The defense deserves the bulk of the credit for Minnesota posting its second best record of the PJ Fleck era in 2021 (9-4, 6-3 Big Ten). After all, the Gophers held 10 of their final 11 opponents under 25 points — and 2 of those to single-digits.

RELATED: Better or worse? Previewing Minnesota’s offense in 2022

After ceding 45 points to Ohio State to open the season, Minnesota became downright stingy. It surrendered only 15.0 ppg the rest of the way, shutting out Colorado in Week 3 and holding West Virginia to 6 points in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

The Gophers finished last year ranked as the Big Ten’s No. 2 team in total defense (278.8 ypg), pass defense (181.2 ypg) and run defense (97.54 ypg). They also tied Penn State for 2nd in the league and 6th in the country in scoring defense (17.3 ppg).

If you want to quibble, they did wind up 10th in the B1G in sacks (25) and tied for 9th in interceptions (8).

Bottom line, though, despite a dearth of momentum-swinging plays, the Gophers’ defense didn’t give up much to opponents. And with plenty of returning talent, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is primed to produce another top unit.

Can Minnesota repeat, or even surpass, last year’s effort? This episode of better or worse aims to answer that question.

Pressuring the QB: Worse

Defensive linemen Thomas Rush, Trill Carter and Jah Joyner, along with defensive back Tyler Nubin, are the only returning players who got to the quarterback last year. They combined for 8.5 sacks. With Boye Mafe (7 sacks) and others having moved on, Minnesota lost two-third of its sacks.

The Gophers can offset that lost production if they get bigger efforts from players such as defensive linemen Logan Richter (2 career tackles), Danny Striggow (only played in 1 game), Gage Keys (has yet to take the field), and Jalen Logan-Redding (played in 6 games in 2020 and 2021 combined). But what will really help in this department is the presence of transfers Kyler Baugh (Houston Baptist), Darnell Jefferies (Clemson) and Lorenza Surgers (Vanderbilt).

Baugh made 104 career tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 5 sacks over 26 games (18 starts) for the FCS-level Huskies from 2019-21. Jefferies was responsible for 44 tackles (1 TFL, 0.5 sacks) during his 4 seasons with the Tigers. Surgers accounted for 19 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 sack and 2 pass deflections over the course of 10 games in a Commodores uniform (2018-21).

This defense will certainly get plenty of opportunities to bring opposing signal-callers down, as this year’s 12 opponents combined to allow 356 sacks last year. The 40 sacks that New Mexico State (this year’s season-opening opponent) surrendered last year were tied for 12th-most in the FBS. The 32 sacks allowed by Colorado (a rematch from last season) were the second most among PAC-12 teams. The potential is there to exceed expectations, but only time will tell.

Run defense: Even

The Golden Gophers’ second-leading tackler from last year, linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin (85 total tackles, 3rd on team with 5.0 TFLs), is back. So is Jordan Howden (4th with 43 tackles, 9th with 1.5 TFLs) and fellow defensive backs Justin Walley (29 tackles), Terrell Smith (16 tackles) and Michael Dixon (12). LBs Braelen Oliver (24 tackles, 0.5 TFLs) and Donald Willis (16 tackles, 0.5 TFL) also return. Add these players to the ones already mentioned, and the Gophers return 327 of last year’s 661 total tackles (almost 50 percent of production coming back) and 18 of 57.5 tackles for loss.

Minnesota will need all those players to step up to fill the void left by LB Jack Gibbens, who led the Gophers in total tackles (92) and solo tackles (56). Sori-Marin will miss his tag-team partner.

Still, the Gophers have the potential to be a top 5 run defense in the B1G once again.

And they’ll need that skill, seeing as how they’ll be facing 5 of the Big Ten’s top 8 rushing offenses from last year (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan State, Illinois, Northwestern). This year will mark the first meeting with the Spartans since 2017, when they gave up 245 rushing yards (4.9 ypa) and 3 scores in a 30-27 loss to MSU. Thankfully, the Gophers’ defense has improved since then. But against the other 3 teams last year, Minnesota gave up 526 yards on the ground, with NU, Nebraska and Illinois each going over the 100-yard mark. But the Gophers only gave up 3 total rushing touchdowns against those teams, while holding both Illinois and Wisconsin to less than 4 yards per attempt. So the foundation to stop the run is there.

Pass defense: Even

Thanks again to the players that will be returning this fall, the Golden Gophers bring back 25 of their 40 pass deflections from 2021. Howden (second on the team with 5) and Sori-Martin (3rd with 3) were among last season’s leaders in this category. Tyler Nubin led the team with 3 interceptions, while Smith, Dixon, Sori-Martin and Walley had 1 pick each. The Gophers only lose one player who registered an interception last year, defensive back Philip Howard, which is another huge plus for Minnesota. Especially when you consider that many of the teams they face this fall love to throw the ball downfield.

Minnesota will be facing 4 of the Big Ten’s top 6 passing teams from the ’21 season (Purdue, Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan State). In that ’17 loss to the Spartans, they limited then-MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke to just 9 completed passes for 120 yards. They also forced him to throw an interception. This year will also mark their first game against the Nittany Lions since 2019, which was a 31-26 victory for Fleck and company. In that game, they gave up 340 passing yards (7.9 ypa) to current PSU signal-caller Sean Clifford. And against the Boilermakers and Cornhuskers last year, the Gophers gave up a combined 612 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air. It’s all hands on deck for the Gophers again in 2022.

Special teams: Better

Mark Crawford is back to punt for the Gophers again. The Australian had 47 of them last year, averaging of 41.7 yards per kick. His consistency will lend a huge assist to his teammates, and put this group in position to be successful again.

Overall: Worse

This team has all of the tools needed to have another strong season. They just need to produce better numbers in some areas (sacks, turnovers), while cutting down on numbers in others (such as giving up big yards against certain opponents). But with Mafe and Gibbens gone, a slight drop-off seems inevitable.