MINNEAPOLIS — In this week’s metaphor, Joe Rossi wears a chef’s hat.
The Gophers defensive coordinator described the contrasts between the option offenses run by Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern like the varying prep necessary to cook, say, lasagna versus chicken parm.
“When we look at it, we’re going to make a different meal and there are different ingredients that go into it,” Rossi said Wednesday.
In the Quick Lane Bowl last December, the Gophers faced a Georgia Tech option that had the quarterback under center, with a running back dive going into a certain gap, then QB and pitch possibilities as following choices.
For Georgia Southern, the Gophers’ opponent at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, the QB is in the pistol formation, with the running back option an inside zone and the chance for QB and pitch moves from that. Other times, they have three running backs in the backfield and will run a speed option without a dive to get to the outside faster.
Georgia Tech’s offense led the nation with an average of 334 rushing yards per game last season, but the Gophers held it to 206 yards in the 34-10 bowl victory. It was the first game after Rossi had the “interim” tag removed from his DC title.
Georgia Southern, of the lower-tier Sun Belt Conference, was seventh in the country in rushing offense (266 yards per game) last season. In a 10-3 season in 2018 and 1-1 start this year, they are a combined 11-0 when rushing for more yards than their opponent and 0-4 when they don’t.
Like those Italian dishes in which pasta, cheese and an oven are some the similarities, the Gophers’ defenders will need to know each individual assignment and be disciplined to follow through.
The Gophers had more than three weeks to prepare for Georgia Tech, and why they didn’t have that chunk of time to scheme for Georgia Southern, they fit it in where they could.
Minnesota worked on the Eagles’ offense during spring practices, a little bit in the summer and carved out days during fall camp. With the South Dakota State season opener falling on a Thursday, they took the extra time the following two days before the Fresno State game to touch on it again before giving it the team’s full attention this week.
“So, we’ve been working on it for a while,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said.
But how good Georgia Southern is in 2019 is hard to nail down. The Eagles got throttled 55-3 by No. 4 Louisiana State in the opener, averaging 1.8 yards per carry. Starting QB Shai Werts was injured in that game in Baton Rouge and did not play in last week’s 26-18 victory over FCS-level Maine, when Georgia Southern rushed for 7.5 yards per carry.
Georgia Southern had 395 rushing yards against Maine, including nine plays of 25 yards or longer. The Eagles also had seven fumbles, but lost only one.
Backup QB Justin Tomlin looked capable with 11 carries for 132 yards, but he had two fumbles and the one lost. He is expected to play again this week with Werts sidelined.
The triple option offense can be a great equalizer. Last Saturday, Army brought its version of it to the Big House to face No. 7 Michigan and nearly produced an upset before falling 24-21 in overtime. Fleck mentioned that scare in his news conference this week.
Rossi and the Gophers appeared to have their hands full with Fresno State’s mobile quarterback Jorge Reyna last week. Reyna was the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with 88 yards on 21 carries in their 31-23 loss to Southern Cal at the Coliseum. He showed himself to be dangerous running the ball and extending plays with his feet before making a longer throw downfield.
But Minnesota held Reyna to one rushing touchdown and minus-19 yards on 11 carries, including four sacks. His longest completion was 25 yards. The Gophers did it, sometimes, with a defender assigned to Reyna or blitzed him while maintaining coverage downfield.
“We condensed the pocket,” Fleck said. “We didn’t give him a lot of lanes to be able to escape through. He had no place to run.”