Fluke or for real? Defense to be tested by Rockets

Brian Stensaas

Minnesota football finally has its chance – a chance to prove two weeks of holding opponents to touchdownless football was no fluke.

Coach Glen Mason will be the first to admit the defensive stand is a tad unexpected. And that’s just fine with him.

“I don’t know how you couldn’t be pleased with the defensive results so far,” Mason said. “The guys are making big plays and that’s all you can ask for. I’d much rather be sitting here saying this than having to say, ‘Well, we’re young and hopefully we can get better.’ I hope we stay right where we are, but we’ll see.”

Heading into Saturday’s game against Toledo, the Gophers (2ñ0) own the nation’s top defense allowing 131 yards per game. In both games to date against Southwest Texas State and Louisiana-Lafayette, Minnesota did not allow either opponent to accumulate over 75 yards rushing or 100 yards passing.

Sure, the games were against less than stellar opponents. The Cajuns rank second to last in total offense while the Bobcats are 101st in Division 1ñAA total offense.

But Minnesota’s defense is young, returning only six players at starting positions. And no matter who the opponent is, winning the game brings much needed confidence.

Defensive tackle Dan Kwapinksi and free safety Eli Ward are two players who have stepped outside the confidence box of winning, however. Their motivation for winning Saturday’s game is revenge.

Both were on the Glass Bowl field last fall, a part of Minnesota’s defensive collapse in a 38ñ7 loss to the Rockets. Neither want nor expect such a poor output this time around.

“We’ve been playing with a lot of intensity so far this year; guys are just flying around,” said Ward, an Ohio native who considered playing for the Rockets. “We need to keep that up against (Toledo). We need to pay those guys back. They beat us pretty handily last year.”

The offense and defense have both spent a lot of time watching film from last year’s defeat. Defensively, missed tackles were the most common thing noticed and first on the list of things to improve. It will no doubt be a heavy task against the nation’s second-ranked offense. Toledo scored 65 points against Eastern Michigan last week.

“I don’t know if we could put up 65 points in three hours with no one else on the field,” Mason said. “They have a rockñsolid program and look real good to me.”

Perhaps the best part of the Rockets’ (2ñ0) output is its beefy offensive line. The corps averages just over a hefty 320 pounds. The Minnesota front four, meanwhile, weigh in about 80 pounds less.

“If we expect to win, we’re going to have to play a lot better against those guys,” Kwapinski said. “You can never be satisfied in this game. Last year’s game against (Toledo) is one I have looked back on a lot. I can’t wait to get back out and play them again, to reset the tone from last year.”

A time of remembrance

many tributes have been planned for Saturday’s game at the Metrodome.

The first 25,000 fans will receive number 71 buttons honoring defensive tackle Brandon Hall, who was shot and killed Sept. 1 in downtown Minneapolis. It will be the first home game since the tragedy. There will also be a moment of silence observed prior to kickoff.

In addition, the oneñyear anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks will be observed with a marching band tribute.