The Golden Gophers are a new-age old-school team. They want to run the ball and play tough defense to beat you, and they are pretty good at both of those things.
Offensively, they try to accomplish their goal in a variety of ways. They'll get under center and run downhill with star tailback David Cobb, but they also have a diverse package of running plays from the shotgun.
Cobb might not have great speed, but he is a 220-pound running back with really good vision and quickness. He has a good feel for when to bounce outside on the power play, and he can be tough to tackle in close quarters. They also like the jet sweep with flanker K.J. Maybe, who is kind of a poor man's Dontre Wilson. He's got good speed and is a tough runner for a 5-10, 195-pounder. He ran 10 times for 66 yards against Iowa, but Jerry Kill said that was partly a function of Iowa's defensive style, which differs from Ohio State's and many other teams who emphasize getting up the field. Still, this is something that can slow down pursuit just by showing it.
The line is big and physical and can move people with the standouts to me being left tackle Josh Campion and center Tommy Olson. They'll supplement the big ugglies with a lot of two- and even some 3-tight end sets, and they like to run the power play. Their best tight end is sophomore Maxx Williams, who is a 6-4, 250-pound star in the making. Williams is a great athlete who will go get the ball and make tough catches. He's quick enough to beat a defensive back one on one and way too big to deal with when the ball is in the air.
Minnesota has only given up 12 sacks on the season, but they've also thrown by far the fewest passes in the Big Ten. Per Football Outsiders, they have one of the worst sack rates in the country, especially on passing downs.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner is a threat as a runner if he keeps on the zone read or the fake jet sweep, but he does not have any wiggle. He is a downhill runner who can break tackles and falls forward for extra yards. They also have a backup in Chris Streveler who is reputed to be a greater run threat and can come in as a change of pace.
Leidner wasn't much more than a single-wing tailback last season, but he has developed into a competent quarterback in that he can take advantage of matchups created by play action. His accuracy leaves a lot to be desired, but he can throw it up and let his guys make a play. The biggest threat in this area is Williams, particularly in the red zone. Sophomore receiver Donovahn Jones showed against both Illinois and Iowa he can get down the field and win against one-on-one coverage, and Isaac Fruechte is another big target. Both are listed at 6-3. Leidner really struggled in the drop-back game against Illinois, but he hit a couple of deep shots off play action. He completed a couple of balls on bootlegs rolling to his left against Iowa that had to be encouraging to the Gopher faithful.
Defensively, Minnesota plays an aggressive scheme, and there are some impressive athletes, especially in the back seven.
Damien Wilson is their leading tackler, but the most impressive playmaker I saw was fellow linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. A very athletic, instinctual player, Campbell is a big hitter and a good tackler. He gets after it. Wilson is also a big hitter who runs well. Both are fourth-year guys in the 240-pound range. Wilson was benched for the start of the Iowa game for a mysterious violation of team rules, and freshman Everett Williams looked pretty good in his place.
Cornerback Eric Murray and safety Cedric Thompson are standouts in the secondary. Both are physical athletes who tackle well in space but play under control. Thompson is a 6-0, 208-pound senior who is second on the team with 51 tackles while Murray goes 6-0, 195 with long arms that make him good in man coverage.
They'll play a lot of man coverage and like to blitz and play aggressive in general. They've been very good at forcing turnovers.
Iowa fell behind early and had to abandon the running game, so it was hard to get a feel for the quality of their defensive line against a good run-blocking line, but both inside guys flashed as pass rushers -- Cameron Botticelli and Steven Richardson. My feeling watching Illinois, with more of a spread-option based running game, was there was some room to run for Reiley O'Toole. We know J.T. Barrett is a much more dangerous runner than O'Toole, so they might approach defending him differently because Illinois' bigger threats are at running back.
Field position was a big factor in the blowout of Iowa last week. Minnesota's average starting spot was the Gopher 44, and they had four possessions that began in Iowa territory. Iowa's average starting position was its own 19. This meant they could isolate some of the throws for Leidner that he can make -- even if they were just ones that someone else could go up and make a play on.
I also watched the Illinois game, and the Gophers did seem to come out flat. They were in a 14-0 hole and really didn't play well for most of the game but probably still would have won if not for a Cobb fumble that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
They're certainly not as good as they looked against Iowa or as bad as they looked against Illinois, but let there be no mistake: This a good team that is well-coached and has some athletes at a few different spots who can change games. The lack of a fully developed passing game makes them easier to defend and puts a fast start at a premium, especially against a team as explosive as Ohio State.
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