Minnesota’s front seven put clamp on Hoosiers

Aaron Blake

At around 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Indiana freshman quarterback Graeme McFarland found out he was going to start his first collegiate game against Minnesota with less than three hours to prepare.

Talk about a wake-up call.

Just minutes after kickoff at 1:05 p.m., McFarland got his second wake-up call of the day – a punishing blow from behind by safety Justin Fraley, jarring the ball from McFarland’s grip and into fellow safety John Pawielski’s hands for a quick voyage to the end zone.

Fraley, who lined up at linebacker on the play, got things started for Minnesota’s defensive front seven with one play in the 24th-ranked Gophers’ (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) 55-7 victory.

“It set the tone,” McFarland said. “They blitzed, and I needed to get rid of the ball quick. I tried to make a throw on the ball. We weren’t in sync.”

And the Hoosiers (1-8, 0-5) would be hard pressed to ever get that in sync. The Gophers’ first defensive touchdown of the season was followed by three-plus quarters of controlling the line of scrimmage and applying pressure to the young quarterback whose first start was hardly memorable.

McFarland finished 12-for-30 for 152 yards, was sacked twice and was hurried on many other occasions. The results were over-thrown and under-thrown passes and an all-around rough day for the unprepared redshirt freshman.

“Obviously, he’s got to be a little rattled,” Gophers defensive tackle Darrell Reid said. “You could see he was throwing some errant balls and not really getting it to his receivers. I know I hit him a couple times after he let the ball go, and I was talking to him in his ear. That’s just something you do to a young quarterback.

“It was definitely a learning experience for him.”

Besides shutting down Indiana’s passing game, Minnesota bore down to stop its rushing attack in the second half as well.

The Hoosiers had just 19 yards on 14 carries after halftime.

Without the running game that produced a touchdown in the second quarter, their passing game was hardly about to begin to dig the team out of a 34-7 halftime hole.

So as it had done twice in Big Ten play, Minnesota’s defense once again pitched a second-half shutout. In the Gophers’ eight wins, the unit has allowed an average of just over four points after halftime.

Also, the Gophers put more pressure on McFarland than their two sacks might indicate. The front seven found themselves in the opponent’s backfield more often than in past weeks.

Reid said the defense had been somewhat wary of committing to the backfield after Michigan overcame a 28-point deficit largely using screen passes and underneath routes.

In addition to the pair of sacks, Minnesota recorded nine tackles-for-losses.

Four came from linebacker Kyle McKenzie and two from defensive end Mark Losli, who dragged McFarland down for a sack on fourth-and-6 in the third quarter.

“I think it was just doing the same old things,” Losli said. “You just keep battling and keep figuring out what they’re doing. Sometimes you get there; sometimes you don’t.”

They did. The 263 yards and seven points allowed were both conference and season bests for Minnesota

When a pair of safeties burst into the backfield on the fourth play of the game, McFarland knew what the Gophers were trying to do – make his team pass to have a chance of winning.

And by forcing a physically and mentally rattled McFarland to make plays, Minnesota did itself a great service.

“Coach had a nice scheme going for this game,” Reid said. “It’s big when you get pressure on the quarterback – especially when it’s the backup early in the game.”