Juniors lead senior-laden defense

Junior Kyle Theret intercepted two passes while fellow junior Kim Royston led the team in tackles and forced a fumble, positive signs for a defense that loses nine starters next season.

Marco LaNave

TEMPE, Ariz. âÄî One of the biggest questions following the 2009 Gophers football season will be how they replace nearly an entire defense. And although the Insight Bowl on New YearâÄôs Eve wasnâÄôt an overall success, it was an encouraging sign for those concerned about the nine starters departing from MinnesotaâÄôs defense. In the final game for a senior-heavy defensive unit that kept the Gophers in several games this season, it was a pair of juniors who led the way. The spark of safeties Kim Royston and Kyle Theret, the only defensive starters who will return for the Gophers in 2010, gave the Gophers a chance for their first bowl victory since 2004. Royston made a career-high 15 tackles, tying an Insight Bowl record, while Theret had seven tackles and two interceptions, which tied an Insight Bowl and Gophers bowl-game record. They had roles in three turnovers and each helped a Minnesota scoring drive. Yet either would have taken an Insight Bowl victory instead of an outstanding individual game. âÄúIt really means nothing as of right now,âÄù Royston said. In ThursdayâÄôs 14-13 loss to Iowa State, the Gophers defense created another opportunity for a come-from-behind win. As it did in the season-opening victory at Syracuse, the defense delivered a second-half shutout. The Gophers allowed seven points or fewer in the second half for the fourth-straight game and seventh time overall this season. WhatâÄôs more, the defense forced at least three turnovers for the sixth time; but Thursday was the second time Minnesota lost despite such a performance. Theret called his Insight Bowl performance redemptive a year after he started in a secondary unit that allowed four first-half passing touchdowns by Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing in the 2008 Insight Bowl. On Thursday night, the Cyclones rushing attack was the problem, racking up 212 yards and forcing the safeties to come forward and make stops. âÄúI really just think it was on our defenseâÄôs shoulders,âÄù Royston said. âÄúWe didnâÄôt do what we needed to do to come up with a win. I think maybe we could have scored a few times on defense, did something.âÄù That may be asking too much, because they did plenty. Royston had three tackles on the gameâÄôs first drive, including a critical stop of Cyclones running back Alexander Robinson on fourth-and-1 at the Minnesota 26-yard line. The Gophers took over and drove for a field goal. On the ensuing drive, Theret made two tackles and then intercepted a pass by Cyclones quarterback Austen Arnaud at MinnesotaâÄôs 41-yard line. Early in the second quarter, Theret again intercepted Arnaud on a deep pass into Minnesota territory. But Royston and Theret also had their regrettable moments too. Royston aided Iowa StateâÄôs first touchdown drive when he committed a facemask penalty âÄî the only flag against Minnesota all game âÄî that moved the Cyclones from the Minnesota 18-yard line to the Minnesota 9. Arnaud ran for the go-ahead touchdown on the next play. Theret fell short (literally) when Iowa State scored its second touchdown on a one-minute drive before halftime. He slipped in one-on-one coverage of Cyclones wide receiver Jake Williams, who easily caught a 38-yard pass from Arnaud to make it 14-3 with 23 seconds to play before halftime. Each junior safety redeemed himself, though, by setting up a Gophers score in the second half. In the third quarter, Minnesota faced a punting situation with fourth and 4 at their 37-yard line. Senior punter Blake Haudan took the snap and tossed a short pass to a wide-open Theret, who ran along the sideline for a 40-yard gain to the Cyclones 23-yard line. The Gophers scored on the next play when junior quarterback Adam Weber connected with senior tight end Nick Tow-Arnett. On Iowa StateâÄôs next drive, Royston forced ArnaudâÄôs second fumble and senior linebacker Lee Campbell recovered the ball at MinnesotaâÄôs 46-yard line. The Gophers drove for a field goal that made it a one-point game. Royston appeared to force another fumble when Robinson ran with a reception to MinnesotaâÄôs 30-yard line, but the call on the field was overturned to sustain the CyclonesâÄô drive. Royston and Theret finished third and fifth, respectively, among the GophersâÄô leading tacklers in 2009. That makes them the clear defensive leaders entering next season. Theret, who started every game the last two seasons, said this seasonâÄôs senior class was a group of great leaders. âÄúThey get it done; they show it on and off the field,âÄù he said. âÄúNext year with a lot of young guys out there, it will be big for us to show how to be a man on and off the field.âÄù Royston, in his first season on the field for the Gophers since he transferred from Wisconsin in 2008, also said the seniors helped him. âÄúThey really taught us a lot [about] how to lead. I think that rubbed off on me and Kyle.âÄù