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Film Room: What Northwestern can learn from the defense that beat Minnesota

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We can be pretty confident that the Wildcat offense isn’t going to push them over the top!

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Just a week ago, Minnesota was the talk of college football. Their 31-26 win over an undefeated and fourth-ranked Penn State team was the program’s biggest win in the modern era, and the 9-0 Gophers were a legitimate CFP contender.

Then reality came. Minnesota lost 23-19 in Kinnick Stadium against the Iowa Hawkeyes last Saturday, further promoting the idea that a trip to Iowa is every contender’s worst nightmare. Before last week, the Gophers posted at least 28 points in every single game this season. As Northwestern learned in their shutout loss to them, Iowa’s defense is top-notch, and it was their performance that halted Minnesota’s dreams.

If Northwestern has any chance this week, they need their defense to play like the unit that frustrated Tanner Morgan and company, and the only way to do that is by taking a closer look at how the Hawkeyes schemed things up.

Let’s get into the film!


Any devoted football fan is well aware of the RPO and how popular it is in modern football. After re-watching this game, I’d safely guess that Minnesota ran some version of an RPO on 70% of their plays. The quick and simple reads allow them to get the ball to one of their two dynamic receivers, Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, across the middle of the field, and have helped transform Tanner Morgan from a slightly below average quarterback into one that might earn All-Big 10 team honors.

However, Morgan still has limitations. He’s only 6’2”, meaning it’s not too difficult for defenders to bat down his passes (especially important in an RPO/quick slant system), and that certainly was the case against the Hawkeyes. This clip right here was the second of consecutive plays in which Minnesota ran an RPO that got deflected at the line of scrimmage.

Middle linebacker Kristian Welch does an excellent job recognizing that Morgan’s eyes are locked on that incoming slant across the middle of the field. Welch barely jumped and he still did more than enough to disrupt the pass.

Minnesota is one of the best red zone offenses in the country, scoring a touchdown on 90.3% of their trips inside the 20 yard line this season. However, three of their eight non-touchdown possessions in such settings came this Saturday against the Hawkeyes.

Here, they went to that same RPO again, and Morgan could not loft it over Chauncey Golston, whose impressive skill we have covered in this space before.

Notice how Golston doesn’t get overly concerned about being initially stuffed by the offensive lineman. Most college ends would needlessly keep wrestling with the big guy, trying to get to the quarterback without thinking about the play. Golston keeps his head up, recognizes that the pass will soon be coming in his direction and makes a crucial play for the Hawkeyes.

Joe Gaziano and co. should look at the way Golston and the rest of the Iowa line played. It’s understandable that he’ll be eager to get that record-breaking sack on his senior day, but he’d be better served to play with caution in the early quarters of the contest, and if the young players across from him can follow suit, Northwestern can take some inspiration from the Hawkeyes.

Getting too aggressive will almost certainly work against NU’s d-line, as the quick-hitting nature of the RPO makes getting sacks a difficult endeavor. If you stay patient against the RPO game, the sacks will come eventually, as we’ll see later on with Iowa’s star lineman A.J. Epenesa.

It’s also important to stay patient because of how dangerous Minnesota can be when they get the RPO going vertical, mainly off of sluggo routes. It’s hard to tell from those first two clips, but Morgan can absolutely sling it. Check out these two ropes he tossed to Tyler Johnson on these longer-developing fake handoffs.

Northwestern fans better hope that Travis Whillock and J.R. Pace studied these two plays. Morgan held that fake for so long that it absolutely froze the Iowa safeties, and the moment he saw their momentum going forward, he took that rhythm step backward and launched a missile over their heads.

In this shot you can see the safety already trying to reverse directions after lurching too far forward, but Johnson is in a full sprint already, and it’s an easy Gopher touchdown.

There were a lot of Morgan pass plays to go through in writing this article, which is unusual considering Minnesota’s preferred style of play. The Gophers rank 15th nationally in total rushing attempts according to cfbstats.com, yet against Iowa they only ran 24 designed run plays compared to 38 passing attempts and six sacks they suffered while trying to throw.

Most of them came off of that elongated RPO play, almost always designed for the running back to break it to the edges rather than down the middle.

I’m skeptical that Northwestern can replicate the success the Iowa defense had against these plays. It wasn’t really anything tactical. If you look at the play you can see the safeties lurching forward, similar to what they did on the RPOs where they got burned. It just happened that they guessed correctly this time and were assisted by the efforts of Golston (I need to start my own Golston fan page real soon).

Their success was more of a testament to the talent on the Iowa defense, particularly in the front seven. He doesn’t make the tackle on this next play, but the speed with which Epenesa bursts off the line immediately eliminates any chance that running back Rodney Smith had to cut this back, and he’s forced into a pile of swarming bodies.

Minnesota’s offensive line is usually solid in the run game, owing mostly to how abnormally large each of the five men up front are. But as you can see in the picture below, the poor 325-pound lineman was still in his stance by the time Epenesa had flown past him. It was actually kind of sad how helpless he looked.

Iowa was, for the most part, very patient and kept the Minnesota offense under control in order for their offense to build that huge lead. That then forced the Gophers to go pass-heavy, and in turn the Hawkeyes began racking up the sacks that they had waited patiently for.

I know saying blindside sacks are a problem isn’t rocket science, but it was very noticeable in this game, with almost every sack coming from the specific direction Morgan was turned away from. It stems from that RPO game again, as he fully turns his hips to the sideline in order to be in line with the receiver he’s about to throw to.

As the game wore on, he became more eager to hit deep shots off this, often throwing in a Tua Tagovailoa-like shoulder fake before letting if fly. This gave the Iowa defenders all the time they needed to create havoc in the backfield.

After being patient early, Epenesa finished with 2.5 sacks on the game, including that absolute beauty you just saw. The ‘Cats desperately need Gaziano to have that kind of performance on Saturday if they want any chance to win.

Overall, Northwestern can definitely replicate some of the principles Iowa used against the Gophers, particularly their patience and discipline that forced Minny out of their comfort zone, but there’s one other thing needed that I’m confident the Wildcats won’t get: An early lead.

Iowa’s offense was practically perfect to start the game, scoring on their first three drives and taking a 20-3 lead. From there, the defense just had to limit the damage in order to preserve the lead, and they did exactly that. Minnesota is at their best when they’re up and pounding the run game, but faced with such a large deficit, they had to get away from their identity.

The sneaky truth I took away from this game was that Minnesota is still a much better team than Iowa. Their offense looked explosive all day and they dominated the game after the first quarter and half. If not for the field goal and extra point misses by their kicker, as well as an uncharacteristic drop by Johnson on a crucial fourth down attempt, Northwestern would be playing a 10-0 team this week.

But that’s not what happened. Iowa’s offense got the lead that allowed their defense to win the game. Northwestern has only scored first in two games all season (against UNLV and Purdue), and I doubt that changes on Saturday.

A stout, smart defense is the recipe for beating Minnesota, but that recipe also asks for a pinch of offense, something the Wildcats likely won’t be able to supply.