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Film Preview: Minnesota’s zone run driven offense, quarters base defense will provide early test

A film study to show what the Buckeyes are up against in their match up against Minnesota.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Film study is the lifeblood of great football teams and even better insiders, so thank you for joining me today. As the season begins I’m excited to take this journey of learning and teaching the concepts of opponents so we can all go into the game with more understanding of what will be coming from opposing teams. This week, the match up is the Minnesota Gophers.

Yes, it’s official, the first game is here and after a long, long time away we’re getting down to the nitty gritty of what to expect from the Buckeyes’ Week One opponent. For the first time with me, we’re going to be looking at what the Gophers do through some clips of film and this will allow us to get to know them schematically so you can be the smartest guy at the watch party.

Getting started, the P.J. Fleck squad ended last year with a 3-4 record with four one-possession games and their offense went backwards in a lot of ways statistically. That being said, the Gophers do return a lot of starters, especially on the offensive line, and are in year two under new offensive leadership.

On the defensive side of the ball, they couldn’t stop anybody in 2020, and that led to some high scoring contests. If this team is more like the Gophers of two years ago — when they were one win away from a Big Ten title appearance, the Buckeyes can be in for a challenge, but if it’s the same Minnesota as last year, OSU should be able to take control early.

Now that we’ve gotten the soft introduction out of the way Minnesota brings a simple, but effective offense to the table and will continue to do what Fleck wants to do defensively; which, in the words of Michael Scott and many others sales experts, is to “keep it simple stupid.”

Minnesota’s Offense

For film, we’re using the 2021 Spring Game which will give us a good look at the basic schemes Minnesota is going to rely on and how they’re offense will try to attack Ohio State’s multiple defensive schemes.

We’re going to get started today looking at the run game, anchored by Mohamed Ibrahim and a group of young talented backs that includes Bryce Williams, Treyson Potts, and Cam Wiley. In offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.’s system, the spring game gives a good look at what the Gophers love to do on the ground, which is a mix of inside and outside zone. The video below shows an example of outside zone.

In a zone run scheme, the linemen are assigned blocking areas with their steps. In the above example it is outside zone, so the linemen work to get leverage, and the reads for the running back are push outside, look inside, or cutback. The first example shows what happens when the defense gets immediate interior penetration.

The play is blown up and the back is forced to cut back into traffic leading to a short gain.

The second example shows the outside zone design the best, when the blocking is done correctly. The running back is able to stretch the field horizontally to create space to get up field and make a decision; even though he gains very little, the play design worked.

On the other end of these zone running concepts is an opportunity for the QB to make reads to run so that is something to watch out for as well.

For Ohio State to beat a team that relies on the zone running scheme, the key to winning the play is to get penetration in the backfield. This forces the running back to either bounce outside, creating angles for pursuing defenders, or forcing him to cutback into a lot of traffic. Ohio State will have to be aggressive through the gaps, but always remain aware of the quarterback keeper.

The next play type that was consistently used in the Minnesota spring game was a run-pass option; and they are true RPOs with a design run one way and a passing option. RPOs take many shapes with actual passing concepts on one side or simple screens, so I tried to find three examples to show how RPOs work in the three most common forms.

The most common ones used by Minnesota are short side one-on-one routes, quick screens, and the slant-bubble concept.

In the first example, quarterback Zack Annextad has the option to go to the quick screen at the bottom or hand it off. The alignment of the defense made the decision that this play would be a hand-off because the linebacker stayed with the slot-receiver. Once the one-on-one match up was identified at the top and they counted the defenders in the box, the best option was the quick hitch to the outside receiver.

The second example shows a run option to the field side and a hitch route against one-on-one coverage on the top side. Once the QB diagnoses that the receiver has a favorable matchup, he pulls the ball and passes for a short gain.

The interesting aspect on this play design is that the run action takes the quarterback to the same side as the run action. This play could easily be confused as a play action, but it is a split zone run blocking concept on the OL. The box stays stacked, so Annexstad goes back to the one-on-one match up to the short side.

The last example shows another route concept with the RPO game and it is a slant route to the short side. Overall the Gophers love to mix a variety of screens, routes, and one side passing concepts. As you can see by the three examples, Minnesota loves working the field side with their backs, and creating passing lanes backside for the QB to make an easy throw. The defense was lucky to get a hand on the ball or else this could have been 6.

Lastly, on the offensive side of the ball expect a simple array of passing concepts to be utilized consistently. The two things Minnesota loves to do is attack the middle of the field and go deep, which was another constant in the spring game and throughout Fleck’s tenure. In the examples below there is smash-fade concept and avVerticals concept that they utilize a high percentage of the time.

Smash Fade:


These concepts become harder to recognize with how Minnesota utilizes the run game to set up the pass, and even more challenging with the effectiveness of their RPO game. The Gophers’ offense will challenge any team vertically as shown above and has a knack for creating one-on-one matchups.

Once it comes to play-action passes, the run action gets that much more respect due to the high volume of RPOs used by Sanford and company.

Overall Minnesota’s passing concepts are simple spread concepts that most of the country deploys and the Buckeyes will need to be prepared for the Gophers taking a lot of shots down the field. With the returning talent in their receiver room and OSU’s secondary struggles last year, expect a lot of aggressive play calling trying to challenge the inexperienced DB room.

Minnesota’s Defense:

Fleck and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi have a familiar scheme that we will see a bunch this year in the Big Ten with a combination of Cover-3 but primarily Cover-4. They also play a 3-4 front with the outside linebacker often playing as a stand up defensive end and mixing in blitzes on passing downs.

Big picture, Rossi’s defense is designed to bend not break and limit big plays. For Ohio State to be successful, they will need to establish the run and not allow Minnesota to know what to expect. Winning first down will be important because the Gophers play the sticks well, meaning that the Buckeyes will need to stay on schedule, so they can keep the run and pass as options available in Ryan Day’s playcalling.

For their coverage, Minnesota runs a Cover-4 scheme primarily, this means that the corners and safeties are responsible for a quarter of the field. The linebackers are responsible for all underneath routes and the flats. This coverage scheme allows for a lot of flexibility in passing off receivers and is in place to limit big plays.

Pre-snap we can see the alignment of each player; they’re all off the line and taking a head up leverage on each receiver. The giveaway that the coverage is quarters is the four DBs are at the same depth pre-snap. In single-high looks, Cover-1 and Cover-3 defensive backs are taught to play at different levels.

The alignment allows for each defensive back to play the area in front of them while also being able to stick with the receiver if he takes an inside release. There is a lot of freedom in quarters which is why a lot of coaches who may not have the high end defensive talent rely on it.

In the next video, the zone is given away by the defense not following the motion man across the field. As the play is diagnosed, the Sam linebacker is responsible for Hook to Curl to Flat and ends up being responsible for the two routes. He then reacts to the short gaining line route and makes a good tackle in space.

In quarters, the DBs take the players running vertically, but as you look at the linebackers, they take the flats and second level. Once the pass is completed, the defense plays downhill to close the gap. Ideally Cover-4 keeps the play in front of everyone on the defense and allows the team to rally to the football after short completions.

In the video below against Northwestern, Justin Fields finds Chris Olave on a great quarters beater concept. Ohio State uses a switch verticals concept on the short side to create confusion. The contact that Ruckert makes sets an unintentional pick and allows Olave to release freely and split the safeties.

When it comes to beating quarters, finding holes in the zone and creating confusion at the line of scrimmage is key.

Overall, for film review just using the Minnesota spring game, their coaches were pretty vanilla on how much they implemented, which is to be expected. However, this has allowed us to take a look at a lot of their basic principals though.

A few other things that I wanted to mention before we move on; historically Fleck’s defenses can get creative with their blitz packages. They will use a variety of stunts and blitzes from the second level to create pressure on the QB which is going to put some responsibility on C.J. Stroud’s shoulders to adjust protections and understand where to go with the football.

Ohio State’s Game Plan

The Buckeyes will be going into Minnesota as two touchdown favorites for a reason and in year four, we are not sure which Minnesota team we are going to see as they fell backwards in every major statistical category following a great 2019.

Day’s game plan offensively will be heavily reliant on the run to set the tone and eventually set up the pass. Stroud will need to be patient and not force anything because the coverage that Minnesota runs will be relying on mistakes, and they are going to give up ground to keep the play in front of them.

The OL needs to be prepared for some stunts and blitzes, but if they communicate it’s nothing that this group hasn’t seen before. Overall the offense will rely on its most senior positions in WR and the OL to take the game to the Gophers.

Defensively, the two matchups to watch are the Minnesota OL vs. the Ohio State DL and how the linebackers are able to contain Ibrahim and the Gophers’ stable of backs. The RPO game can create conflict with the outside linebackers and if they aren’t up to speed, that can lead to some big plays off the run or pass read.

Their wide receivers are talented and like to push vertically, which will challenge a group of DBs looking to rebound from last year. QB Tanner Morgan is not afraid to take shots down field either.

My main key is defensive line penetration, because that eliminates the zone run game and will force them into uncomfortable situations. The one advantage is Ohio State has a lot of different personnel they can throw at the Gophers, so it’ll be interesting to see how prepared Minnesota is for the multiple-look defense that Coombs is likely to throw at them.


Ohio State will need to be disciplined on both sides of the ball and force Minnesota into mistakes. OSU will be challenged in a lot of positions that have question marks, including the linebackers and defensive backs, but in a game this early in the year, talent and execution trump all.

The Buckeyes won’t be perfect, but they don’t have to be; they just have to minimize mistakes. Minnesota’s defense is likely not going to have enough firepower to limit the Buckeyes’ offense, so it as about execution for Day’s squad.

Offensively, Minnesota has playmakers, so OSU’s defense will not be able to play a perfect game, and over the last few seasons, Fleck’s teams have shown an ability to put up points. The play of the front-7 will be the key defensively for the Buckeyes.

P.J. Fleck’s team will come out with a lot of energy, but the boats will not row as Ohio State’s talent and execution will be too much for this Gopher’s squad.