On Friday night, Indiana fell short against Minnesota, 38-31, in a pivotal game with bowl implications. As close as the final score may seem, the Hoosiers' conservative "bend, don't break" defensive playcalling left them in a 30-9 deficit before a valiant comeback.
Going up against a freshman backup quarterback in Tanner Morgan, the Hoosiers allowed 302 passing yards on the night. The output from Morgan was hard to expect given his inexperience, and looking at the way in which the Gophers passed the ball, the output becomes more intriguing.
Minnesota effectively established its passing game without ever airing it out.
Through simple slant and post routes, the Gophers exploited a major flaw in the Hoosiers' 2018 defensive scheme.
So, it begs the question of what went wrong? According to head coach Tom Allen, Indiana was fully prepared for this style of offense even though it eventually became the Hoosiers' downfall.
"I feel like they kinda got us on our heels," Allen said. "It just felt like they had us, you know hit some of those slant routes of the RPO runs. Obviously, we knew that's what they'd do."
Allen's awareness for how Minnesota planned to attack Indiana is what makes Morgan's output even more of an oddity. On Friday night, the Hoosiers seemingly found themselves offering their opponent opportunities to succeed at its exact strength. On a majority of Minnesota's important passing plays, it seemed easy to figure out who was getting the ball before the play was even snapped.
It all started in the first quarter. Let's take a look:
On Minnesota's fifth offensive play of the game, the Gophers lined up at Indiana's 26-yard line. Minnesota got to this point after two short passing plays quickly brought the team down field.
Set up in the shotgun with three wide receivers on the left side of the field, the Hoosiers begged Morgan to the throw the ball to Chris Autman-Bell on the inside by lining up Jonathan Crawford and Raheem Layne 10 yards deep in coverage. Then, Morgan did exactly that as both Crawford and Layne dropped back in coverage:
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Two drives later, Morgan found himself able to again exploit Indiana's short pass defense on a seven-yard pass to Rashod Bateman. The seven yards came on a third and eight and allowed Minnesota to then convert on fourth down the next play.
Indiana put two safeties deep, four in man coverage, rushed three, and put defensive end Allen Stallings IV on qb-spy duties. On the near-side of the screen, Minnesota took advantage of Stallings sitting in the middle of the defense. Bateman ran across the line of scrimmage. The corner covering him, Layne, had no choice but to run around Indiana's congested defense.
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Three plays later, Morgan knew exactly where to throw the ball before it was snapped. With Crawford again 10-yards deep of the line of scrimmage, Morgan easily completed a 17-yard inside post route to Demetrius Douglas. Douglas had all the room he needed after the fake hand-off on the play drew in Indiana's linebackers.
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On the following play, the Hoosiers continued to play to Minnesota's strength. A'Shon Riggins lined up eight yards beyond the line of scrimmage, clearly in zone coverage. Bateman ran a simple curl route and took the nine yards he was given. In terms of IU's soft coverage Friday night, this is one of the clearest examples:
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Later in the drive on third and seven, Morgan again knew exactly where to go with the ball before the play was snapped. Crawford lined up 11-yards deep of the line of scrimmage with no one else in front of Douglas in the slot. With nobody else covering the slot receiver, Douglas ran a quick curl route and scampered for an 11-yard gain and a first down. Three plays later the Gophers put the ball in the end-zone and took a 14-9 lead in the middle of the second quarter.
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After an Indiana punt on the next drive, Minnesota went right back to what was working. Again the Hoosiers relied on a safety in coverage on the slot receiver. After a fake hand-off, the Gophers successfully took linebacker Cam Jones out of pass coverage, leaving wide receiver Tyler Johnson one-on-one with Indiana safety Juwan Burgess. Since Burgess was lined up 11-yards deep, Johnson had all the room he needed to run a slant route and more. Johnson snagged the quick pass from Morgan at the 12-yard line and then showed off his speed with the extra space getting to Indiana's 45-yard line.
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Six plays later, Minnesota then punctuated that drive to end the first half. This time, the Hoosiers setup in a cover two defense. Indiana's Cam Jones lined up in front of Johnson in the slot. Since Jones was covering a short zone, he didn't make any contact with Johnson within five yards. Johnson faked Jones out with a quick move before breaking into a slant. Morgan then found Johnson between the gap of the cover two. Johnson lastly just had to run by the deep safety Crawford for the 18-yard touchdown. This put the Gophers up 21-9 heading into halftime
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Coming out of halftime, Minnesota then seemed poised to continue its success in the short game. Early into their first drive of the second half, the Gophers faced a third and eight at their own 31. Minnesota's offense lined up in the shotgun with three receivers to the left and one on the nearside. Indiana countered with man coverage on the outside, and once again, Crawford playing 11-yards deep covering the slot receiver. Morgan then faked the hand-off to bring in the linebackers, found Johnson on a post route in the middle of the field, and Minnesota picked up 15-yards.
From there, the Gophers continued their drive until kicking a field goal. Minnesota took a 24-9 lead, and then followed that success on its next drive. The Gophers added another touchdown to take a 31-9 lead and seemingly kill the game with five minutes and 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
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What came next in this game was nearly indescribable chaos. The Gophers fumbled the ball twice, and Morgan threw a bad interception to keep Indiana alive. Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck also seemed to get conservative himself. Focused on running out the clock, the Gophers punted the ball three times and the Hoosiers came back to tie the game with less than two minutes remaining.
Then Minnesota did something they hadn't done all game.
After reaping the benefits of going short on a deep safety all game, Minnesota flipped the script. With Indiana finally prepared for the Gophers tendency, PJ Fleck sent his slot receiver deep.
Indiana sent four to rush the passer. The Hoosier then kept two linebackers in the middle of the field, prepared for any short crossing route. In addition, linebacker Dameon Willis Jr. took quarterback-spy duties. The Hoosiers played with two deep safeties. Burgess lined up 10-yards beyond the slot, awaited a post route inside, and instead got the exact opposite.
"Young guy got beat on a double move," Allen said. "You're supposed to collision it on those double moves and he didn't get any hands on him."
Bateman burst by Burgess and grabbed a 67-yard touchdown to win the game.
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In a game of great importance to Indiana, the Hoosiers looked lost and bewildered by the Run-Pass-Option. Conservative playcalling in response to Minnesota's biggest strength ultimately left the Hoosiers without much of a chance defensively. Now, Indiana must reevaluate its approach during a bye week, heading into three final games in need of two wins to make a bowl.