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Minnesota Football: Breaking down the breakdowns in Minnesota’s secondary vs. Ohio State

The back end of the Gophers’ defense sprung a leak in the second half

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Ohio State at Minnesota

The Minnesota Golden Gophers were able to limit the Ohio State Buckeyes to 10 points in the first half of their season-opening loss, but the second half was a different story, as Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud racked up four touchdowns through the air en route to a 45-31 win over the Gophers. So what happened in the second half? Let’s take a look at the touchdowns.

Chris Olave’s 38-yard touchdown reception

By this point, Jordan Howden, in his fourth year starting at strong safety, has left the game with an undisclosed injury. His replacement: Calvin Swenson, a redshirt senior but a former walk-on. I point this out because on the play below — a 38-yard touchdown pass from C.J. Stroud to Chris Olave — you’ll notice Swenson is lined up across from Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the slot.

Our view of the back end of the defense is limited by the camera angle, but Minnesota seems to be in split field coverage. On the one side, Coney Durr and Tyler Nubin look to be in zone, whereas Swenson and Terell Smith look to be in man. Swenson runs with Smith-Njigba, ending up behind Nubin at one point, which seems sub-optimal. Smith is lined up across from Garrett Wilson on the outside and seems to be running with him, though we lose sight of him after the snap. Wilson and Smith-Nigba taking Swenson and Smith deep clears out that side of the field for Olave, who runs a crossing route behind slot corner Justus Harris that turns into an easy touchdown.

Without knowing the play-call and with a limited view of the play, it’s tough to diagnose exactly what went wrong. Either Ohio State anticipated the coverage or one or more of Minnesota’s defenders simply weren’t on the same page. Either way, the Buckeyes got the best of them.

Garrett Wilson’s 56-yard touchdown reception

It does not take a doctor to diagnose the problem on this particular play. Swenson in man coverage against Wilson? That’s not a matchup you want if you’re Minnesota.

TreVeyon Henderson’s 70-yard touchdown reception

You may have noticed that there was frequently confusion at the second and third levels of Minnesota’s defense pre-snap against Ohio State. This play is a great example. It is unclear why Coney Durr is in the middle of the field and not lined up over tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who is lined up on the hash and completely uncovered. To make matters worse, Minnesota is bringing six, which Ohio State counters with a swing pass to freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson out of the backfield. Henderson, a former track athlete, has plenty of open space to gain a head of steam and simply sprints past everyone to the end zone.

Chris Olave’s 61-yard touchdown reception

Here, I don’t know what Swenson is doing. Lined up across from Olave in off coverage, the sheer amount of cushion suggests he is simply trying to keep Olave in front of him. Well, Olave was certainly in front of him when he made the catch, but then Swenson gets blocked out of bounds and there is nothing between Olave and the end zone.

Obviously, the misalignments in the secondary are an issue that can be resolved. But the injury to Jordan Howden is reason for concern. The Gophers are razor thin at safety, with only Swenson, a sophomore, and a freshman to back up Howden and Nubin. Fleck described Howden as the “quarterback of the defense” in his postgame press conference Thursday night, so if he sidelined for an extended period of time, Minnesota could be in trouble.