Minnesota football: Improved Gophers defense makes West race more intriguing
Well, this just got interesting.
Let’s make the lawyers happy and get the fine print out of the way first. Colorado is not Wisconsin. It’s not even Miami of Ohio. The Buffaloes aren’t an offensive juggernaut.
But it is a Power 5 team with some heady backs that Minnesota rendered hapless in a 30-0 shutout Saturday that was easily the Gophers’ most dominant win in decades.
First goose egg against a Power 5 team since 2004. First one on the road since 1977.
That’s 3 years before coach P.J. Fleck was born.
“I mean,” said defensive lineman Thomas Rush, who had 2 sacks, “that’s an awesome thing.”
The simplicity and thoroughness with which Minnesota walked into Boulder and left with a 2-1 record is borderline mind-boggling. Consider:
- The Gophers held Colorado, FBS’ No. 30 rushing team through 2 games, to minus-19 net yards on the ground.
- The Buffaloes finished with 63 yards of total offense. They had 7 in the first half.
- Minnesota tallied 4 sacks and 8 tackles for loss.
- Colorado converted just 6 first downs all day.
“It’s all about that defense,” Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “They played together, they play fast and they love playing football and love doing it for each other, and that’s something that’s so easy to see, and I’m so proud of our defense for.”
It’s a group led by coordinator Joe Rossi Jr. that took several steps back in 2020, thanks mainly to youth and inexperience. The season is young, but it appears like some of the lumps Minnesota’s youngsters took last year are starting to pay off.
So is the presence of transfers Nyles Pinckney and Val Martin. Their work has made it possible for guys like Rush to get after the quarterback and the linebacking corps to stay disciplined.
Linebacker Jack Gibbens was particularly stout, recording 6 stops, 1 tackle for loss and 1 forced fumble Mariano Sori-Marin is playing well after a down 2020, too.
It makes it easier when the Gophers need only 4 big bodies to generate an effective pass rush. That was the case against Colorado quarterback Brendon Lewis on Saturday.
“Pivotal,” Fleck called the performance, “not for the season, just for right now, pivotal in the week that we need to be able to show what kind of team we can be moving into the future.”
It’s a team that has had a great Plan B in running back Trey Potts (121 yards and 3 touchdowns in his second start since Mohamed Ibrahim’s season ended) and got wideout Chris Autman-Bell back from injury Saturday.
Even the training and medical staff is clicking on all cylinders. On their advice, Minnesota traveled to Colorado late Friday and headed home immediately after the game, limiting the players’ exposure to the elevation and ensuring they didn’t run out of gas.
“This was a quick trip,” Fleck said.
And an important one.
Where things get mighty intriguing is consideration of the defense’s ability to build off Saturday. A home date against Bowling Green awaits Saturday, then Big Ten play is in full swing.
Rossi’s group hung tough against a top-5 team in Ohio State. It hung in there against a feisty Miami squad from the MAC. And now it has a signature showing upon which to hang its shiny-gold hat.
Sound defense, particularly up front, is table stakes in a division that features Wisconsin and Iowa. Can the Gophers build off Saturday? The answer will dictate the outcome of this season.
“This is just the next step,” Rush said.