Game Preview: Music City Bowl

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For Virginia fans longing for the days of a dominating, power-running game led by the likes of Elton Brown and Zac Yarbrough, you’re in luck because that’s what you can expect to see Friday in Nashville at the Music City Bowl. Oh, you thought I was talking about the Cavaliers? I meant the dominating, power-running game of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Minnesota is not coy about how it attacks. The Gophers will pull All-American center Greg Eslinger and left guard Mark Setterstrom to pave the way on the run side, then leave it up to All-American tailback Laurence Maroney and understudy Gary Russell to do the rest. Replace Eslinger and Setterstrom with Yarbrough and Brown and the 2005 Gopher rushing attack looks a lot like the 2004 Cavalier attack.

And like the 2004 Cavaliers, the Gophers run the ball extremely well. We’ll provide some crafty analysis (some call it raw speculation) but in the end, this contest comes down to one thing: can Virginia stop the Minnesota ground game?

Minnesota offense vs. UVa defense

While it’s certainly accurate to say the Gophers have a ball-control offense, nine of their scoring drives this season have been three plays or fewer, and they have scored on 24 plays of 35 yards or more (16 passes, 8 runs). It’s a ball-control offense with big-play capability.

Virginia defenders will get a heavy dose of Maroney with plenty from the backups, Russell and Amir Pinnix. Russell brings an element of toughness to the running game that Maroney lacks. While no one disputes that Maroney is a great back, he is not the best back to call on when you need two yards right up the middle.

The key to slowing Maroney is to not let him get to the perimeter. Virginia must force the play back into the defense where not only the linebackers but the safeties must be involved. When Virginia is successful at routing Maroney back to the inside, the inside-outside pursuit must be effective and the off-side and play-side linebackers have to be able to move and not get caught up in the movement.

Look for Minnesota to try and hook the end man on the line of scrimmage and take the play outside. If the Gophers can’t hook the end defender, they will kick out and turn the play inside.

The Gophers are more of a lateral running team and the line is very quick to the outside. Minnesota will line up in its two-tight end, single-back set, read the defense and then decide which gap to attack. If Virginia over-shifts to one side, the Gophers will run to the other. They will pick how they are going to block based on the play they are running.

Minnesota attacks the defensive front using cut blocks similar to what Virginia fans will remember from Wake Forest. Dealing with cut blocks effectively requires the Virginia defenders to play with their hands and move down the line of scrimmage to avoid the cutting. Getting off blocks and good lateral movement will help deal with the Gopher blocking technique.

Minnesota’s advantage on the offensive line has never been predicated on a size advantage. The Gophers do an excellent great job schematically and from a technique point of view with their zone blocking. The interior line moves well to the perimeter and often dominates much bigger defensive fronts. The ability of the interior linemen to get in front of a running back and pull has been vital to the Gophers’ running success under head coach Glen Mason. They have mastered the cut block and are able to get defenders off their feet quickly. The backs have a keen understanding of being patient at the point, knowing that the blockers are there. Minnesota can run equally well to the short or wide side of the field so Virginia will need to play solid in the gaps and cutback lanes.

There is good continuity as all five linemen have started each of the last 10 games, compared to Virginia, which has seen just one offensive lineman start every contest in 2005. But the key to the Gopher success is their familiarity with the system and the techniques they employ and the personnel they put on the field.

The success up front begins with Eslinger, the 2005 Outland Trophy (nation’s top interior lineman) and Dave Rimington Trophy (nation’s top center) recipient, and Setterstrom, a second-team All-American. Those two have been fixtures on the Minnesota offensive line for the last four seasons.

Eslinger is a rugged lineman with good athleticism and quickness at the position. He’s intelligent and a great blocking technician. But Eslinger can be pushed around, lacking the pure bulk and strength to dominate at the point of attack, and often loses out to the bigger, stronger tackles. The return of a very physical player in Ron Darden makes this a winnable matchup for the ‘Hoos. Darden’s job will be to tie up Eslinger at the line of scrimmage and keep him from getting out on the linebackers or safeties on the stretch play.

As we’ve noted, the Gophers love to run Maroney off tackle and horizontally stretch an opponent’s defense. But they will also line up in multiple formations and run several reverses and fakes to try and keep the Virginia defense from keying on a single back or play.

If Virginia goes into bend-but-don’t-break mode and has success shutting down Minnesota’s running attack, look for the Gophers to move from their two-tight end, two-wide receiver formation and move to a three-wideout spread formation to try and widen the gaps by formation at the point of attack. The ‘Hoos could respond with more run blitzes but that would leave them vulnerable to a big play with inexperienced safeties trying to handle difficult-to-tackle running backs one-on-one if they get past the line of scrimmage.

Stopping Minnesota starts with stopping the run. If the Cavs don’t stop the run, they won’t need to worry about limiting the other aspects of the Gopher offense because they won’t see it.

Look for a 65-to-35 run-to-pass ratio, but don’t be shocked if the Gophers try to throw the ball early. Minnesota is surprisingly efficient for a team that runs the football so well as evidenced by its 8.2 yards per pass average. The Gopher passing game is much improved and has made them a multi-dimensional offense.

The receivers are big, physical players. Ernie Wheelwright quietly has become one of the top wide receivers in the Big Ten. He’s big (6-5, 215), with 4.5 40-yard speed and possesses a great pair of hands. Minnesota has three solid wide receivers in Wheelwright, Jared Ellison and Logan Payne. Payne is the Golden Gophers’ leading receiver this season with 37 catches for 529 yards.

Quarterback Bryan Cupito has decent speed but is not a threat to run. He is a very mechanical quarterback. He has to be set in the proper position in order to deliver the ball so don’t look for Cupito to do a lot of damage with his feet.

The receivers run a lot of deep out-cuts, post patterns and go routes down the sidelines off play-action to the backs. But the Gophers also are running more screens, bubble screens, and short passes this season looking for the receivers to make plays after the catch. Cupito is fairly accurate with the short, ball-control passing game but not as consistent with the deep ball.

The Gophers have been running on everyone all year long and while they might come out with some new wrinkles in the passing game, why change? Few teams have slowed, much less stopped, their running attack this season and there’s no reason to believe the Cavaliers can. Passing takes them away from what they do so exceptionally well and I’m just not sure it makes sense to do so. I do expect Minnesota to take some shots deep, especially on the side opposite Marcus Hamilton.

If the Gophers struggle to get outside, I do look for them to run right at Kai Parham, making Virginia’s best defensive player the emphasis of the attack and not leaving him free for pursuit.

The Cavaliers have two approaches they can deploy against Minnesota. Play bend-but-don’t-break and try and stop the Gophers in the red zone, or sell out completely to stop the run. I think the Cavaliers need to commit to stopping the run. The Gophers, despite some numbers that suggest otherwise, are not a passing team and not comfortable when doing it as a staple of the offense. When the passing game is a supplement to an effective running game, it’s highly productive. When it becomes the option because of being behind by two touchdowns, it’s awkward and inefficient.

Awkward and inefficient sounds easier to defend than highly productive.

UVa offense vs. Minnesota defense

Defensively, the Gophers run a base 4-3 with a Cover-2 but will go almost exclusively with man-to-man coverage in the secondary against three- and four-wide receiver sets. They are a pretty sound, solid defense in design. The Gophers don’t get cute on defense. They don’t do a lot of blitzing, but they will come occasionally.

The defensive line has been a question all season. The Gophers are big and physical on the interior, led by tackles Anthony Montgomery and Mark Losli, but have difficulty against the run. Minnesota ranks 71st in the nation in run defense. Montgomery and Losli have been consistent contributors but not spectacular players. The Gophers run a four-man rotation at end that includes freshman All-American Stephen Davis.

Though not a huge blitzing team, Minnesota is fairly aggressive defensively, especially the safeties, but typically gets very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks (14 sacks in 11 games). The linebackers are active but not exceptionally fast and have proven vulnerable to perimeter rushing attacks. Trumaine Banks and Jamal Harris are physical cornerbacks that like to jam receivers off their routes. Virginia will probably use motion to help the receivers break free and look for the backs and tight ends to see some time wide to create some mismatch issues for the Gophers defenders.

Against a defense that is giving up over 400 yards and 27 points per game, playing a chain-moving, ball-control style of offense in an effort to keep the Minnesota offense off the field may look like the prudent plan.

But I think an assertive offensive style is the way to go. Certainly the Cavaliers want to keep their defense off the field, but winning a game of bend-but-don’t-break defensive attrition is unlikely. That means the Virginia offense must do what four other victorious teams have done against the Gophers – score 34 or more points, something Virginia has done only twice this season.

Virginia’s offensive line must sustain its blocks up front in order to get Wali Lundy and Jason Snelling into the secondary. I like the matchup with Snelling on both the Minnesota linebackers and secondary. They have yet to face a fullback this season with the versatility of Snelling.

I believe the Gophers are vulnerable to an aggressive vertical passing attack, especially when combined with a mobile quarterback such as Marques Hagans. I like a lot of motion after the snap, including bootlegging off play-action fakes and giving Hagans a lot of run-pass option. I think it’s also critical for the ‘Hoos to challenge Minnesota deep early. Getting the Gophers honed in on the passing game will open the Virginia running attack and keep the safeties out of run support.

If the Wahoos can come out and establish the mid-to-long range vertical passing game, they have a very good chance to beat Minnesota. The Gophers have long been susceptible to mobile quarterbacks and deep passing attacks. When Minnesota moves into its man coverage, look for the Cavalier offense to try and exploit that by placing Deyon Williams , Maurice Covington or one of the tight ends in the slot and force free safety John Pawielski into one-on-one coverage. Pawielski may be the top run defender on the Minnesota defense, so requiring him to wait an extra second or two with pass-coverage responsibilities could open the middle of the defense for the run game.

The Minnesota pass defense has appeared over-matched against the better passing teams it has faced the last two seasons. The Gophers do not appear to have the athletes to match up with superior receivers. They are going to play man-to-man principles in the secondary, even when in zone coverage. Virginia must take advantage of that. The UVa receivers are good enough and fast enough, the seam passing attack to the tight end and slot receiver is well suited to attack the Minnesota secondary, and there are holes here that can be exploited.

Minnesota has been susceptible to the run and Virginia will likely have some success running the backs, especially to the edge. The stretch run play is an option but I really like the off-tackle cutbacks Virginia ran against Miami off the stretch play. A good rotation of both should provide decent production against the Gophers. Also look for Minnesota to see plenty of Virginia’s best runner, Hagans, off the edge. The run-pass option plays will be a frequent call of Mike Groh and the Virginia offense on Friday. Do not be surprised if Hagans has a big day toting the pigskin.

Special Teams

Minnesota is better in the punt and punt return game, while the ‘Hoos are better in kick return and kickoff coverage. Add the place-kicking element to the mix and Connor Hughes gives the Cavaliers a slight advantage in the special teams department. This is an element of the game that could decide the outcome. Neither team has produced an abundance of big special teams plays this season and maybe one of them is due.

Who has The Edge?

Quarterbacks: Virginia

Running Backs: Minnesota

Offensive Line: Minnesota

Receivers & Tight Ends: Even

Defensive Line: Minnesota

Linebackers: Even

Secondary: Minnesota

Special Teams: Virginia

Coaching: Minnesota

Absolutes and Desirables

Absolutes are things UVa must do in the game. Desirables are things we’d like to see from the Cavaliers.

Absolutes

1) No YACs, please (yards after contact) – A key to handling the Minnesota backs and receivers is to limit yards after contact with sure tackling and gang tackling. The success of the short Gopher passing game is based in large part on receivers breaking tackles. The Wahoos can’t let Maroney get a head of steam and that means 6-7 players to the ball and sure stops at the point of attack. He’s had rushing scores of 93, 73 and 67 yards this season, so there are obvious consequences to not getting the Minnesota tailback to the ground.

2) Defend the force – Al Groh refers to the area outside of the tackles as the force and the Gophers are exceptional when allowed to get to the outside. Virginia’s defensive ends, outside linebackers and cornerbacks will need to quickly recognize run, get to the ball and be sure with their tackling – force every thing inside back to Parham. Mike Brown and Chris Gorham were manhandled by the Virginia Tech offensive line on the edge and the Minnesota group is better. The Gophers have seen the film. Virginia’s two young corners need to step up and make tackles when required and Jermaine Dias and Mark Miller need to have a productive day.

3) Fast start – When you look at the Gophers, the key to winning is to get out in front and force Minnesota to throw the football. They don’t want to throw the football – they want to run the football and eat up clock. Jumping out to a big lead makes slowing the running game an easier task. Plus, teams that have defeated the Gophers have had to score 30-35 points. The key to a fast start is to change play-calling tendencies, give Minnesota lots of different looks and aggressively attack the weakness of the Gopher defense, which is the mid-range seam and the outside. Even if that means Virginia’s famous stretch play. The Gophers are 1-4 this season when the opponent scores first and that is why jumping out early and being aggressive is essential.

Desirables

1) Sell out on the run – When I say sell out, I mean essentially forget the passing game. This is a game that requires assignment football. That means maintaining containment (especially Chris Long ), managing gap responsibilities and sure tackling. The ‘Hoos must attack the Gopher running attack with blitzes, force the running plays inside while eliminating cutback opportunities. It means bringing the safeties in the box and make Cupito prove he can win the game with his arm.

2) Force the Gophers into long yardage – As we have noted, the Gophers are comfortable passing the ball when their running game is effective. Virginia needs to limit the effectiveness of the Minnesota attack on first down and force the Gophers into second- and third-and-long. The Gophers are converting 53% of their third-down attempts but they rarely find themselves in anything but third and short. Make Minnesota throw because it has to, not because it wants to.

3) Sustained, time-consuming TD SCORING drives – I’m not talking ball control necessarily, I’m talking about consistently moving the football. That means good production on first down and excellent third-down efficiency. That means end every drive with a score. Take some fourth-down shots. Don’t get caught in a play-calling rut and don’t just rely on the script. If it’s working, use it. If not, shelve it. Give Hagans a chance to see if he can beat the defense with his legs. But don’t turn the ball over and give the Gophers a short field and diligently try securing at least three first downs on every drive.

Predictions

Greg: With all of the turmoil surrounding the Virginia program with coaches departing and players concerned with bowls other than the Music City, on paper the Gophers are a clear favorite. They run the ball exceptionally well and Virginia has had plenty of trouble this season with teams that run the ball well.


But the intangibles favor Virginia. First, the Cavaliers are thrilled to be playing in Nashville, even if the fans aren’t. The Gophers are about as happy to be “relegated” to playing the eighth bowl team from the ACC, and playing in this bowl game for the third time in four years, as the Wahoos were to be traveling to Boise last season.


Groh and what’s left of his coaching staff have always performed well in difficult situations. I have a hunch they will do so again, so if you’re placing a wager on this one, take the over and the underdog.

Virginia 35, Minnesota 31

John: Let’s face it. This season has been like a bad country song for the Cavaliers, so it seems only fitting that they end it in Nashville, the Country Music Capitol.

After all, their defense left them in College Park. Their offense left them in Chapel Hill. Their pride left them against Virginia Tech. Their coordinators left them this month. What’s next? Their wife and their dog?

I’m kidding…or at least half-kidding. To their credit, the Cavs did show some heart following the Hokie loss and I won’t be surprised if they put forth enough effort to win Friday’s game. I also don’t think the absence of the coordinators will make a major difference in the team’s preparation.

But I just don’t like this matchup. How can Virginia contain Minnesota’s running game without Ahmad Brooks , Tony Franklin and Nate Lyles ? I don’t think they will, so I expect the ‘Hoos to leave the Music City (and 2005) on the same note they’ve sounded all season – a flat one.

Minnesota 31, Virginia 20

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