Everyone remembers Nebraska head coach Scott Frost’s postgame comments regarding his players wearing hoodies after suffering a 34-7 loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium last season. But what I’ll remember most is the way the Gopher offense ran roughshod over the Cornhuskers to the tune of 322 rushing yards. And this was two weeks removed from Tanner Morgan and co. lighting up Purdue for 396 passing yards and four touchdowns. It seemed that Minnesota could do it all.
I wrote last week about how the Gophers’ passing game thrived utilizing the Run Pass Option, but not enough ink has been spilled dissecting their effective ground game. And to understand how Minnesota was able to run over, around, and through Nebraska on that wintry October evening, we have to take a closer look at their zone blocking scheme.
What is a zone blocking scheme?
Let’s start with the concept of zone blocking. On zone running plays, the offensive linemen are assigned to block general areas (or zones) across the line of scrimmage, rather than specific defenders. That isn’t to say they won’t end up blocking the person in front of them. Zone blocking simply requires each lineman to determine pre-snap if he is covered or uncovered — covered meaning he has a defender lined up directly across from him. If he is uncovered, the lineman will look to help the covered lineman in his zone. One of the linemen will disengage from the double team and proceed to the second level to block a linebacker or safety.
Here is an example of what I’m talking about from the Nebraska game. Center John Michael Schmitz is the only uncovered lineman, so he double teams Nebraska defensive lineman Carlos Davis to the play-side with left guard Conner Olson. Huskers linebacker Mohamed Barry moves in to fill the gap and Schmitz slides off his initial block to pick up Berry, allowing Rodney Smith to cut back into the open field. The finishing touch is the backside block from right tackle Blaise Andries, who pushes back linebacker Alex Davis and stays on him as he overpursues the ball carrier.
The goal of a zone running play is not to open up a specific gap, but to push defenders off the line of the scrimmage, make blocks at the second level once the linebackers have committed to their gaps, and allow the running back to identify the best opening and cut upfield.
Why run a zone blocking scheme, as opposed to man blocking? It’s a flexible scheme that does not require adjustments based on the defensive front. Zone blocking also allows your offensive linemen to frequently team up on defenders and put them on skates, making it easier for one blocker to handle them after the other lineman moves to the second level. Your running back can also be patient and read the linebackers, rather than having to commit to a pre-determined gap.
Why did zone blocking work so well against the Huskers?
The Cornhuskers’ defensive game plan focused on stopping the Gophers’ intermediate passing game. To that end, Nebraska opened the game playing press man coverage on the outside, with two deep safeties in the middle of the field to try and take away the slant route. But in doing so, the Huskers left an even box for Minnesota to exploit in the run game.
Nebraska boasted the biggest defensive line the Gophers had played up to that point in the season, and former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca set out to neutralize their strength by using outside zone run plays to get their defensive linemen moving left and right.
The outside zone vs. Nebraska
On outside zone run plays, the goal is to push the ball to the perimeter. The offensive linemen take more of a lateral first step, flowing to the sideline and stretching the defense the width of the field. The running back is coached to aim for a point outside the caravan of blockers, but he can also cut upfield between the linemen if a seam appears or cut back across the formation.
Take this Mohamed Ibrahim touchdown run against Nebraska as an example. The Gophers’ offensive line and tight end Jake Paulson are all moving to the sideline on the short side of the field. Seth Green is split out at receiver and runs a go route to take the cornerback out of the play. On the play-side, Schmitz and right guard Curtis Dunlap double team the defensive end, Andries seals a linebacker and pushes him back into another defender, and Paulson drives his man to the sideline. The gap between Andries and Paulson on the edge is enormous, and Ibrahim is untouched until he has to plow through a defender at the goal line.
Once Minnesota started having success with the outside zone, the Cornhuskers’ defense started to anticipate it. The Gophers responded by taking advantage of the defenders flowing to the sideline and overrunning the play, which left huge cutback lanes between the tackles.
Here, the opening is between Schmitz and Dunlap. Dunlap takes the defensive end out of the play, and Husker linebacker Mohamed Barry gets picked up by Schmitz. Linebacker Collin Miller should be there to stop Brooks at the line of scrimmage or for a minimal gain at most, but he overruns the play. Brooks blows right past him for a gain of 28 yards.
What about inside zone?
In the second half, Nebraska’s defense attempted to slow the Gophers’ outside zone by adjusting the alignment of their defensive ends and outside linebackers, in addition to bringing a safety down for run support. In response, Minnesota countered by taking more shots downfield in the passing game and running more inside zone run plays.
Inside zone differs from outside zone in that the offensive linemen block straight ahead, and the running back is looking for a vertical crease, rather than a horizontal one.
The Gophers utilized it on their opening drive of the second half, especially once they were in the red zone. On 1st and Goal, even with eight defenders in the box, Ibrahim is able to muscle his way into the end zone for a six-yard touchdown — albeit, with a push from a couple of his blockers.
Paulson comes across the formation to block a linebacker coming around the edge, Andries moves to the second level to drive a safety back, and Dunlap, Schmitz, and Olson all steer the defensive linemen away from the play. Ibrahim sees a pile of bodies and cuts between Andries and Paulson, barreling through defenders en route to the end zone.
It was a dominating effort by the Gophers and showed how dangerous and dynamic that 2019 offense could be, both through the air and on the ground.