Pushed around early, defense gets tough enough to win

by Brian Hall

Minnesota senior cornerback Mike Lehan was elated after Saturday’s 31-21 victory over Toledo, saying it was one of his happiest moments as a member of the Gophers program.

He compared the win his team’s beating of then-No. 6 Ohio State in Columbus in 2000 and No. 2 Penn State in Happy Valley in 1999.

Granted, Minnesota wanted to run its record to 3-0 for the first time since the 1999 season. Yes, the players wanted to exact revenge for last season’s 38-7 dismantling at the hands of the Rockets, but, bigger than beating the ranked Buckeyes and Lions on the road?

“Oh, yeah,” Lehan said. “This was a huge win for us, just the way that they outplayed us last year. This was going to be the biggest test for us. I am extremely happy for this win.”

Defensively, the Gophers splintered at times during the game, surrendering 428 total yards to the Rockets, including 233 on the ground. But Minnesota never snapped, holding Toledo to one score – a third quarter touchdown run by running back William Bratton – over the last three quarters.

In the second half Minnesota forced and recovered two fumbles which resulted in touchdowns and stopped the Rockets on a key fake field goal attempt with 6:50 remaining in the game.

“It was a very good test, a measuring stick for how good this team is,” Lehan said. “Close games early in the season tell you what you’re about. There was some adversity early in the game and we overcame that.”

The Gophers entered the game with the NCAA’s top-ranked defense, but faced their first true test in a Rockets offense averaging 54 points per game.

Minnesota allowed Toledo to score touchdowns on its first two possessions as the Rockets took advantage of their oversized offensive line and ran the ball 14 times for 97 yards in the first quarter alone.

“We’ve got to quit with the slow starts coming out of the gate, giving people a jump on us early,” defensive tackle Dan Kwapinski said. “And we will have to tackle better. I don’t think we tackled very well today.”

During a fake punt in the fourth quarter, Toledo receiver Carl Ford ran through several Gopher tackles and then sprinted past return man Danny Upchurch, who seemed stuck in quicksand and never put a finger on Ford.

Luckily for the Gophers, the play was called back on a pass interference penalty.

Mason credited Toledo with a successful quick passing game and using its offensive line as an advantage, but still lamented his team’s defensive effort.

“We missed a lot of tackles defensively,” Mason said. “(The passing game) never destroyed us, but it hurt us. Our defense was hanging on but they made plays at the end when they had to.”

Lehan said Minnesota is a scrappy team, one whose success will depend on its effort and playing a full 60 minutes, something which helped them persevere against a stellar Rockets offense.

“We have some work to do,” Mason said. “We missed too many tackles. It was basic fundamentals, reaching rather than running, ducking heads and things like that.”

If Minnesota is able to improve on its tackling and overall defense, it might provide Lehan with another memory or two in his senior season.

Brian Hall covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]