Linebackers spark new-look defense on the road

Matt Perkins

Last season, much like the years preceding it, Minnesota football took a lot of criticism after a mediocre finish.

And once again that criticism was deferred to the defense, forcing some changes on the coaching front.

Under the new intensity-based stylings of defensive coordinator David Lockwood, the Gophers forced four turnovers in their 41-10 win over Tulsa and more importantly, looked physical doing so.

“There’s a different attitude, a bigger confidence,” free safety John Pawielski said. “It feels really good out there because the physical level has picked up and we feel like a defense now.”

Over 12 games last season, including the Music City Bowl against Alabama, the Gophers forced 10 of their opponents’ 17 fumbles and recovered eight. Against the Hurricane, the Gophers forced four fumbles and jumped on three of them.

Unmentioned in preseason chatter was the fact that the Gophers would be starting two new linebackers, John Shevlin and Mike Sherels, this season alongside the familiar face of senior Kyle McKenzie.

And the new guys made a clear impact Thursday.

“With everybody running to the ball and hitting hard, the ball is eventually going to come out,” Sherels said. “The main thing is that we are all attacking the ball together, and that’s a good sign.”

Sherels had a game high 11 tackles, tied with John Pawielski, including the Gophers’ first sack of the season.

The pass rush was a weak spot for the Gophers last season and showed little signs of improvement against Tulsa outside of Sherels’ sack.

But they tried to send the message that when they get the opportunity to hit the quarterback, they are ready to hit him hard.

Early in the second quarter Sherels teamed up with backup linebacker Mark Mullaney to drive Hurricane starting quarterback Paul Smith into the ground and out of the game after a one-yard scramble.

And the hits just kept on coming.

Shevlin forced two fumbles to go along with his five tackles and Trumaine Banks and Alex Daniels each forced a fumble.

After the game, they all attributed the success to a revamped, focused mentality.

But coach Glen Mason still felt his defense could have forced more turnovers.

“I was pleased with the way they played but I also felt like they could have done a better job,” Mason said. “There were some more plays out there where we could have gotten our hands on the ball.”

Players seemed to reflect more on the positives of their performance.

“It’s the whole thing we are trying to establish in the first few games. We are trying to find our defense,” Shevlin said. “We did a lot of things well, and we have some things to improve on and we will go from there.”