Preparation equals separation for defense

In Saturday’s shutout, Minnesota took a step away from two straight poor efforts.

Dan Miller

First, it was a players-only meeting Sunday. Then, they gathered at the Woodbury, Minn., home of defensive coordinator Greg Hudson.

The Gophers’ defense, after a week of searching, evaluating and re-evaluating, looked improved and aggressive in Minnesota’s first shutout victory in the Big Ten since 1990.

“The coaches and players really got on the same page this week – especially the defense,” defensive end Darrell Reid said.

On Thursday, Hudson had the Gophers defense meet with him at his home to figure things out, after giving up 636 yards to Michigan State on Oct. 16.

“We just said, ‘You know what, coach (Hudson), just go with your gut feeling. You’re an aggressive coach, and we’re an aggressive defense … Get back to that,’ ” Reid said.

With four sacks and 11 tackles for a loss, the Gophers defense rebounded after giving up 1,124 yards the last two weeks to Michigan and Michigan State.

Only allowing the Illini 231 yards Saturday, Hudson called more blitzes; and the Gophers were able to consistently get to the quarterback – something they haven’t done all season.

“Their front four did a good job all game,” Illini quarterback Chris Pazan said. “They did a good job putting the pressure on.”

The Gophers’ postevaluation performance was highlighted by the eye-opening performance of middle linebacker Kyle McKenzie.

McKenzie recorded 12 tackles – nine of them solo and four for a loss – and had 2 1/2 sacks.

“Number 52 (McKenzie) played possessed,” Reid said.

McKenzie said he thought the game was his best as a Gopher, and nobody was arguing.

“Yeah, it’s his best,” linebacker Terrance Campbell said.

McKenzie said he gave credit to Minnesota’s defensive linemen, saying he found plenty of room to get to the Illini quarterbacks – often going untouched.

McKenzie forced Pazan to fumble in the fourth quarter, blindsiding him from the right side of the line.

“I just wanted to go out there and provide a spark,” McKenzie said. “It was a big confidence booster for the defense. We needed the shutout.”

The Gophers’ defensive improvement will be more accurately judged after the team plays Wisconsin and Iowa.

But the collective evaluating sessions produced quick results.

“(Hudson) asked us to tell him what was on our minds. And he told us what was on his mind,” Reid said. “We all got on the same page, and I think that really showed.”