Gophers’ defense stifles Rutgers in lopsided victory

Minnesota’s defense has allowed 17 points over its past three games.

The Gophers tackle Rutgers' ball carrier at SHI Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 20. They defeated the Scarlet Knights 42-7 bringing their record to 7-0. (Courtesy of Dustin Niles / The Daily Targum)

The Gophers tackle Rutgers’ ball carrier at SHI Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 20. They defeated the Scarlet Knights 42-7 bringing their record to 7-0. (Courtesy of Dustin Niles / The Daily Targum)

Nick Jungheim

In the team’s first ever visit to Piscataway, New Jersey, Minnesota’s defense led the way to victory, building upon its dominant performances from the prior two weeks. The Gophers defense had no difficulties against a Rutgers offense that had only scored seven points in four conference games.

During the 42-7 victory, Minnesota forced three turnovers while allowing a mere 189 yards of offense. Although the Gophers didn’t jump out to a large lead immediately, the defensive effort ultimately allowed No. 20 Minnesota to pull away and improve to 7-0 (4-0 Big Ten). Despite entering as heavy favorites, head coach P.J. Fleck said his team wasn’t taking a victory for granted.

“Always attack, never fold,” Fleck said was his message to his players before the game. “It’s about us, we’re going to play up and the moment you worry about your opponent, no matter who that is, you get beat.”

Minnesota’s offense got off to a slow start, going three-and-out on back-to-back drives to begin the afternoon. However, the defense forced Rutgers to punt on its first three possessions, allowing ample time for the Gophers to build a lead. The offense began to improve after halftime. Quarterback Tanner Morgan ended the game 15-28 passing, despite completing just 10 of 22 attempts in the first half. 

“I thought in the second half we did a better job,” Morgan told the media. “There’s a lot for us to learn from, especially myself.”

After struggling against Indiana the previous week, Scarlet Knights quarterback Johnny Langan managed just two completions on six attempts for one yard through two quarters. Redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. and redshirt junior Philip Howard both had first-half interceptions. Before halftime, the Gophers limited Rutgers to 29 yards of total offense. 

Trailing 21-0, the Scarlet Knights managed to move the ball 46 yards on their first possession of the second half, a 17-play drive that consumed more than seven minutes. However, defensive ends Carter Coughlin and Tai’yon Devers converged to sack Langan on a third down forcing a field goal attempt from kicker Justin Davidovicz, who pushed the kick wide left. 

After the Gophers scored a touchdown on their ensuing possession, Winfield intercepted Langan for the second time, returning the ball to the end zone. Winfield’s touchdown pushed the lead to 35-0 and was the second of three Minnesota touchdowns in the span of two minutes and 22 seconds. 

“It’s always great when you can make plays for the team,” Winfield told the media. “It’s a great feeling.”

Rutgers’ offense reached the end zone with 5:53 remaining in the game, but not until after Minnesota had pulled its starters from the game. That score was only the second touchdown the Gophers’ defense had allowed in the team’s past three games.

The only concern for the defense following the game was the health of senior linebacker Kamal Martin, who leads the team with 46 tackles despite missing two games. Martin left the game in the third quarter with what Fleck called a lower leg injury.

“Usually when something really bad happens, [team doctors] tell me right away,” Fleck told the media. “They can’t do that right now. They have to get some more looks at it. We have to get him back to Minneapolis to get some more imaging on it.”

Thanks in large part to a defense that has allowed 17 points over its last 12 quarters, Minnesota is now 7-0 for the first time since 1960, the last year the program won a national championship. The Gophers are now the last undefeated team in the Big Ten West after Wisconsin lost to Illinois on Saturday. 

“It’s exciting and we’re excited,” senior running back Rodney Smith told the media of the team’s undefeated start. “But we have to refocus ourselves tomorrow when we watch the film.”