Defense must stop the bleeding to beat Wildcats

Amy Danielson

Since practice began in mid-August, Minnesota’s football team subscribed to the same defensive strategy – first and foremost, stop the run.

But so far, the Gophers – ranked 10th in the Big Ten in rushing defense – haven’t backed up their game plan.

In the season opener at Toledo, Minnesota surrendered 363 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in a 38-7 loss.

In the Gophers only win of the season, they held Louisiana-Lafayette to a meager 60 rushing yards. But after a three week layoff, Purdue managed another 151 yards on the ground.

Last weekend, Minnesota faced Illinois, owner of the 10th ranked running offense in the conference, but still gave up 198 yards – 65 yards each to three running backs.

A major problem, although the coaches refuse to call it an excuse, is a youthful defensive.

“We’ve played a lot of young kids on defense and we expect a lot out of them because we have to expect a lot out of them,” coach Glen Mason said. “If you’re out there to play and you want to compete, you have to expect maybe a little more than they’re capable of doing right now.”

Come Saturday’s trip to Northwestern, the capability of Minnesota’s defense will face arguably its greatest test. Last season, the Wildcats ran all over the Gophers for 334 yards and four touchdowns.

Heisman Trophy candidate Damien Anderson embarrassed the defense for 230 yards, while quarterback Zak Kustok picked up a solid 90 yards.

The dynamic duo in the backfield brings an approach not often seen and difficult to stop.

“They try to get you away from playing with your fundamentals,” linebackers coach Greg Hudson said. “They get you spread out, running around, crossing your legs. You’ve got to be willing to do some specific things on defense and be fundamentally sound and execute. Their offense is based on execution. You’ve got to play great defense and just execute your plan.”

But executing their plan is something the Gophers are struggling with this season. And with so much attention devoted to stopping the run, the obvious question is – what’s the problem?

“It’s hard to pinpoint,” cornerback Mike Lehan said. “But if I had to say something, it’s probably just execution. We do a good job, we’re a quick defense and we get to the ball. I don’t know, whether it be just wrapping up or gap control or something like that (causing problems).”

In addition, defensive end Greg White thinks an adjustment in schemes for handling the run could help the cause.

“We knew what we were in for when we played Illinois and what we were in for against Chester Taylor,” White said. “It’s just that some people weren’t in their gaps, I wasn’t even in my gap. There’s a lot of people you can blame, you can’t just blame one person. If we scheme (Northwestern) the way we should and we can, we’ll contain them.”

Whatever the problem is, the solution needs to be discovered in a hurry, no matter what age the athletes on the field might be.

“Some of the guys don’t even shave every day,” Hudson said. “And they’re out there playing.”

For the Gophers to even have a chance of reaching a third straight bowl game, a solution for stopping the run better show up before a five o’clock shadow does.

The record goes to…

Minnesota senior Ron Johnson is just two receptions short of tying the school record of 171. He already holds the all-time receiving touchdown record with 24, and is 227 yards away from becoming Minnesota’s all-time leader in receiving yards.

“Yeah, definitely (I’m proud),” Johnson said. “I’ll be out there getting another record, one closer to getting all three of them. But I’d rather win than anything. We still have a chance to be where we need to be.”

 

Anthony Maggio covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]