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Coach’s Corner: Scouting Minnesota’s Zone Power Run

A look at the prototypical B1G run game.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

As a high school football coach, I have two favorite weeks of the year. The first is the week we play our cross-county rivals. Despite the fact that, now that I’m coaching at the newer of the two schools, we have a record against our rivals that makes WSU’s record in the Apple Cup look reasonably competitive (1-27), it’s always a fun week because everybody in the small county in which I work has a vested interest in one or both of the teams. Everybody knows everybody. And, to perpetuate a stereotype, most of them are related to each other in some way. So it’s personal. Having coached on the other side of town, and having had a personal hand in designing its offense, defense, and special teams over the course of seven years, I normally don’t watch a lot of film that week. I know what to expect from that coaching staff because it’s virtually exactly the same staff as it was when I was there. Minus me.

My other favorite week is the first week of the playoffs, and for the exact opposite reason. You generally get matched up with a team you’ve never played before, maybe having seen them once on a film from a team you played in the non-conference. But more likely, everything is brand new. That makes it a deep dive into their tendencies, schemes, plays, and players. The Cougars’ opponent in the upcoming Holiday Bowl, the Golden Gophers of the University of Minnesota, is a team with which I was not super familiar. To be perfectly frank, I don’t remember watching a Minnesota game since Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney were their running backs and Glen Mason was the coach. It’s been a while. So it’s been fun digging into their offense like fresh meat in front of a starving large cat of some kind.

Before the Cougs take on the Golden Gophers in the Holiday Bowl, let’s take a look at the Zone-based running scheme the team from Minnesota employs.

As always, credit to Something Snazzy for the GIF work.

General Impressions

When I get film on a new team, I normally just hit play and let it run for one viewing. It’s a good way to get an overall idea of what they’re doing, and it allows for particular players to jump off the screen as ones to notice.

For Minnesota, a few things became very apparent very quickly.

  • They are a run first, second, and third team. And also fourth. And if there were a fifth down, they’d probably run that too. Everything they do is predicated on their zone power look.
  • They’ll use a slotted H-back as much as they will a traditional in-line tight end. This lets them do a little more with pulling him across formation.
  • Mitch Leidner (#7), their quarterback, is reasonably athletic and can extend plays outside of the pocket.
  • Drew Wolitarsky (#82) is their best receiver. He’s not the fleetest of foot, but he has a Cracraft-like knack for being in the right place at the right time.
  • Their tight end, Nate Wozniak (#80), is nasty. In a good way. If tight ends were a thing for us, he’d be the kind I’d want. Of everybody, he’s the guy who jumped off the screen. Pretty impressive for a guy who has eleven receptions this year.
  • Their three main running backs are all pretty interchangeable, but from what I’ve seen Shannon Brooks (#23) is the best of three running off tackle/around the edge, Kobe McCrary (#22) is very good in between the tackles, and Rodney Smith (#1) is their best receiver out of the backfield.
  • Minnesota is not very explosive. In the handful of games I watched, they had very few plays of 20+ yards, and were very selective about when they took shots down the field. When they did, it was almost exclusively out of play action.
  • Their offensive line is big (B1G?) and can control the trenches if they get their hands on you. They aren’t the most athletic of offensive lines, but they do pull quite a bit. They are better guard-center-guard than they are at the tackles.
  • This team is B1G through and through.

Play #1 - Slot Left Over Heavy Pistol 22 Zone

Here is Minnesota Football 101 - an inside zone run where you let the hogmollies work and pick a hole.

Minnesota Offensive Formation

Slot Left Over Heavy Pistol. Minnesota has an unbalanced look, with the tight end (Over) and the H-Back (Heavy) to the Twins side of the formation.

Penn State Defensive Formation

43 Jam - Cover 3 Shell

Jam is an alignment call for the strong (TE) side defensive end. He’s going to align inside of the end man on the line of scrimmage. Because of the lack of eligible receiver to the bottom of the screen, the corner is going to stack behind the outside linebacker on his side. No point in guarding grass.

22 Zone

Minnesota runs zone away from the H-back, and weak in general, a lot more than I would expect. Despite putting everybody to the left, they run inside zone to the right. Of course, it’s a zone play, so everything is relative to the hole the RB reads.

The general rule for an offensive lineman on a zone play is to work “HPL” - (H)ead-up, (P)layside, (L)inebacker. The goal is to establish as many double teams as possible, and then work off the double to get to the second level with leverage. The aiming point for an inside zone is for the OL to strike the defender’s playside jersey number.

Here, left tackle and left guard double the defensive tackle. The center and right guard double the other DT. The tight end and right tackle handle the ends on their respective sides. Wozniak’s block on his end on the top side is particularly impressive. He’s losing leverage based on alignment, but is still quick enough to get inside the end and wall him off to keep the end from collapsing the hole. The two guards slip to second level to take care of two LBs, and the H-back goes to the outside linebacker on his side.

The RB starts to the 2-hole, then cuts back under the C/RG combo block to what is the 1- or 3-hole at that point. The stacked corner comes over and cleans up, but not before a first down is earned.

Play #2 - Ace Left Close Pistol 25 Power

Minnesota likes to pull its offensive linemen. A lot. Because their splits are so tight (even for a non-Air Raid team, they’re pretty close - almost foot to foot), their linemen can get to the point of attack pretty quickly.

Minnesota Offensive Formation

Ace Left Close Pistol.

The tight end is back on the “correct” side, and he brought the H-back with him. Here’s Film Study 101 when it comes to the OL - check the depth of the right guard relative to the center. He’s barely on the LOS. Guess who’s pulling on this play?

Penn State Defensive Front

Nickel - 42 Jam Cover 3 Shell

25 Power

The rules for Power are similar to zone. Instead of working “HPL”, the playside half of the line will work “downHIL” - (H)ead-up, (I)nside, (L)inebacker. The backside consists of a pulling guard and a tackle that hinge blocks down to fill for said pulling guard.

The playside guard and tackle get a helluva double on the defensive tackle. It eliminates the down lineman, and effectively cuts off any backside pursuit from the linebacker. For my money, though, the tight end’s block is the best one here. He works down on a Jam end, who already has inside leverage on him by alignment. Wozniak manages to stone him and keep him from squeezing the gap, allowing the pulling guard to get to the playside linebacker and the running back to get through the hole.

Again, safeties are making tackles in the run game. If your offense is making that happen, things are going well in the trenches.

Play #3 - Ace Right Close Pistol 26 Power C

Minnesota is not shy about pulling, and they’ll pull two big fellas pretty regularly.

Minnesota Offensive Formation

Ace Right Close Pistol - same as Play #2, just flipped the formation strength.

Penn State Defensive Front

Nickel - 42 Jam Safety Fire Cover 1

Penn State played a lot of Nickel against Minnesota’s 21 personnel in this game, and I’m not entirely sure why. I’d be curious to see the gameplan. Regardless, they bring some heat here, dropping the safety into the box and sending him off the edge. Minnesota runs right into the blitz, but I’ll take a pulling 315-pound guard against a 185-pound safety just about every day of the week.

26 Power C

Minnesota will pull both the center and the playside guard. This really isn’t a true power for various reasons, but I’m going to call it that for simplicity and because it effectively works the same way (Block down, kick out).

The two best blocks on this play aren’t on the pull, they’re at the point of attack. The right tackle goes a long way down to cut the defensive tackle, who looks like he’s in a 2-I. That’s a heckuva reach, and he barely clips the tackle’s back leg, but it’s enough. My boy Wozniak gets involved again and just destroys the defensive end, and lays on him for good measure. By the way, he’s listed at 6’10” (!!) and 275 pounds, and he has one more year of eligibility. As an NFL front office executive, which I play on the internet, I’m keeping an eye on him come draft time next year.

The right guard pulls playside and kicks out the blitzing safety. The center pulls, reads numbers, and turns up to second level. One of the reasons this isn’t Power is the backside action. Instead of a hinge block by the backside tackle, he releases and tries to cut off the backside linebacker instead. Not super effective, but it does leave the backside defensive end unblocked. He’s held (slightly) by Leidner’s play action, and that would lead me to believe they have a play action pass off this look.

Play #4 - H-Trips Left Gun 28 Buck

This is old school football here.

Minnesota Offensive Formation

H-Trips Left Gun

Minnesota primarily goes with a pistol look, but occasionally they’ll jump into a more traditional shotgun alignment.

Penn State Defensive Front

43 Over - Indian Cover 2 Man

Indian refers to bringing the corner across the formation to cover the slot receiver. The benefit is that it keeps the safeties balanced, giving the defense extra force on each half of the field. The disadvantage, of course, is that you’re removing a defender from one side of the formation, and if the offense runs that way, that can lead to leverage issues if the offense can get around the edge. Which Minnesota does here.

28 Buck

The traditional Buck Sweep or Power Sweep pulls both guards. Minnesota is going to pull the center and right tackle here, but it’s just as effective.

On the backside, the left guard releases to the linebacker on his side, who takes himself out of the play as he likely had read responsibility on the quarterback. The left tackle doesn’t do a great job getting to the backside tackle, but the play goes away so it’s a non-factor. The H-back delays, then seals the backside end.

On the playside, the right guard pins down the playside tackle, and oh my god can we talk about Nate Wozniak for a second? He again does a fantastic job sealing off the defensive end. It’s textbook: Engage, then turn your butt to the running lane and wall off. I’ve never felt this way about a blocking tight end before. I drew hearts around his name in my notes. This is weird. I’m going to follow him on every social media platform. That’s what the kids do these days, right?

The running back tracks wide, heading for the edge. Nobody ever gets to the playside linebacker, but he takes a poor angle and the back simply outruns him. Again, safeties are tackling the running back.

I feel like this will be feast or famine for the Coug run defense. Our box defenders are quick enough to shoot gaps on the Minnesota O-Line when they appear, and that can create havoc for an offense. But considering the tight splits and Minnesota’s propensity for mashing, if the defense lets the Gopher O-Line get on them it could make for a long day. Minnesota doesn’t seem to have a real home run hitter, however. And with Luani and Dotson lurking in the secondary, I don’t see them breaking many 15+ runs. Moreover, I don’t think Minnesota is strong enough in the passing game to warrant anything crazy coverage-wise, so I think we’ll be able to load the box without much risk on the back end.

Leidner is mobile enough to be someone of which Grinch has to be aware, but he’s not what I would consider a threat. I’ll get into the passing game later this week, but it’s similar to the running game in that it’s solid but not explosive. So I would wager we’ll see a lot of eight-man looks in the box, especially against 21 personnel. Minnesota is going to have to grind out a win if they’re going to beat us, and that is their forte. But they are not equipped to come from behind, so if #SpeedD can force a turnover or two early and the offense capitalizes, this could get ugly in a hurry.

As I said, we’ll dive into Minnesota’s passing game later in the week, including the play action that they’ll do off their effective running game.

In the meantime, I’m going to work on my Nate Wozniak tribute supercut.