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Fleck’s oars are starting to break the ice

Minnesota may have found some foundational pieces to their program in a near-comeback against Michigan State.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t be fooled by Minnesota’s 3-3 start in Big 10 play, P.J. Fleck’s team has found their grip on the oars and are likely to start making waves this year with 2018 as a season of likely breakthrough for the Gopher program. While all eyes have been on Nebraska and their next step at head coach, or on Purdue and their exciting new system, it’s Fleck’s Minnesota program that is truly poised to be the main contender to Wisconsin in the Big 10 West for the foreseeable future.

The main reason for Minnesota’s lack of big time success has generally been more about their own investment and leadership in the program rather than major disadvantages in the region. Minnesota is only the fourth largest state in the Big 10 West by population and has never been known for cranking out tons of players. However the three larger states are Illinois, who’s talent is typically poached by Notre Dame and other big eastern programs, Indiana, who also has Notre Dame and two other Big 10 schools within the state, and then Wisconsin who is the strongest program in the division. Like the Badgers, the Gophers are quietly sitting on a fairly large bed of talent and are the only major university within the state to contend for it.

The investment side of things was solved when the Gophers built a $170 million dollar new facility and offered Fleck a major contract with funding for assistant staff. Fleck himself solves for the leadership and coaching angle that was missing before and after Jerry Kill’s tenure.

In their last game out, Minnesota was down 17-6 in the second quarter against Michigan State and made what’s likely to be a fateful move by inserting freshman quarterback Demry Croft in. What followed was the first glimpse of a Minnesota team that is going to be a major handful in years to come.

The missing pieces in Minnesota

Fleck’s offense is a fairly standard spread-option scheme designed to ensure favorable numbers and angles to run the ball as the underpinning of the strategy. They chewed a lot of opponents up at Western Michigan last year running the ball with zone blocking schemes and then quick pass options attached if teams didn’t respect their athleticism on the perimeter.

When teams manned up their receivers and kept numbers in the box, they’d throw it to eventual #5 overall pick Corey Davis. Their two main backs combined on 427 carries for 2276 yards at 5.3 yards per carry in this system and they rolled until they had to face Wisconsin in the bowl game.

Minnesota’s offense is not yet ready to match those results. Lead backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are averaging 3.7 and 4.5 yards per carry thus far on the year and the Gophers were really struggling to block the Michigan State front or to secure favorable numbers a week ago in Minneapolis last Saturday.

Michigan State was mixing in a fair amount of cover-1 against Minnesota with “money” backer Chris Frey playing over the TE while “star” linebacker Andrew Dowell slid into the box as a free hitter. This play here was fairly instructive on what was going wrong for the Gophers in this game and on the season as a whole. The double teams aren’t moving the tackles off the ball and the passing game isn’t forcing more respect outside.

They went to the same look on the next snap and tried to throw Sparty out of this set to no avail.

All in all, Minnesota was going nowhere against a typical sound and aggressive Spartan defense. So Fleck decided to turn to freshman quarterback Demry Croft.

A bright future in the tundra

Demry Croft has had a checkered history at Minnesota, missing three games for what seemed to have been disciplinary reasons, but the redshirt sophomore is a 6-5, 190 pound athlete who ran a 4.66 at the Nike Sparq event. The Gophers couldn’t block Michigan State particularly well, but with Croft in it didn’t matter as much. His first pass looked like this:

He’s got nowhere to step up in the pocket and Spartans bearing down on him from behind but Croft has the height and the arm strength to flick the ball out to star receiver Tyler Johnson while under duress.

As the game wore on, Croft started to work out the Michigan State defense pretty quickly and began to make plays that portend a bright future for their offense.

On this play Croft saw the bracket coverage on the slot and slides up to throw a hitch to Johnson that’s basically a trust throw. The Spartans are back to playing a lot of press-man coverage outside this season and it requires good timing, accuracy, and overall trust to beat it with throws like this one.

Tyler Johnson has been brilliant this season with 25 catches for 472 yards and six touchdowns on the year and they do a lot to scheme him open. In this game it was simply a matter of having a QB on the field that could find him and get the ball out from under the pressure of the Spartan defense. The Gophers closed the gap late with this touchdown pass from Croft to Johnson:

They motion Tyler Johnson across from the boundary slot the field outside position well wide of the other field receiver. From there Croft sees that the Spartans are in their standard press-quarters scheme with bracket coverage on the slot and then man coverage on Johnson. He’s throwing the ball on the well executed post route before Johnson has even turned to find it.

These are hard tactics to beat and should open up the run game in the future when opponents determine they can’t afford to outnumber the Gophers in the box without getting shredded by Johnson and the passing game.

Croft’s appearance also brought a huge boon to the Gophers in the form of negative plays transformed into positive gains. This is one of the better and more enjoyable scrambles I’ve seen in college football this season:

The threat of the Croft scramble also helped open up even more opportunities to get the ball to the receivers, particularly Tyler Johnson:

This isn’t the stable run game that put Western Michigan on the map but it is a lot of unleashed athleticism that is improvisational and exceedingly difficult to defend. Minnesota has a lot to build around here with Croft and Johnson both due to return next season for their junior campaigns, the line returning many of its key pieces, and the entire program benefitting from another offseason of Fleck’s development and recruiting.