Defense provides foundation for success

Minnesota’s goal is to hold opposing offenses to less than 17 points per game.

Grant Donald

After allowing Northwestern to put together a 97-yard touchdown drive to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the Gophers’ defense had a new sense of eagerness.

“We definitely felt like we could stop them on the next drive. There [were] no heads down. We were still confident in ourselves,” senior linebacker Damien Wilson said Saturday after the Gophers’ 24-17 victory over Northwestern.

The defense has been playing with confidence, which is arguably the reason the Gophers have bolted to a 5-1 start.

Heading into the year, one goal Minnesota’s coaching staff reiterated to the defense was holding opponents to 17 points or fewer each game.

“If you hold a team to 17 points or less [and] you do that all year, you’re going to be close to the top-10 defense in the country —  at least in the top 15,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said.

The Gophers have completed that goal in each of the past three games and are allowing 18.7 points per game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten.

The success has come even with the defense performing without some of its key players because of injuries.

After the first game, the defensive line lost three of its players, including junior Scott Ekpe. Also, the secondary is currently playing without senior Derrick Wells, and sophomore linebacker Cody Poock will miss the entire year due to an ACL tear.

When asked about the defensive line’s performance, head coach Jerry Kill said that entering into the season, he didn’t anticipate the young players who have stepped up to be playing at such a high level.

“They still make mistakes, but they’re doing pretty well,” he said.

While the young players have stepped up and exceeded expectations, the upperclassmen are still the leaders of the defense.

Wilson leads the Big Ten in tackles, averaging 11 per game, and redshirt senior defensive lineman Cameron Botticelli leads the team with two sacks.

Botticelli has been part of the team for five years. He said he knows the season is far from over and the defense needs to maintain its success if the Gophers want to keep winning.

“[We are] a level-headed, bend-but-don’t-break defense,” Botticelli said. “It has served us well to this point in the season, and I’m excited to see where we can take it with another week’s hard work.”

Mayes to get reps on the offensive line

Freshman offensive lineman Connor Mayes saw his first game action last weekend against Northwestern, and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said Mayes will be a part of the rotation moving forward.

“We’re banged up,” Limegrover said. “We felt like he’s a kid that could help us. We’re going to continue to escalate that development and keep bringing him along and continue to get him reps.”

Mayes was a three-star recruit out of Van Alstyne High School in Texas.

“Being a kid coming from a smaller level school, [we] didn’t know exactly what we were going to get,” Limegrover said. “We knew the physical part, but just the technique and mentality and mind frame — he’s been great.”