Defensive line thrives behind play of veterans

The group has avoided injury this year after a turbulent 2015.

Gophers defensive lineman Hank Ekpe reaches to grab the ball from Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2016.

Carter Jones, Daily File

Gophers defensive lineman Hank Ekpe reaches to grab the ball from Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2016.

Jack White

Illinois redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. dropped back to pass into Illinois’ own end zone early in the fourth quarter Saturday.

Gophers redshirt junior Merrick Jackson came up the middle and leveled George Jr. for a sack and a safety.

Minnesota was on its way to a 40-17 victory over Illinois, and the team’s defensive line played a huge factor.

“Blitzes are doing better,” said defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel. “People are getting where they need to get to. People are rushing with a little bit of force. It’s getting better … it’s not [a] malicious thing, a dirty thing, anything like that, but we want a quarterback to be able to feel us when we are on the field.”

The defensive line has made big plays since the start of the year. Freshman Tai’yon Devers started the year with three strip sacks in the first four games of the season.

Senior Hank Ekpe, Scott Ekpe’s younger brother, is one of the biggest contributors on Minnesota’s defensive line this season.

Hank is tied for first on the team in sacks with three and is tied for second in tackles for loss.

Redshirt senior Scott Ekpe has also made plays from the defensive end position. Ekpe had two fumble recoveries last game against the Fighting Illini.

“I’m a lot heavier,” Scott Ekpe said. “Lot more mature. When I got here, I was 17 and didn’t know a lot about just football, and coming here taught me more about the game. Just playing football and the fundamentals of just going out there every Saturday and giving it your best.”

Scott Ekpe said the first scoop and score opportunity on his second fumble recovery he had in Saturday’s game shocked him.

“I’ve never done something like that before,” Scott Ekpe said. “That usually happens when I play Madden, but it happened in real life this time, so it’s a good feeling.”

The only defensive lineman that has more tackles for loss than Hank Ekpe is junior Steven Richardson. Richardson has seven tackles for loss, including four against Colorado State.

Sawvel said health at the defensive tackle position is huge.

“At the end of the year and we [were] putting [junior Gaelin Elmore] in at [defensive] tackle on run downs,” Savel said. “That’s not his deal to do that. That is a huge deal, being healthy. … We have been much more physical practicing from March on … but in order to hit, you’ve got to hit. In order to take a hit, you’ve got to hit.”

Minnesota had 22 sacks all last season, and the team already has 19 through the ninth game of the current season.

The defense has also excelled at causing turnovers compared to last year. The Gophers have forced 18 turnovers this season. They caused the same amount of turnovers all of last season.

Minnesota’s next game comes against Purdue.

The Boilermakers are ranked 27th in the FBS in sacks allowed and have given up 12 sacks on the season, but the team also leads the Big Ten in passing attempts.

“I think the D-line helps, and again, the secondary. We’ve got quite a few kids who are playing now, but you’ve got to get the ball out quick,” Claeys said. “So [with] how well our [defensive line’s] played and the way we rotate them through, I think it will be a big benefit.”