Injuries take a toll on Minnesota’s defense

Tyler Rushmeyer

;MADISON, Wis. – A defense suddenly beset by injuries took a huge step backward in Minnesota’s 58th battle for Paul Bunyan’s Ax Saturday.

Led by the nearly unstoppable trio of sophomore tight end Travis Beckum, redshirt freshman running back P.J. Hill and senior quarterback John Stocco, Wisconsin struck quickly and never looked back in its 48-12 victory.

In front of more than 80,000 red-clad fans, the Badgers notched another rivalry triumph in the confines of Camp Randall Stadium, a place where the Gophers have grown accustomed to lopsided defeats.

With junior linebackers Mike Sherels and John Shevlin seeing limited time due to injuries, along with Trumaine Banks suffering a career-ending broken arm in the third quarter, the aggressive Wisconsin offense took charge early and handed the Gophers’ their largest defeat at the hands of the Badgers in more than 20 years.

An effective Stocco, finishing 12-of-9 for 193 yards and four touchdowns, alongside gamebreakers Hill and Beckum, who finished with 25 carries for 164 yards and two touchdowns and five catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns, respectively, made certain the ax would remain in Madison for the third consecutive year.

In the process of allowing more than 400 yards in total offense for their fourth consecutive conference game, the Gophers defense was especially hurt by its inability to get off the field, continually allowing third-down conversions early.

“One of the downfalls we had last year was our third-down defense,” coach Glen Mason said. “And it killed us again today.”

With an already thin depth chart on the defensive side of the ball and key players heading to the sidelines, Mason was forced to improvise, moving sophomore strong safety Dominic Jones to cornerback and throwing junior defensive back Duran Cooley and freshman linebacker Lee Campbell into the mix.

Mason, who took the blame for the loss, said the early hole dug by the Gophers’ third-down defense was tough to recover from.

“We got them in a bunch of third-and-longs and credit them – they converted,” he said. “If you get 50 percent of those stops and get off the field, it’s a ball game at half – but we didn’t.”

But the blame was not solely on the defense, as the Minnesota offense failed to convert a third down for nearly two full quarters.

The three-and-out offensive possessions, coupled with an ineffective third-down defense, appeared to fatigue Minnesota’s defense.

Senior defensive tackle Neel Allen was nearly speechless when trying to describe the defensive unit’s performance.

“They did everything we expected,” he said. “But it’s all about execution and we just didn’t do that.”

Quote of the Game

“One of the big words in football is momentum. Once they got it, we had a hard time slowing it down, let alone getting it back.”
– coach Glen Mason

Sophomore linebacker Deon Hightower, whose playing time has markedly increased in the wake of Shevlin’s and Sherel’s injuries, said the decreased depth took its toll on the defense throughout the contest.

“It affects your game plan for sure,” he said. “We’ve lost some key players, and it’s been tough to recover.”

Allen seemed to sum up the general sentiment of Minnesota’s loss in the wake of the demoralizing defeat:

“It’s hard – we got to get off the field in those situations,” he said. “If you don’t do it – it’s hard to win games.”