Gophers defense playing with renewed focus under defensive coordinator Joe Rossi

Minnesota’s is currently ranked No. 40 in FBS in total defense.

Defensive Coordinator Joseph Rossi oversees a drill at the Athlete's Village practice field on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018.

Jack Rodgers

Defensive Coordinator Joseph Rossi oversees a drill at the Athlete’s Village practice field on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018.

Nick Jungheim

After a 55-31 defeat to Illinois on Nov. 3, 2018, it was clear that Minnesota needed a change on defense. 

Through their first six conference games that season, Gophers’ opponents were totaling over 507 yards and over 43 points per game on average. As a result, head coach P.J. Fleck replaced defensive coordinator Robb Smith with then-defensive line coach Joe Rossi.

“He did a great job,” Fleck told reporters of Rossi after the change. “He’s accepted the responsibility. He knows what he has to do.”

The decision to install Rossi proved to be a turning point in the season. With him calling plays for a suddenly resurgent defense, the Gophers won three of their final four games, allowing only 59 points total over that stretch. This came after Minnesota gave up more than 50 points in two of their three games.

Rather than change schematics for the final four games of the season, Rossi challenged his defense to practice harder and focus on the fundamentals. Linebacker Thomas Barber credits Rossi’s emphasis on details with helping turn around the season.

“It had to be a line in the sand,” Barber said. “There’s nothing that we changed, we still had the same defense. It was just our details went way up and then just how we practiced. How we practiced during defense changed, being kind of mean guys, the scout team was tackling harder, being more physical.”

Although Rossi says the team doesn’t go with live tackling in scout team drills, he’s still been pleased with the effort his players have put forth in practice.

“That’s been ratcheted up,” Rossi said.  “And it’s been embraced by the guys even to the point that we’ve had to pull them back a little bit. But you always like to pull them back rather than get them to go.”

Following the strong finish to 2018, Rossi was promoted to the full time defensive coordinator position. Under his guidance, the Gophers rank No. 40 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense this season, holding opponents to 331 yards per game. With the team’s 4-0 start, Minnesota is 7-1 since Rossi took over his current title.

One area in which the defense has improved noticeably is against the run. In 2018, the Gophers allowed 5.2 yards per rush, including three games in which they conceded over 300 yards on the ground. Thus far this season, no team has ran for more than 174 yards against Minnesota which is now allowing 3.8 yards per rush on average.

While Rossi has maintained a similar system to the one the Gophers ran last year, he did use the offseason to install some new wrinkles. In an effort to put more pass rushing speed on the field for third downs, he implemented a new formation that features four defensive ends on the field.

“We can do a lot of things with it,” Rossi said. “We can put people in different spots, we can have tackles drop, we can have ends drop, we can run twists and all that good stuff. It just gives us a lot of variety and different options. It gets a lot of speed on the field.”

Now, 11 months after his promotion to the defensive coordinator position, Rossi and the Gophers defense is preparing once again for Illinois, especially senior running back Reggie Corbin. Corbin torched Minnesota for 213 yards on 13 attempts last year, including touchdown runs of 72 and 77 yards.

“They have legit [running] backs,” Rossi said of Illinois’ offense. “And not only like, ‘hey, we’re going to get three, four [yards], but like 50, 60, 70,’ so that’s the thing that is most concerning.”

For this year’s Gophers team, last season’s result is completely in the past. Fleck says the team is looking squarely forward, and their only focus is going 1-0 against Illinois in 2019.

“I don’t talk about last year with our team,” Fleck said. “We don’t talk about words like, ‘revenge’ or things like that, those things do not exist in our program.”