MINNEAPOLIS – Heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale, the University of Minnesota football program expected to see a heavy workload from freshman running back Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers’ power run game.
Facing a stacked box, it was evident that Minnesota wanted to make Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook win with his arm.
It was a bad gamble.
Utilizing the play action pass, Hornibrook tossed three touchdowns as the fifth-ranked Badgers (12-0) pounded the Gophers (5-7) for 456 yards of total offense in a 31-0 shutout victory at TCF Bank Stadium on Senior Day to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe. It was the second-straight shutout loss for Minnesota and will officially drop the Gophers out of a chance at playing in a bowl game.
“This is unacceptable tonight,” commented Gophers Head Coach P.J. Fleck in his postgame press conference. “Period. The actual performance tonight… unacceptable. There’s no way we’re going to look like that next year.”
The win by Wisconsin also broke the deadlock in the all-time series as the Badgers now hold a 60-59-8 record in a rivalry game that dates back to 1890. It also marks the 14th straight rivalry game against Minnesota for the Badgers.
Taylor runs wild
The Badgers didn’t waste a second in attempting to establish their iconic identity early.
On the game’s opening drive, Taylor took the handoff on a power play 13 yards. In fact, of the potential Heisman candidate’s first eight carries, five involved a pulling guard. As accustomed to being seen with a personnel-heavy offense, the Badgers’ play-action pass game was able to be effective early.
However, the Gophers defense did a good job of limiting the Badgers explosive plays early on. In the first half, Minnesota allowed seven plays that went for 10 or more yards. Three of those seven were runs that went over twenty yards or more. In fact, a pair of runs that went over 20 yards gashed the Gophers on the same drive – that being Wisconsin’s third drive of the second quarter. The drive ultimately ended with a Hornibrook touchdown pass – his second on the afternoon – to give the Badgers a commanding 17-0 lead with 50 seconds left in the half.
After rushing for just 41 yards in the first half, Taylor imposed his will in the second half. He may have locked up a spot in the Heisman Top 5 in the process.
On just eight carries, the 214-pound freshman registered 108 yards in the second half. His 53-yard burst off an outside zone gave the Badgers a commanding 31-0 lead.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) November 25, 2017
Even more impressive is that Taylor played sparingly in the fourth quarter. Yet, he averaged an astounding 7.4 yards per carry. Coach Fleck noted that it was a lack of depth that started to get the run game going in the second half for the Badgers.
“We’re not deep enough,” he commented in his postgame press conference. ” We’re not. We don’t have enough deep players to rotate in there and sub people and get the same effectiveness.”
As a team, Wisconsin grounded out 287 rushing yards and had a team average of 7.4 yards a carry.
Blowing out opponents all season thanks to a stifling defense and a lethal rushing attack, there has never been a clear-cut opportunity to see if the Wisconsin sophomore quarterback could beat a team with his arm. It wasn’t a Baker Mayfield 600-yard style of performance, but more so Mark Sanchez (the effective game manager New York Jets version).
What was actually hurting the Gophers was the fact that after their first few drives of displaying a heavy personnel grouping, the Badgers started to operate more out of the spread offense, showing more three-receiver sets out of the shotgun. The easiest way to alleviate that issue is to start operating from the spread and that’s exactly what happened.
There weren’t any complex concepts or routes, but more often than not, a critical gain was made. In fact, the longest completion of the night was a 31-yard catch by Kendric Pryor, which didn’t come until late into the third quarter.
When operating out of the spread, the concept appeared to be a simple flood concept toward the formation strength with a short to intermediate slant on the backside. It didn’t take long to figure out that despite having a potential matchup to the strength, he was going to go to the backside receiver who was dealing with man coverage.
It was almost the same when running play action. Hornibrook didn’t gamble with much of his throw, settling for taking what the Gophers defense was giving him, which usually was the fullback or wing out in the flat for a short gain. However, there were a few times he managed to catch the Gophers secondary sleeping just enough to connect for a big play. All of Hornibrooks’ touchdowns came off a heavy personnel play action.
Troy Fumagalli ✔️
Kyle Penniston… ✔️
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) November 25, 2017
The sophomore would finish the game with a respectable 15-for-19 for 151 yards and three scores.
Gophers offense non-existent
Just a week removed from a 39-0 shutout loss to No. 22 Northwestern, the Gophers offense followed up with an abysmal finish to the season.
Minnesota simply couldn’t get anything going offensively. In 48 offensive plays, the Gophers offense mustered only 133 yards of total offense. To make matters worse, the theme of “one step forward, two steps back” for the aerial attack peeked its head around the corner once again.
Unlike last week’s loss where sophomore quarterback Demry Croft opened the drive with a 36-yard pass, the mindset appeared to be all about establishing the line of scrimmage in the run game. Croft had nine attempts in the game and completed just three passes for 40 yards. Granted, he also didn’t have fellow sophomore Tyler Johnson as a receiving threat and had a pair of drops in the first half by his receivers. In fact, running back Rodney Smith was the team’s leading receiver.
“We had three receivers with catches,” Coach Fleck added. ” You’re not going to win a football that way.”
The appearance of trying to establish a running game didn’t really go anywhere either. Despite bringing back the read option, the Badgers defense was simply too fast and more importantly, too disciplined in their technique to allow any chance for a read to create any momentum on the ground. The Gophers rushed for 93 yards with Smith leading the way with 80 yards on 16 carries. Even more troubling is the offense was 3-of-13 on third down conversions and averaged a mere 2.8 yards a play.
With the roller coaster first season now officially past, Coach Fleck’s focus has turned to recruiting. It was reported earlier in the week that he and his staff will be hitting the trail to try and wrap up the 2018 recruiting class by Dec. 20. However, despite only winning five games in his first year, the always energetic Fleck gave fans a sign of promise.
“We are exactly where we are,” he commented. “That’s the reality. Whether people want to ignore that or talk about years past, we are exactly where we are. And I’m hired to fix it. And we’ll fix it.”
Prior to the contest, 16 seniors and four redshirt juniors were honored on Senior Day. Coach Fleck stated in his postgame presser that he was thankful for everything they have done for the program, the university, the fans and the community during their time and that they have been through a lot.
“That group has been through a lot,” he said. “Three coaching changes, a lot of adversity and for that group to stick around they have. It’s unfortunate that we cannot extend the season for them.”
The Gophers finish 5-7 overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten in Coach Fleck’s first year as head coach.
- Josh Zimmer is the Lead NFL Draft analyst for NGSC Sports as well as serving as a contributor for NHL coverage.
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