Gophers can feel the Brees attack coming

by David La

On any given day, members of the Gophers football team walk around campus wearing headphones while they listen to their favorite music.
The selection likely includes rap, rock and whatever other music each individual takes a shine to. With No. 18 Purdue’s aerial show coming to the Metrodome tomorrow, the appropriate listening this week is “In the Air Tonight,” by Phil Collins. Minnesota can feel it coming.
“The defense that we’ve attempted to build here at Minnesota was not built for defending a team like Purdue week in and week out,” Minnesota (5-2 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) coach Glen Mason said. “We built it to try to defend the run.”
But dancing with what brought you here won’t work against quarterback Drew Brees and the Boilermakers (5-3, 2-3) offense. Even deviating from the norm backfired last season.
“We designed a blitz last year that their protection could not pick up,” defensive coordinator David Gibbs said. “We ran in three times, and all three times (Brees) saw it, stepped away from it, and still completed the pass. You waste your time (blitzing). He’s that smart.”
All-American Penn State linebacker Brandon Short, who played against Brees last weekend, concurs.
“He was so smart, we tried to check in and out of defenses and he checked off of our checks,” Short said. “It was really tough to confuse him.”
So how do the Gophers prevent a repeat of the 56-point, 692-yard shellacking Purdue handed them last year?
Help from the offense is a start. After the abominable second half against Ohio State last weekend — seven points and four three-and-out series — Minnesota must keep the offense flowing to avoid being stuck up a creek.
“Our focus is still going to be on getting first downs,” quarterback Billy Cockerham said. “As with every team, we’re going to look for some big plays, but the main thing you want is time of possession and ball control.”
Good plan, but Brees and company will get some clock eventually.
“Everybody talks about Drew Brees, but they are more than one player,” Mason said. “They’ve got a good supporting cast. The offensive line is excellent, they’re giving up the fewest number of tackles-for-loss and sacks in the league.”
Three-step drops and minimal rushing attempts — 10th in the Big Ten — undoubtedly help those numbers.
“We have a difficult time running from the huddle to the line of scrimmage,” Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. “When you play Purdue it’s no secret. Throwing is our modus operandi.”
Which means the story is still the gunslinging Brees. The Heisman candidate is “a cut above” according to Mason.
“He’s got a great arm,” Mason said. “But more impressively than that, he’s a pinpoint passer. It is a rarity when the ball is exactly where it’s supposed to be for the receiver. It’s uncanny.”
Trying to find the weak link in the chain-moving offense, Mason pointed out that Purdue’s offense sputters in the red zone.
Conventional defensive wisdom says when the field shrinks, defenders can tighten up knowing there is not as much field to cover.
The Boilermakers have scored 20 touchdowns in their 40 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Combine the touchdowns scored with 11 field goals and Purdue comes away with points 77 percent of the time.
Halting the Boilermakers before they reach the red zone is the goal for Minnesota, and the personnel is there to do it. The defense has given up only three touchdown passes and leads the Big Ten with 30 sacks, meaning it is unlikely Purdue will put up the gaudy offensive statistics they did last season.
But it won’t be for lack of effort.
“I think when you’re seeing seven and sometimes eight defenders up close to the line of scrimmage,” Tiller said, “it really dictates that you should throw the football.”

David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]