Gophers defense ready for Purdue

by Murali Balaji

Through their first three games, the Gophers football team is ranked fourth defensively in the Big Ten. But don’t break out the champagne just yet.
The defense flexed its muscles in September against the likes of Arkansas State, Houston and Memphis — not exactly murderer’s row. While Minnesota’s defensive unit has shown continued improvement, especially against the run (1st in the nation), it has not been tested by conference competition. That will change Saturday.
Purdue (2-2) and its vaunted spread offense will provide the first real test of whether the Gophers’ defense can play with the top conference teams. Purdue as an overall unit is average, but the offense, led by quarterback Drew Brees, is regarded as one of the most explosive in the country.
The Boilermakers use a high-percentage short passing game and have arguably the deepest stable of wide receivers in the Big Ten, led by Isaac Jones (23 catches) and Randall Lane (16). Gophers’ outside linebacker Sean Hoffman credits Brees for running the offense on high-octane.
“He’s a great QB, and he gets the job done,” Hoffman said. “He’s an explosive person who can evade the pass rush really well.”
Cornerback Craig Scruggs, who will likely see many passes thrown his way, agrees.
“[Brees] has the ability to see the pressure and get away from it,” he said.
The defense worked all week on ways of containing the Boilermakers’ passing game, but practice field conditions can hardly emulate the game day explosiveness that could be exhibited at West Lafayette, Ind.
“I know a lot of people aren’t giving us a shot to win this thing,” Hoffman said. “But if we put our 11 best guys on the field and play our hardest, we can make things happen.”
The effort will be there on Saturday, and it is likely the Gophers will shut down Purdue’s mediocre running game. But the question remains: How will the defense fare against the pass?
“For us to have success, we’ve got to get pressure on the QB,” Hoffman said. “He does a lot of three-step drops and gets rid of the ball pretty quickly, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
While Hoffman and the front seven try to disrupt Brees from getting into a rhythm, Scruggs and the secondary face the daunting task of covering the Purdue receivers. Lane, Jones and flanker Gabe Cox all have great size and speed, and have the ability to rake up many yards after the catch.
“We should be able to contain them,” Scruggs said. “They have great receivers, but we have confidence that we can play with them.”
Because the offense is predicated on short hitches, slants and out routes, the Gophers’ defensive backs must rely on their ability to play angles.
“If we position ourselves well, we should be able to do a good job of slowing them down,” Scruggs said.
When the Boilermakers deploy their four-receiver set, strong safety Tyrone Carter will slide into the slot position to cover the inside receiver. Scruggs is confident that the secondary can counter the multiple-formations.
“Tyrone is like a cornerback,” Scruggs said. “When we have Tyrone out there, he is going to play like another corner.”
“Willie Middlebrooks is another guy who can come in because of his size,” he added. “We’re real confident that our guys can come out and play them real hard.”