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Minnesota Football: Breaking down the Gophers’ defensive breakdowns vs. Michigan

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

Much went wrong for the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ defense in their 49-24 season-opening loss to the Michigan Wolverines, but a few recurring themes stood out upon further review:

  • Minnesota’s linebackers and slot cornerback Justus Harris could simply not shed blocks. Michigan frequently used pulling linemen and tight ends to neutralize defenders in the box at the point of attack and ran roughshod over the Gophers’ defense.
  • The Gophers’ defense was on its heels nearly the entire game, and defenders very rarely acted in anticipation. They were constantly reacting to what the Wolverines were doing and as a result always seemed to be a step behind the Michigan offense.
  • The Wolverines looked much faster than the Gophers, and the angles that Minnesota defenders took to the ball did them no favors. Poor angles everywhere.

Feeling masochistic? Well why didn’t you say so! Let’s rewind a couple plays.

First up, Zach Charbonnet’s 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.

Michigan initially has tight end Ben Mason split out wide before he motions into the backfield. He is going to help the Wolverines’ offensive line wall off the Gophers’ entire defensive line. True freshman linebacker Cody Lindenberg, pre-snap, is actually in position to make a play at the point of attack but instead runs straight into the wall, taking himself out of the play. That leaves slot cornerback Justus Harris, who is easily blocked by wide receiver Roman Wilson, and safety Jordan Howden, comes up to make a play in the gap but picks the wrong side of the pulling guard. Cornerback Benjamin St.-Juste seems to be expecting Charbonnet to bounce outside, but instead he cuts upfield and St.-Juste has no chance of catching him.

Because I’ll take positives wherever I can find them at this point, I’ll point out that Lindenberg did make a great play on 3rd & 2 in the red zone on the Wolverines’ next drive.

Lindenberg blitzes right into the gap and blows up the pulling guard, who gets knocked back into the running back. Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and safety Tyler Nubin clean it up from there, dropping Charbonnet in the backfield for a loss of six yards.

But you can’t plug gaps if you can’t shed blocks. Here we have a perfect example on 2nd & 9 from the Minnesota 12-yard line late in the second quarter. The Wolverines are in a pistol formation with running back Chris Evans lined up Milton and tight end Ben Mason lined up as the fullback next to Milton. The pulling left guard takes out Thomas Rush, Mason takes out Sori-Marin in the gap, and Lindenberg gets eaten up by the right guard. That leaves a wide open gap for Evans to gash the Gophers for eight yards, with Nubin making a touchdown-saving tackle.

And in defense of Lindenberg and the rest of the Gopher linebackers, Minnesota’s defensive issues were not entirely up in the middle. The Wolverines attacked the perimeter, as well. They frequently had success overloading one side of the field and then exploiting the weak side with quarterback Joe Milton’s legs. Here in the second quarter, the Wolverines motion tight end Erick All across the formation and split him out as a receiver on the boundary. Nubin comes up to cover him and ends up getting blocked by All when Milton fakes the handoff and keeps it. Thomas Rush, in his first game at rush end, takes one step too far to the left and Milton has an easy first down.

And here, Michigan sends running back Hassan Haskins in motion to the strong side of the field, but Milton keeps it and runs right. The center pulls to block Esezi Otomewo and seal the edge, with the right tackle taking care of Howden to open up a running lane down the sideline for Milton. No one touches him for at least 10 yards and the Wolverines are in the red zone.

Not even the Gophers’ secondary, led by cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St.-Juste, was immune to the team’s struggles. Their moment in the spotlight came late in the fourth quarter, when Milton gashed them for back-to-back 30-yard completions to Ronnie Bell. The first was an awkward play by St.-Juste — although a touch of holding may have been involved — followed by a sad tackle attempt by Durr to spring Bell for a big gain:

The second catch saw Bell lined up in the slot and running a slant route in front of Nubin, who was playing center field as free safety. Nubin, the last man between Bell and the end zone, simply can’t make the open field tackle and the only thing that prevents Bell from scoring is him tripping:

But perhaps the most discouraging development of the night was how the Minnesota defensive line got consistently blown off the ball. They were absolutely manhandled by the Michigan offensive line. Take a second look at any of the above GIFs and you’ll see the Gophers getting very little, if any, push up front. That is going to make life very difficult for a young and inexperienced linebacker corps trying to get acclimated to the speed of the game.

It was a brutal defensive game, to say the least.