Unheralded Gophers defense coming into its own

John R. Carter

Thrown together after graduations, transfers, suspensions and NFL departures decimated the roster, Minnesota’s defense wasn’t supposed to be any good this season.

Aside from two returning starters (Mike Lehan and Greg White), another returning from injury (Jimmy Henry), one carry-over from offense (Jack Brewer), the Gophers defensive unit consists of young, inexperienced, undersized and out-of-position no-names.

But as Minnesota (1-4, 0-3 Big Ten) enters the midway point of its season against Michigan State on Saturday – and the offense garners more and more criticism each week – the defense is quietly making its mark.

“We have a lot of young, eager guys who want to get better, and we have some good leadership from the older guys,” first-year defensive coordinator Moe Ankney said. “As the season has gone on we have improved.”

Many of the strides made by the defense since August haven’t shown up in the record or statistics. After all, a quick look at the numbers and you’d think its defense was the reason Minnesota is in the Big Ten basement.

The unit is ranked 10th in the conference in both scoring defense (27 points per game) and total defense (388.6 yards per game).

The season has been a learning process for Minnesota. And to its credit, the defense has held Big Ten opponents close. In all three conference contests the Gophers have lost by an average of just over seven points per game.

“The more we play together the better we get,” said freshman defensive tackle Darrell Reid. “We’re young, and guys have been moved around (from position to position) so it takes a while before we can gel.”

Added veteran cornerback Lehan: “Sometimes it takes up to halfway through the season for them to get their feet wet. But these young guys have been confident (all season).”

Teaching and figuring out who should play what position hasn’t been the biggest challenge for Ankney and the coaching staff. Opponents’ offensive schemes are what’s keeping Ankney and his staff reaching for the Advil.

The Gophers defense has tasted a bit of everything this season: Purdue’s spread to Illinois’ drop-back passing to Northwestern’s runaround in circles offense.

Yet, Minnesota held both the Big Ten’s leading passer, Kurt Kittner, and third leading rusher, Damien Anderson, to 30 yards under their season averages.

Now, the Gophers face a new test on Saturday in Michigan State tailback T.J. Duckett. The 6-foot-1, 249-pound Duckett and the Spartans run more of a “power I” offense, far different than what the Boilermakers, Illini, or Wildcats brought to the field.

So with each week the defense steadily improves – not by leaps and bounds, but by inches – as the Gophers learn seemingly every offense designed. Yet they strive for more.

“We still have a lot to prove,” Reid said. “We set goals every week and we’re not making all of them. We want to keep teams under 17 points per game and we haven’t done that yet.”

With just three seniors on the roster, Minnesota’s defense has plenty of time to meet those goals. But the season’s sake, it better start Saturday at the Metrodome against the Spartans.

 

John R. Carter covers football and welcomes
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