Gophers defense down, then up against Ohio

Minnesota gave 14 points to Ohio in the first half, after giving only 17 to Tulsa and Troy State.

Brett Angel

Just when it looked as if Minnesota’s defense was finally coming together, it surrendered 14 points in the first half of Saturday’s game against Ohio.

In the Gophers’ previous two games, the defense only allowed 17 points combined to Tulsa and Troy State.

Thanks to a rushing attack led by Marion Barber III, Minnesota went into the locker room with a 28-14 advantage. But that didn’t save the defense from a halftime tonguelashing courtesy coach Glen Mason.

Mason didn’t elaborate on his halftime motivational tactics, but he made it clear he was unhappy with the lack of energy from his defensive unit in its first road game of the season.

“I think we played flat today,” Mason said. “It’s hard to play football without emotion; it’s impossible to play defense without it. I don’t know why, but I didn’t sense it today.”

Part of the Gophers’ defensive struggles can be attributed to the fact they were playing against an Ohio team featuring a triple-option flexbone offense employed by only a handful of schools at the Division I-A level.

Although Minnesota spent much of last week trying to simulate the same formation, defensive coordinator Greg Hudson quickly found out there was no substitute for the original.

The Bobcats rolled up 193 yards of total offense (121 rushing) in the first half, despite falling behind

14-0. Ohio quarterback Fred Ray completed his first nine passes for 72 yards before finishing the half 9 for 11.

“We just said, ‘Guys, hang in there, keep playing low and hard.’ When they did score, we made them snap (the ball) a lot, which helped us figure out what they were doing,” Hudson said.

Whether it was figuring out a seldom seen offense or just playing flat that plagued the Gophers in the first half, Mason’s halftime speech worked.

After the break, the Gophers turned up the energy and slowed down the pace of the game.

The Bobcats gained 152 yards of offense in the second half, but didn’t score until there was 4:05 left in the game. They were repeatedly shut down by Ben West and the Minnesota defense in crucial situations.

Ohio threatened to get back in the game midway through the third quarter after Barber fumbled on a punt return at the Minnesota 22 yard line. But the defense stiffened and forced a fourth down incompletion to preserve a 14 point lead.

Ray was intercepted by Minnesota cornerback Trumaine Banks on the Bobcats’ next possession, and the game was all but over.

West, Minnesota’s middle linebacker and quarterback of the defense, was sidelined late in the second quarter with a left knee injury. But after being fitted with a brace at halftime, West returned to play much of the second half. He finished the game with 12 tackles and a sack.

“We didn’t really change anything on defense (in the second half), we just came out with a different attitude,” West said. “They were running the ball on us and that’s something we don’t like to let happen.”

“That’s one of the toughest men on that field,” Hudson said of his senior linebacker. “I don’t care who we play or who they say is the toughest guy in college football. To go out there with that leg brace and to know what he physically had, it hurts and he pushed through it.”

Minnesota can certainly take comfort in knowing its defense made the adjustments and played well enough to get the team a victory. In the Big Ten, the Gophers might not be so fortunate.

“Our defense really struggled today. The good news is that we won the football game,” Mason said. “The really good news is there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”