Pass rush struggles continue in 2011

Freshmen Michael Amaefula and Ben Perry have been thrust into starting roles.

Carly Niness, no. 21 for Penn State, defends the ball against Minnesota player no. 22, Lauren Bauer at Sunday's women's soccer game in Falcon Heights.

Marisa Wojcik

Carly Niness, no. 21 for Penn State, defends the ball against Minnesota player no. 22, Lauren Bauer at Sunday’s women’s soccer game in Falcon Heights.

Adam Richard

The GophersâÄô defense has been terrible this season. 

Minnesota has given up an average of almost five yards per carry on the ground and eight rushing touchdowns, while also allowing a completion rate of nearly 70 percent and 11 passing touchdowns.

Such poor defensive play has been a problem all season, and was on full display in the GophersâÄô 58-0 loss at Michigan on Saturday.

A portion of the teamâÄôs defensive ineptitude has been its lack of pass rush. Last year, Minnesota was the worst pass rushing team in the nation with eight sacks. This year, the Gophers have two sacks through five games.

The two bookends on the GophersâÄô defensive line are Texas natives Michael Amaefula and Ben Perry.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound Amaefula and the 6-foot-5-inch, 241-pound Perry are the only freshman defensive end combination in the Big Ten. 

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys chose to start these two together before the teamâÄôs 29-23 win over Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 17.

âÄúThey donâÄôt have any choice,âÄù Claeys said. âÄúThey donâÄôt know any better, with freshmen being how young they are. They give us the best opportunity to win.âÄù

Amaefula sacked Miami (Ohio) quarterback Zac Dysert in the GophersâÄô only win of the season.

âÄúIt felt good,âÄù Amaefula said. âÄúIt wasnâÄôt only me âÄî there was pressure on the other side [of the line].âÄù

Amaefula and Perry arenâÄôt alone on the defensive line. They have two senior defensive tackles in Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey.

Jacobs and Kirksey have taken the task of grooming the freshmen to help them succeed in the future.

âÄúWe sweat together. I donâÄôt think of them as freshmen. TheyâÄôve got to learn,âÄù Kirksey said. âÄúThey look up to me. I try to be an older brother figure.âÄù

The GophersâÄô defensive line has failed to create pressure against its opponents this year. It has allowed 782 yards on the ground, including 363 against Michigan last week, and zero quarterback hurries on the year.

Part of the problem is size âÄî the line is often overmatched against older, bigger and stronger offensive linemen. Against Michigan, they matched up against two tackles that averaged 6-foot-7-inches and 300 pounds.

The rest of the GophersâÄô Big Ten schedule promises no let up in that regard.

With Amaefula, Perry, Jacobs and Kirksey starting, MinnesotaâÄôs defense will have a tall task ahead of them in 2011. As the freshmen continue to develop their pass rush technique and add size and strength, improvement should follow.

Amaefula and Perry have a long way to go, but their development will be key for Minnesota and its defense to salvage the season.

 Their experience now may also help to stimulate their growth and incite improvement for future years.