Gophers' defense takes a first step toward improvement. Can it keep climbing against better opponents?
“That might sound crazy,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said of his choice to read the children’s book “Everyone Poops” to his team the night before its 41-14 shellacking of Illinois on Saturday.
But if you know Fleck, the eccentric former elementary school teacher, it’s not surprising. And if you watched the Golden Gophers’ first two games, you know the fertilizer-out-of-feces approach might have been the only way to spin what had been an absolutely putrid first two defensive showings.
Minnesota stunk against Michigan, befuddled by two-back sets and Joe Milton’s dual-threat capabilities all night. It went full-on dirty diaper against Maryland, giving up big play after big play and blowing a 17-point lead in an overtime defeat.
And yet a better performance against Illinois, the No. 91 offense in FBS through two games, wasn’t a glaring surprise. It was how much better Minnesota looked — better push up front, better run fits, better coverage, better execution.
“The defense was flying around today,” linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said, “and we really cleaned up our details this week, and that was the point of emphasis, and Coach Fleck talked about it, was just growing.”
If there’s a multi-step program to mending the worst defense statistically in FBS, the first step is admitting the problem. Fleck did that when he called the Terrapins’ 675-yard effort “unacceptable.”
The second rung on the ladder is showing some semblance of improvement. There was plenty evident Saturday in Champaign.
Let’s start by quelling any notion this was about who was in the defensive coordinator’s chair. While Joe Rossi was out due to quarantine, he was intimately involved with the week’s game plan.
Co-DC Joe Harasymiak called a great game, yeah. But after Minnesota ranked 10th nationally in total defense last year under his charge, it’s wayyy too early to start giving Rossi any terminal blame.
“We don’t let our circumstance dictate our behavior,” Sori-Marin said, “and that’s exactly what the defense did. Coach Harasymiak, next man up, did an elite job today calling the game. But, you know, he told us at the beginning of the week when we found out the news that the caller doesn’t matter. The guy, the person sending the call on the field doesn’t matter. And it’s the same calls Coach Rossi would’ve called. Coach Rossi was with us all week scheming [via Zoom calls].”
No, the real issue is — and will continue to be — a general lack of “dudes.” The Gophers are short on ’em after seeing four go to the NFL last season, and top-level talent like that of Antoine Winfield Jr. and Kamal Martin doesn’t just develop overnight. It takes time and experience — a rare luxury in 2020 thanks to canceled spring practices, a schizophrenic summer workout schedule and abbreviated fall camps.
But Minnesota gained more seasoning Saturday. Thankfully, their opponent came in with even less of it.
The opportunity came against a third-string quarterback and a roster that annually ranks near the bottom of the league in recruiting rankings.
Defensive end Boye Mafe, tackle DeAngelo Carter and the rest of the Gophers’ front feasted. The linebackers didn’t get out of open gaps like they did far too often in the first two games (which is easier to do when you’re not worried about the guy next to you giving up a big play).
Defensive analyst Danny Collins stepped in for Rossi, who also coaches linebackers, to oversee that group last week.
“They played with a high motor, and they showed tonight what they can become,” Fleck said of his defense.
The coach has said in the past he doesn’t “believe in momentum,” preferring his players to focus on each moment and challenge as its own unique set of circumstances.
But there’s no doubt Minnesota took advantage of early close wins against inferior opponents last season en route to going 11-2. With no such luxury this year, its green front seven had struggled mightily before Saturday.
As for the defensive backs, they were hardly tested as Coran Taylor threw just 17 passes.
They will be Friday when Iowa comes to town. Spencer Petras has an above average-arm, and the Hawkeyes just put up 49 points against Michigan State a week after the Spartans topped Michigan.
When you adjust for opponent, it’s not hard to imagine the Gophers looking like manure once again on Friday the 13th. But when you look at the big picture, gains have been made.
It’s just a matter of how soon they translate, if ever.
“Sometimes you need a little bit of confidence and a little bit of success to breed that confidence,” Fleck said. “But the first few games were tough, were really tough. We were more consistent [Saturday].”