Minnesota kicker/punter Rhys Lloyd, running to his right in soccer-style form, spiked an awkward 29-yard punt to Northwestern’s 44-yard line after the Gophers’ first offensive possession Saturday.
Exploiting the good field position, Wildcats’ running back Noah Herron took three draws up the heart of the Gophers defense, going 11, 14 and finally 16 yards.
Following the old adage, the Gophers bent but didn’t break.
On the next rush, Minnesota nose tackle Anthony Montgomery and linebacker Terrance Campbell smothered Herron after just two yards. An incomplete pass later, the Wildcats made a 29-yard field goal.
The three points were all the Gophers defense allowed in the first half – a stat that would make any coach happy.
And it did.
“I think the greatest improvement on our football team in the shortest amount of time has been our defense,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “I’ve been very critical of them, but I thought they really played well.”
Last week, Mason called the Gophers’ defense disappointing after it failed to hold any of its three nonconference opponents to under 400 yards of total offense.
The Wildcats’ high-powered offense, which ranked third in the Big Ten, came into the game looking to exploit the Gophers’ suspect defense, which ranked ninth in the conference in total defense (435.3 per game).
But Minnesota’s defenders corralled and subdued Northwestern’s spread offense to 267 total yards – 212 yards under its average.
The Gophers’ defenders made junior quarterback Brett Basanez disappear. When he returned to the game in the fourth quarter after straining his right (throwing) shoulder, few took notice.
After leading the Big Ten in passing yards with 933 yards in his first three games, Basanez was held to only 127 yards Saturday.
Minnesota senior defensive end Darrell Reid credited the performance to a committed work ethic.
“Our defense is working so hard,” Reid said. “We showed today that it’s finally starting to carry over to the games.”
Since fall practices have started, Gophers players and coaches have said how improved and dedicated the defense became.
Last week against Colorado State, the Gophers forced four turnovers but still allowed the Rams 424 yards of offense, and coaches were critical.
“I wish I could tell you we did something magical,” Gophers defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. “But when the kids make a decision to play as hard as they can, it’s easy to call defenses.”
John Pawielski led the Gophers with seven tackles, including five solo.
“If (the defense) plays like that every game, we should be good to go,” quarterback Bryan Cupito said. “Ten points to an offense like that? They stepped up a lot.”