;EAST LANSING, Mich. – If Minnesota’s football team wants to play in December for a fifth consecutive year, it will need both its offense and defense playing at a high level.
The offense did so in crushing Indiana last weekend, and judging by Saturday’s 31-18 victory over Michigan State, the defense appears to be ready to join it.
Coming into the game, the defense had given up an average of 410 yards per game, including 176 on the ground and 25 points per game.
When time ran out Saturday, the Spartans had scored just nine points on the Minnesota defense – the other nine came on a blocked punt and safety – and gained a pitiful three rushing yards on 28 attempts.
Coach Glen Mason said the defensive effort was especially impressive because of the beat-up status and youth of the unit.
“I thought it was a tremendous effort by our defense Ö We’re a young lot,” he said. “We probably had one senior play on defense today.”
But the young unit came together at Spartan Stadium in big fashion.
The day was highlighted by a dominant second quarter, in which Minnesota’s defense allowed just four total yards while forcing three turnovers; two interceptions by junior safety Dominique Barber and a forced fumble by senior linebacker Mario Reese that sophomore defensive end Steve Davis returned 48 yards for a touchdown.
Barber’s biggest pick came early in the second quarter. With the Spartans up 9-0 and sitting at the Minnesota 3-yard line, his interception of sophomore quarterback Brian Hoyer’s pass led to a Gophers touchdown 11 plays later.
“Coach said, ‘Someone’s got to make a play,’ ” Barber said. “I’m just glad I was in the right place at the right time.”
Minnesota shut out Michigan State for the remainder of the first half, leaving the Spartans with just four first downs and 77 total yards heading into the locker room.
Sophomore defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg, who finished with a career-high four sacks, credited the secondary’s coverage for the quarterback pressure.
“It feels good to finally get it clicking,” he said of his efforts. “The safeties and linebackers had great coverage today Ö That really allowed me to get in there.”
VanDeSteeg’s four sacks tied a Minnesota game record held by Karon Riley versus Iowa on November 18, 2000. VanDeSteeg also moved to fifth all-time in season sacks with eight, tying former All-American Tyrone Carter (1998).
At the conclusion of the third quarter, the Gophers had given up just 195 total yards and three points to go along with a forced fumble, two interceptions and five sacks.
With the game well in hand, 31-12, minutes into the fourth quarter, the defense went into prevent mode allowing Hoyer to bring the Spartans’ total yardage to a respectable level at 344. 341 of those yards came through the air.
The total yardage was the least the Gophers’ defense allowed since holding a woefully undermanned Temple squad to 157 yards.
Minnesota now has 12 interceptions and 24 total turnovers, significantly up from the 15 it forced during the entire course of the 2005 season.
The defense will need to step up once more in what the time now calls its “one-game season,” on Saturday for the Minnesota to go “bowling” again.
“It’s going to be huge, I mean it’s an opportunity for us to play big-time game,” VanDeSteeg said. “We have to show to everybody that we are a good team and that we are coming through in November when the good teams do.”