Gophers must shore up defense for a chance at derailing the Boilermakers

Brian Stensaas

With the Big Ten conference season opener at Purdue less than a week away, it’s no big secret Minnesota’s football team is using this week to fine tune.

And the passing defense is one in a handful of areas being looked at under the microscope.

The Gophers are coming off a 41-17 win at the expense of Buffalo. Though the victory pushed Minnesota’s nonconference record to an unscathed 4-0, it didn’t come without some reoccurring setbacks.

In the past two weeks, Toledo and Buffalo both benefited from quick passing patterns and poor tackling by the Gophers to gain yardage.

Versus the Rockets, missed tackles were the mishap of the game. Mason estimated Toledo gained over 120 yards after the initial tackle should have been made.

Last Saturday, the Bulls were wide open on a handful of occasions and racked up 190 passing yards, one more than Minnesota managed.

The holes haven’t gone unnoticed and the team wants change.

“We need to work on the defense as a whole,” linebacker Bradley Vance said. “We need to get together and get ready for Purdue. It’s a different competition now. (Purdue) is going to be able to stick the ball into receivers a lot better so we definitely have to jam better.”

Minnesota travels to West Lafayette this weekend to face a team long known for its passing game. It’s helped the Boilermakers win the last six meetings with the Gophers.

Purdue finished 1999 with the nation’s fourth-best passing offense averaging 328 yards per game and this season already has 1,001 yards in four games. Minnesota enters this weekend averaging only 134 yards given up through the air per game.

Even though the Boilermakers are traditionally a passing team, Mason isn’t worried solely about their air attack.

“Purdue is a very good offensive team,” Mason said. “They have talent in (passing) but they run the ball well too. They’re the complete deal and pretty impressive.”

Purdue coughed up five turnovers last weekend in a 24-21 loss to Wake Forrest, but sophomore Kyle Orton has been impressive. The first-year starter has eight touchdown passes and 968 yards passing thus far.

He is a far cry from the dominant days of Drew Brees (21 touchdowns, 3,531 yards passing in 1999) and last year’s success of Brandon Hance (three touchdown passes, 306 total yards against the Gophers) yet he will be a focal point come Saturday.

Minnesota’s defense is well aware of the competition they’re up against and are ready to prove the 4-0 record is no fluke.

Said Vance, “I’m fully confident we can get things straightened out for this weekend.”

Eight games remain for the Gophers, all against teams in the Big Ten. After Saturday’s performance against the 87th-ranked passing team in the country, Mason knows fine tuning is a must.

“We’re going to have to play much better football against Purdue,” he said. “It’s going to take a maximum effort from our offense, defense and the kicking game to have a chance there. We need to get better in a hurry.”