Minnesota keeps it simple offensively by looking to run, run and run some more. The Gophers feature their offense mostly out of an I formation, where they love to out muscle you and pound it down your throat, but can switch to the spread for a read option or quick slants to change it up once in awhile. They do a lot of checks at the line and if they see something better will most likely switch out of the play to throw the defense a curveball.
The Golden Gophers have displayed two signal callers in starting quarterback Philip Nelson and backup quarterback Mitch Leidner this year. Nelson has been banged up this season, but has passed for 1,288 yards with 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. A lot of pressure has been taken off him since the emergence of the running game and Nelson also has shown to be effective with his legs by rushing for 350 yards on 91 carries.
However, he has a completion rate of 51% and in the fourth quarter this season, he is only has a completion rate of 40%. It is no secret he has struggled with injuries and through the air, but he has managed the offense well enough to still get the job done.
Junior tailback David Cobb burst onto the scene in season a few games in by taking over the starting running back position from previous starter Donnell Kirkwood that lost his spot due to injuries. Cobb took advantage of the role by rushing for 1,111 yards on 219 carries and 7 rushing scores.
He has shown that he can be the workhorse back needed in this offense with that big and tough 5-11, 225-pound frame. Looks to run you over, but has that sneaky speed to get around the corner. He has been the key to the success of this Gopher offense.
The receiving corps is very young, but their veteran in senior wide out Derrick Engel has stepped up and is their top target. He leads the team in receptions (25), receiving yards (401) and receiving touchdowns (5). Engel showed he can create separation and make the tough acrobatic catches as well. He will be looked upon again in this season finale.
The second leading target is actually their physical 6-4, 255-pound tight end Maxx Williams. The big and mismatch Williams has caught 20 balls for 341 yards and 4 touchdowns. He is not afraid to go over the middle and is a load to take down. It will be interesting in how Syracuse looks to stop him.
Behind Engel and Williams, there is a drop off in production with wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky having 11 catches for 165 yards. He is not a flashy player or can burn you with his speed, but seems to make the big third down catch when needed.
Freshman phenom athlete Donovahn Jones converted from quarterback to wide receiver in the beginning of the year and late in the season really came on. He displayed great speed and ability along with big play ability. Minnesota looks to just get the ball in his hand either by the wildcat or through a jet sweep or just plain 5 yard pass.
The other tight ends are primarily used as blockers for the power running attack. Isaac Fruechte and Drew Goodger combined for 17 receptions on the season for 224 yards and a score. Both will move around in the pre-snap, but they mostly stay in for more big blockers.
In the Trenches
With being a physical running team like Minnesota is, the big uglies up front are mean and mammoth. This offensive line averages around 300 pounds at each position and have the strength to open up holes for their stud back.
The offensive line has went through some reshuffling in the season when center Jon Christenson suffered a season ending leg injury against Indiana. However, this line has adjusted well by left tackle Ed Olson moving over to left tackle with his brother handling the duties of center. That brotherly chemistry has helped this patch work line gel quickly and effective with Josh Campion, Ben Lauer, Zac Epping. This line mauls over the defensive line and is solid is pass protection as well.
The biggest strength of the Gophers offensive line is how quick they get off the ball. They use leverage well to create holes quickly and control the line of scrimmage.
This group has shown to bring that physical and smash mouth style brand of the football the Big Ten is accustomed to all year long.
The Scheme The Golden Gophers play a stout 4-3 defense that will send the occasional blitz, but relies more on their front four to make the pressure. They look to stop the run first and not allow the big plays. They will try to mix up their coverage and looks to confuse the offense. There is a emphasis on creating turnovers and making the opposing quarterback try to beat them through the air on short and intermediate routes.
In the Trenches
Senior 6-6, 310-pound defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman will likely be a first round draft pick. He has racked up many honors this year and deserve-ably so after his solid senior season in which, he recorded 34 total tackles with 11 going for a loss, 8 pass break ups, 2 sacks and a interception. Many double team this monster, but realized that can even be a challenge with his strength, size and athleticism.
On the ends, Theiren Cokran and Michale Amaefula look to collapse the pocket with an interior pass rush. Both are a bit undersized, but very athletic and use their hands well. They apply extreme heat off the edge on the quarterback and can be very disruptive in the backfield.
The Back Seven
Golden Gophers linebackers are led by senior strong side linebacker Aaron Hill. He brings leadership to this unit and all these players have good sideline to sideline speed along with high motors. Damien Wilson at plays middle linebacker and at 6-2, 255-pounds can be lay the wood and really stuff the run.
The weakside linebacker is James Manuel is another uperclassman in this unit. Manuel has came on as of late by leading the team in tackles against Michigan State with 8 tackles. He can shed blockers and is a sure tackler. All the linebackers can come downhill and you better strap up your helmet when squaring off against these linebackers.
The weakness in the Gopher defense has to be their secondary. Eric Murray and Martez Shabazz are the starting corners. Neither are overly impressive in coverage and are not your biggest guys, so they struggle against bigger and physical wide outs.
Senior captain Brock Vereen has stepped in one of the starting safety positions and Cedric Thompson. Both are good in run support and can dart in to stop the ball barrier before he gets going. They also show good coverage not allowing the big play, but do give up the easy short passes. While the secondary is not bad, their depth is very thin, so a loss back there could be very devastating.
Chris Hawthrone is the kicker for Minnesota and has been very consistent throughout the season by connecting on 13-17 field goals. His long on the year is 45 yards and inside of that is very reliable. Punter Peter Mortell has been a star for the Gophers as he won several Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors from his outstanding play. He has punted 56 times this year for 2,401 and with a long of 62 yards.
The return game for the Gophers has been good this season by Marcus Jones handling the kickoff return duties. He returned a kickoff 98 yards early in the season, but since hasn't done too much since. Still, he holds onto the ball and gives Minnesota decent starting field position.
This matchup put Minnesota strength of their running attack against Syracuse tough rushing defense and weakness against weakness Syracuse pass defense vs Gopher's air attack, Syracuse passing attack vs Minnesota secondary. The key will be if the Orange can hold Cobb to under 100 yards like they have to every ball carrier this season.
It should be a good ole physical battle on both sides of the ball. Minnesota will look to snap their five game bowl game losing streak against the Syracuse Orangemen.