Tongue-lashing during timeout sparks Gophers’ defense

Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson called out his players during a timeout, and they responded.

Aaron Blake

With Northwestern waltzing effortlessly into Minnesota territory for the second time in the first quarter Saturday, the Minnesota coaching staff made what defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said might have been “the best call of the day.”

Down 7-0 with an offense that had gone three-and-out in less than a minute, the 17th-ranked Gophers (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) were backpedaling again and making the Wildcats (2-4, 0-2) look like the turn-of-the-century St. Louis Rams.

Then the call was made – a timeout.

“(Hudson) just chewed us out,” free safety Eli Ward said. “He said people around the country are calling our defense soft, and we were proving them right. All the coaches were saying, ‘Somebody, right now, step up and make a play.’ “

Shortly afterward, the defense yielded their second touchdown. But with 23 seconds left in the quarter, Ward stepped up and made the big play, intercepting Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez at the Minnesota 38-yard line and stumbling forward to the 45.

The Gophers didn’t score off of Ward’s interception. But the play became a turning point for the defense and six minutes into the second quarter, the offense also found theirs.

Before the interception, the Wildcats ran up 146 total yards, 10 first downs and 71 yards rushing on Minnesota’s defense. Afterward, Northwestern managed just 138 yards, five first downs and five more yards rushing in thrice the time.

“We went from one extreme to another,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “We couldn’t stop anything, and then it got to the point where they couldn’t move the ball.

“I think the kids were trying hard. They really were. We made some adjustments to some things they were doing, and it really helped.”

While the adjustments were minimal, Hudson said, the results were huge.

When Minnesota finally broke into the scoring column, the defense had spent almost twice as much time on the field as the offense. So after quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq floated the ball to Jared Ellerson for a 96-yard touchdown, the defense was back on the field without a chance to sufficiently rest.

“We always want them to score touchdowns,” linebacker Ben West said. “But we don’t always want them to score that quick. But that was a big momentum boost. That gave our defense a big lift, and, from then on, we played pretty well.”

If Ward lit a fire under the Gophers’ collective defense, fellow safety Justin Fraley fed the flames late in the second quarter.

Fraley, who came up with a key interception late Saturday at Penn State, grabbed his second pick in as many weeks and prevented a Wildcat bid to tie the game with a huge sack.

With the game tied late in the second quarter and the Minnesota offense rolling, Fraley intercepted Basanez on the Gophers’ 47. The offense needed just four plays to punch it in for a 21-14 lead.

And just when Northwestern’s offense looked to be awaking from an utterly ineffective 15-minute stretch, Fraley lined up at linebacker on third-and-goal and sacked Basanez for a 16-yard loss with under 30 seconds left in the half.

Wildcats kicker Slade Larscheid brought his team within 21-17, but that was all the Gophers would yield for the balance of the game.

In the end, Northwestern tailback Jason Wright was held to just 51 yards on 15 carries, Basanez was intercepted twice and the Minnesota defense had three quarters of a game to be proud of.

Mason said he’d like to focus on those three quarters, and he couldn’t yet explain what happened in the first.

Fraley can.

“We just came out flat,” Fraley said. “We weren’t ready to play. We didn’t have our attitude right. It took some plays, but we got everything together. We just have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”