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2015 Citrus Bowl: Minnesota's offensive line will lean on you

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Since we have more time to preview this game, let's work through one unit/set of stats at a time. Minnesota is as committed to the run as any non-Flexbone team in the country. Can the Gophers lean on Missouri up front, or will the Tigers slow David Cobb and the running game down like they did against a similarly big, run-heavy Arkansas offense?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota runs. And runs and runs. And throws to the tight end. And runs some more.

I don't like over-generalizing -- it's part of the reason why my word counts tend to get pretty high. But sometimes it's difficult to avoid. Minnesota's "lean on you till you fall over" reputation is well-earned.

Minnesota runs the ball 79 percent of the time on standard downs, sixth-most in the country and second-most among teams that don't run some form of the flexbone. For every five standard-down snaps (first downs, second-and-6 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer) the Gophers take, they're running on four of them. And when they do pass, tight end Maxx Williams is easily the most frequent target. Taking out garbage time, Williams has 31 standard downs targets; No. 2 is receiver Issac Fruechte with 18. (Other tight ends and running backs have combined for 23 targets on these downs. So basically, Williams is the No. 1 guy, Other Big/Backfield Dude is No. 2.

So let's talk about Minnesota's run blocking, huh?

From Football Outsiders:

  • Adjusted Line Yards: One of only two opponent-adjusted numbers on the page, this aligns with the ALY figure FO tracks for the NFL and is presented on a scale in which 100.0 is perfectly average, above 100 is good, below 100 is bad.

  • Standard Downs Line Yards per Carry: The raw, unadjusted per-carry line yardage for a team on standard downs (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer).

  • Passing Downs Line Yards per Carry: The same unadjusted averages for rushing on passing downs.

  • Opportunity Rate: The percentage of carries (when five yards are available) that gain at least five yards, i.e. the percentage of carries in which the line does its job, so to speak.

  • Power Success Rate: This is the same as on the pro side -- percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.

  • Stuff Rate: Same as STUFFED on the pro side -- percentage of carries by running backs that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.
Adj. Line Yds SD LY/carry PD LY/carry Opp. Rate Power Succ. Rt. Stuff Rate
Minnesota offense 117.1 (16th) 3.34 (18th) 3.56 (40th) 39.9% (57th) 69.6% (48th) 16.5% (29th)
Missouri defense 118.4 (15th) 2.57 (21st) 3.10 (49th) 36.6% (40th) 71.4% (91st) 20.6% (51st)

The Gophers rank a strong 16th in Adjusted Line Yards. Among Mizzou's 2014 opponents, that ranks behind only Alabama (first) and Arkansas (fifth). Mizzou held up pretty well against those opponents (at least until the Alabama game fell into garbage-time status)s, but the Gophers are even more committed to the run than Arkansas. If you're capable of wearing down over 60 minutes, Minnesota will try to wear you down.

It's kind of a chicken-or-egg thing with the success of Minnesota's offensive line. The line is clearly solid, but it also benefits by blocking for David Cobb, a 5'11, 220-pound, no-nonsense senior back who has rushed for 1,594 yards on about 25 carries per game. (Quarterback Mitch Leidner tosses in about eight non-sack carries as well.) Cobb follows his blocking and falls forward; he's not as explosive as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, but he's efficient and powerful. He would make a decent line look good and a good line look very good.

Minnesota's line is big and experienced on the left and just big on the right. Junior left tackle Josh Campion, senior left guard Zac Epping, and senior center Tommy Olson have each started all 12 games this season; at this point, including the 36 from 2014, they have combined for 111 career starts.

The right side of the line is perhaps a little shakier. Junior Joe Bjorklund (6'5, 305, seven career starts) took over for Foster Bush (6'5, 304, nine career starts) after five games, and after starting the first two games of the season, big sophomore Jonah Pirsig (6'9, 320, six career starts), took the starting job back from injured sophomore Ben Lauer over the final four games of the year.

Minnesota's identity is pretty clear. The Gophers really are pretty similar to Arkansas in terms of offensive intent, although Leidner gives them a mobile element at quarterback that the Razorbacks didn't have. If Missouri can't force passing downs, then the Tigers will risk wearing down. They avoided that against Arkansas, but that doesn't automatically mean they will in Orlando.

If they can force passing downs, however, the advantage shifts drastically in Mizzou's favor.

Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Minnesota offense 73.0 (116th) 3.9% (48th) 13.5% (126th)
Missouri defense 136.4 (14th) 5.6% (43rd) 11.0% (16th)

First, Minnesota will keep right on running the ball on passing downs until it has no other option. Mizzou will have to guard against the draw play, but when Leidner does drop back to pass, he's looking downfield. Dump-offs are few and far between -- Cobb has only seven passing downs receptions, and the top five passing downs targets (including Williams) are averaging almost 17 yards per catch. But they also don't catch a high percentage of balls ... and Leidner gets sacked. A lot. There are pluses and minuses to having a fullback play quarterback.

Minnesota ranks 42nd in Standard Downs S&P+ and 55th in Passing Downs S&P+; it's not as simple as saying Missouri will struggle early on downs, then destroy the Gophers on second- or third-and-long. Still ... that's kind of what we can see happening, yeah? If Missouri can stop Cobb for one to three yards and at least force a decent share of third-and-6s, the Tigers' defense should be good enough to keep Minnesota's point total pretty low, especially considering Minnesota's glacial pace.