Gophers prep for stout Spartans defense

Minnesota will go up against one of the best defenses in the nation.

Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams fumbles the ball on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Amanda Snyder

Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams fumbles the ball on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack Satzinger

Minnesota’s first two drives in its 20-7 loss against Wisconsin on Saturday were halted when freshman receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones dropped catchable passes.

Gophers redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams had a reception to kick off the second quarter, but he promptly fumbled, and Wisconsin recovered.

Williams said Tuesday that dropping balls is frustrating but said it’s something the Gophers try to move on from.

“You get mad for a little bit of time,” Williams said. “Then you’ve got to move on.

“If you don’t move on, then it’s going to sit with you, and you’re going to play bad the rest of the game.”

The Gophers’ young receivers faced a formidable Wisconsin defense last Saturday but will meet an even tougher matchup this weekend at Michigan State.

Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard was recently named one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, an honor given to the top defensive back in the nation.

Trae Waynes is the other starting cornerback for Michigan State.

Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said Dennard and Waynes will both be high NFL draft picks.

“If you’ve got lockdown corners, you can do anything you want on defense,” Kill said. “That’s what makes them good. They’ve got lengthy, long corners that can flat play.”

A usual defense puts seven players in the box to defend against the run. The Spartans have enough confidence in their cornerbacks that they routinely put eight and sometimes nine men in the box.

That’s not necessarily to compensate for a subpar defensive front.

Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun has been compared to Michael Strahan, the NFL’s single-season sack record holder.

With Calhoun on the line and top-notch defensive backs in the secondary, Michigan State allows just 12.5 points per game. That’s the fourth-best mark in the nation.

“They’re very good up front,” Kill said. “They’ve got six seniors on defense … [and] they don’t miss many tackles.”

The Spartans’ defensive excellence comes from the guidance of head coach Mark Dantonio, who Kill said doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done at the program.

When Kill took a leave of absence earlier this year, he said Dantonio reached out to him.

“I’ve had conversations with [Dantonio] in the past, and he’s dropped notes and those kinds of things,” Kill said.

Senior defensive back Brock Vereen said the Gophers learned to play a complete game in the loss to Wisconsin. That started with defensive play.

While the defense stepped up last week, the offense will need to against the Spartans this weekend. And a lot of that production will have to come from the young receiving corps.

Kill said he is confident that unit will be up for the task.

“We had some dropped balls, but again, we’re playing freshman, redshirt freshman, sophomores,” Kill said. “In a game like that, I think that they’ll continue to learn and get better.”