Football team to work on screen pass protection

Aaron Blake

Minnesota football defensive tackle Darrell Reid found himself looking back on several occasions on Friday.

The junior saw numerous screen passes lofted over his defensive line and into the hands of Michigan tailback Chris Perry. Perry racked up 122 yards receiving on 11 screen passes, and the 25th-ranked Gophers (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) appeared helpless to stop him as the Wolverines recovered from a 28-7 deficit to win 38-35.

But looking back is something Reid and his teammates are trying not to do as they prepare for No. 15 Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) on Saturday at the Metrodome.

“We looked at the film, and it’s something you’ve got to learn from,” Reid said. “But you’ve got to put it in the past. We’ve still got a lot of games left to play, and we’ve still got a chance of achieving our goal of going to the Rose Bowl.”

Senior safety Eli Ward said the players weren’t quite prepared for the screen pass on Friday because they didn’t focus on it in practice the week before. He said Minnesota coaches dissected the screen pass piece-by-piece on Sunday, making sure the players knew their assignments.

But no matter how much the team works on how to defend the play, all involved agree that successfully containing the screen pass is a matter of instinct.

“You need to recognize it, first and foremost,” Ward said. “Because if you don’t see it fast enough, they’ll have three or four offensive linemen out in front of the running back, and you’ll be outnumbered.”

On Friday, Perry often found himself with a group of blockers and 10 or 15 yards of open field in front of him.

Reid said the defense must recognize the offensive line’s blocking schemes and notice when the pass rush becomes just a little bit too easy.

Once the defensive line over-commits and gets too far into the backfield, the pass receiver is left with fewer defenders to beat and more open field.

The Gophers’ inability to contain the screen pass is cause for some concern for players and coaches. More disheartening might be the fact that the Wolverines overcame such a deficit by using a play the Gophers just couldn’t seem to figure out.

“They’re kids; they’re sad,” defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. “Heck, my 8-year-old cries after a loss. You still feel that way – even when you’re in college. So they’re sad, but they saw how they stood up against the winningest program (in NCAA history) and went toe-to-toe with them for many rounds of that fight.”

Specifically, three of the four rounds, or quarters, were overwhelmingly successful for the Gophers.

Through the third quarter, Michigan was held to 258 yards of total offense and seven points. The Wolverines scored a final round knockout by racking up 225 yards and 31 points in the fourth quarter alone.

In that fourth quarter, they went to Perry with seven screen passes. Six of the catches went for first downs, one went for a touchdown, and the game-winning drive was sustained by an 11-yard gain on a third-and-nine screen pass.

But Hudson and team leaders like Reid and Ward want to put all that behind them, and focus on what they did right in those first three rounds. They’ll need a similar performance to shut down the Big Ten’s second-leading pass offense led by quarterback Jeff Smoker on Saturday.

“We’re not looking back at Michigan,” Ward said. “We’ve closed the book on that. That’s one loss. What’s done is done, and we can’t go back and change it. Our coaches are just making sure we’re looking forward and not backward.”

But Hudson also acknowledged that teams might try to exploit the weaknesses exposed in the final stanza Friday.

The Spartans are a pass-oriented team that is sure to look for those holes in the defense. When they look at the game film from Friday, the holes will jump out at them from behind the line of scrimmage and near the sideline – where first downs were born for the Wolverines.

Hudson will hardly be surprised if the Spartans try to emulate something they see on that film.

“Well,” he said, starting to laugh. “I would think we’re going to see the screen.”