Third down defense becoming first-rate

Third down has become an area of improvement for Minnesota’s defense.

Matt Perkins

Don’t do a double take when you read this: Minnesota’s football team’s defense has been a bright spot this season.

In the season opener at Tulsa, the Gophers allowed the Hurricane to complete nine of 19 third down attempts – 47 percent. Saturday the Gophers held Purdue to four of 15 – 27 percent.

And for the first time since any Gophers fan can remember, the defense made big plays when they needed to.

“Third down was a downfall last year for us,” coach Glen Mason said before the season began. “I’d joke many times that third and seven was my worst nightmare.”

And unfortunately that has become a run-on joke, no pun intended.

This season the Gophers have given up 65 first downs. Forty-seven of those have been converted through the air – a statistic indicative of the third and long situations which have haunted Mason’s dreams.

Purdue sat back in the shotgun formation against the Gophers defense Saturday and passed at will. Boilermakers quarterback Brandon Kirsch’s inaccuracy seemed the only hindrance to the air attack.

Purdue offensive coordinator Jim Cheney said that as well as Minnesota played, he couldn’t give all the credit to the Gophers defense.

“The plays we were calling were there, they just weren’t executing,” Cheney said. “It wasn’t so much about Minnesota; it was about Purdue.”

But many of Purdue’s third down attempts came in third and short situations, including their second overtime drive in which they had a second down and two from the Minnesota 17.

The Gophers stuffed back-to-back runs, forcing a fourth down passing attempt where Kirsch underthrew his open tight end.

“I like the call because it gave Kirsch a run-pass option,” Purdue head coach Joe Tiller said. “He just didn’t throw a good ball.”

Immediately after labeling third and longs his nightmare, Mason joked that last year he would say “let them get a few more yards and it will be third and three, then maybe we will have a chance.”

A sarcastic comment maybe the Gophers should take a bit more seriously.

Maroney honored

Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney was honored as the co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week on Monday.

Sharing the honor with Michigan State’s Drew Stanton, Maroney earned the award by setting career highs in carries, 46; and rushing yards, 217.

Maroney also set career marks with five receptions for 59 yards.

Rankings bonanza

Minnesota’s football team entered both The Associated Press and the coaches’ polls this week for the first time all season. The Gophers are 18th in the AP Top 25 and 19th in the coaches’ poll.

Minnesota’s women’s cross country also entered the polls this week. After being outside the top 30, the Gophers are at No. 11 – the program’s second highest ranking ever. The team ascended to No. 8 for one week during the 2000 season when it won the Roy Griak Invitational and advanced to the NCAA Championships.