traditional triple-option offense normally operates under center to allow for quick-developing dive plays that effectively neutralize any size advantage on the defensive line. Georgia Southern runs their offense out of shotgun and pistol formations, which means their plays are going to develop slower. They’ll certainly add in wrinkles to keep the defense on their toes, but as long as the Gophers’ defensive linemen aren’t getting blown up at the line of scrimmage and the linebackers play disciplined, Minnesota should be able to contain the Eagles’ offense.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, and Chris Autman-Bell should be champing at the bit to face this Georgia Southern defense, as the Eagles are allowing an average of 328.5 passing yards per game. LSU’s Joe Burrow had no problem picking their secondary apart, completing 23-of-27 passes for 278 yards and five touchdowns. He and back-up quarterback Myles Brennan completed at least one pass to 14 different receivers. Georgia Southern was a victim of the Tigers’ new-look, no-huddle offense, and I don’t expect the Gophers to match that same up-tempo style of play. But Minnesota certainly has the receiving corps to spread them out.

The Eagles’ struggles against the pass is somewhat of a surprise with the return of senior starting cornerbacks Monquavion Brinson and Kindle Vildor. But Georgia Southern is having to replace both starting safeties from a season ago, including Joshua Moon, who led the team with 71 tackles. Though not all fault rests with the secondary, as the Eagles’ pass rush has also left much to be desired in the first two games. Sack leader and defensive end Logan Hunt is gone, and Georgia Southern only has two sacks to their name so far this season.

What will be interesting is how offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca establishes the run against a defense that has been solid on the ground, limiting LSU and Maine to 122 and 52 rushing yards, respectively. Georgia Southern has been especially adept at getting into the backfield and disrupting plays, with 10 tackles for loss so far this season. This has been a bit of a problem for Minnesota early in the year, as they have allowed 13 tackles for loss through their first two games. Look for Minnesota to ride Mohamed Ibrahim, who is better equipped to find success behind an offensive line that thus far hasn’t been able to consistently open clean running lanes.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

Georgia Southern appears on paper to be a step down from South Dakota State and Fresno State, and they’ve only beaten one Power 5 program in the last decade and that was a Will Muschamp-coached Florida team in 2013 that finished the season 4-8. With the struggles the Eagles have had defending the pass, it’ll represent an opportunity for Tanner Morgan to find a rhythm in the passing game and hopefully jump start what has been a quiet start to the season for Tyler Johnson. Minnesota 31, Georgia Southern 13.