Defense still shaky in debut

With eight seconds left in the game and Northern Illinois threatening on the 30-yard line, the Minnesota menâÄôs football team found itself in an unfamiliar place âÄî the victory formation. Trying to protect a four-point lead, the Gophers fielded eight defensive backs, including junior wide receiver Eric Decker playing what head coach Tim Brewster called âÄúcenter field.âÄù With the victory formation on the field, two of MinnesotaâÄôs senior leaders could only act as nervous sideline observers. âÄúMe and [linebacker] Steve Davis were sitting on the sideline, just looking at the time on the clock,âÄù senior linebacker Deon Hightower said. Hightower and Davis knew how close they were to their first win in almost a full calendar year; they also knew that the GophersâÄô secondary had already given up two lengthy touchdown passes. And coming off a 2007 season in which the Gophers ranked dead last in the country in total defense, a certain amount of anxiety exists every time Minnesota doesnâÄôt have the football. Two batted balls later, however, those eight seconds had ticked away and Minnesota had secured that elusive win. But batting balls away was not something the Gophers had a lot of success with for most of the evening. Northern Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback Chandler Harnish threaded the Minnesota secondary with regularity, racking up 326 yards and two touchdowns. Apart from junior Marcus SherelsâÄô impressive debut at cornerback, the GophersâÄô inexperienced defensive backs seemed a bit tentative. Sophomore cornerback Ryan Collado had a nightmarish game, getting burned for 91 and then 52 yards on HarnishâÄôs touchdown strikes, both of which went to Huskies freshman wide receiver Nathan Palmer. Brewster refused to speak negatively of his defensive back, however. âÄúYou know, we just hug [ColladoâÄôs] neck and tell him, âÄòHey itâÄôs one play at a time,âÄô âÄù Brewster said. âÄúYouâÄôve got to have a short memory, particularly as a cornerback, and you just live to fight another day. ThatâÄôs all you can do.âÄù While MinnesotaâÄôs secondary may be trying to forget about SaturdayâÄôs performance, the GophersâÄô front seven have a lot to be happy with. Northern Illinois managed only 72 yards on the ground, and Huskies starting running back Justin Anderson averaged just 2.6 yards per carry. In addition, junior tackle Barrett Moen got to the quarterback for his first career sack and teamed up with junior linebacker Lee Campbell for another. Still, Brewster couldnâÄôt help but come back to the big plays Minnesota allowed. âÄúI thought we got around the quarterback decently tonight but, again, weâÄôve got to eliminate the big plays,âÄù Brewster said. Without the two mammoth touchdown passes, the Gophers put away the Huskies with ease and the story is about the defenseâÄôs solid play. Instead, the performance seemed spotty and the game was in question until the final seconds; it took breaking up two jump balls in the end zone before the Gophers could finally sing the rouser in the locker room. But after 51 winless weeks, Minnesota is focusing on the fact that it is 1-0. âÄúThe dayâÄôs over, and a âÄòWâÄô is a âÄòW,âÄô âÄù Decker said. âÄúDoesnâÄôt matter how you get the job done.âÄù