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Coach’s Corner: Scouting Minnesota’s Passing Attack

Northwestern v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Last week we broke down the bread and butter of the Minnesota offense, the zone power run. This week we’ll take a look at the other half of their offense, the passing game. As you can imagine with as much as they rely on their run game, their play action series is a big part of their offense, so we’ll break down a couple examples there. We’ll also take a peek at a variation of the bubble screen they run. And we’ll look at their straight-drop passing game which, unexpectedly and surprisingly, uses some concepts with which we should be familiar. Let’s jump right in.

GIF work done by Something Snazzy.

Play #1 - H-Trips Left Open Pistol 923 Verticals

A quick note on play terminology - it’s my best guess. Passing game terminology, much more so than that of the running game, tends to be scheme-specific. So the play verbiage will essentially be what it looks like to me.

On that note, this one is easy. Play action (9) off the 23 Zone look, hence 923. All three receivers run a vertical route.

Minnesota Offensive Formation

20 Personnel - H-Trips Left Open Pistol

The H-back will stay in and block on this one, and they’ll pull the left guard to cover the backside of the formation in pass protection, as well as influence the two linebackers.

Penn State Defensive Front

Nickel Personnel - 42 Base Safety Crash Cover 3

Penn State brings a safety down in the box here, and he slow plays the run fake, reading the play as a pass and dropping into coverage. If the play had been a run, he would have filled hard to strong side.

923 Verticals

The running back shows an inside zone look to the left, then releases out to the flat. His primary role is to sell the run fake and hold the linebackers, as well as the safety that has crashed down to linebacker level. His flat route also holds the nickelback in the flat, preventing him from dropping to cover the vertical by the slot receiver. To the bottom of the screen, it’s a simple vertical route with inside leverage. What makes the play work is the pull action by the guard. The linebackers flow hard to what they think is a run read, opening up the seam behind them and in front of the safety, who is rotating to the middle of the field to cover deep third.

Play #2 - Open Left Twins Pistol Rip 923 X-Out

In their play action game, the Gophers like to isolate one defender by formation. On this play they line up in a 2x2 formation, but motion into 3x1. Combined with the play action, it puts the single side flat defender in a bind.

Minnesota Offensive Formation

20 Personnel - Open Left Twins Pistol

Open puts the H-Back on the left side, Twins calls for a second receiver instead of the tight end (or flexes the tight end wide). Rip is the call for the H-back’s motion across the formation.

Penn State Defensive Front

Nickel Personnel - 42 Base Nickel Fire Safety Heat Cover 2

Penn State got exotic here. Nickelback and safety on that side both blitz, and a defensive end drops into coverage.

923 X-Out

The play action holds the dropping defensive end. Because of the blitz on the trips side, the corner is dropping deep. So the play action creates a hole along the sideline between the two defenders. Leidner delivers on time to beat the blitz, and Minnesota is just shy of a first down. Solid execution here.

Play #3 - Open Left Twins Bubble

Minnesota runs an interesting version of a bubble screen.

Minnesota Offensive Formation

20 Personnel - Open Left Twins

Penn State Defensive Front

Nickel Personnel - 42 Wide Cover 2


In the usual bubble screen, the slot receiver either runs or backpedals toward the sideline, bubbling back slightly to create depth. It’s a quick throw by the QB, preferably in front of the receiver so he can catch and run upfield. One of the issues with the bubble is that it’s a little bit of an awkward angle on the throw. Minnesota has smoothed out that wrinkle by having their receiver take a couple steps upfield before turning and backpedaling to the sideline. It also has the added benefit of causing the secondary on that side to get less of a jump on the bubble, because they’re seeing a release upfield first instead of straight to the sideline. It’s a nice little tweak and, frankly, I might steal it.

Play #4 - H-Trips Left Open Rip Y-Shallow F-Wheel

Yep, Minnesota runs the Shallow concept, just like we do. The Air Raid staple has made its way to even the most B1G of B1G teams.

Minnesota Offensive Formation

20 Personnel - H-Trips Left Open Rip

Minnesota motions the H-back across the formation to go 2x2.

Penn State Defensive Front

Nickel Personnel - 42 Base Nickel Fire Mike Twist Cover 2

Similar to the blitz in Play #2, the defensive end away from the blitz will drop into the flat.

Y-Shallow F-Wheel

The four receivers from top to bottom run Post, Shallow, In, Vertical. The running back wheels out of the backfield. Generally the back wheels to the opposite side of the Shallow, but it works to the same side here as he helps clear out the flat defender for the Shallow to slip underneath.

Minnesota also runs a variation of Mesh where, instead of a Post and Out by the outside receivers, they’ll run a deep In by one receiver and have the other trail one of the Meshers and then sit right behind the Mesh point. So the two Meshers clear out the linebackers from the Hook/Curl zones and the trailing receiver sits in the vacated hole. It’s a pretty clever twist on the Air Raid hallmark play.

Now you’re up to speed on some of Minnesota’s offensive keys, and should have an idea of what to look for tomorrow night in San Diego. Here’s to a Cougar victory and ringing in the New Year like it’s 2003 all over again.

Go Cougs.