Defense shuts down Casey, Lions

Sarah Mitchell

There is nothing like two consecutive Big Ten wins to cure the underachieving blues.
Just ask Gophers defensive tackle Jon Schlecht, who decided to celebrate Minnesota’s 25-16 defeat of Penn State Saturday Billy Madison-style.
“Knibb High football rules,” announced Schlecht, as he recited a line from the movie and exited the Metrodome with his fists raised head-high, forming perfect 90-degree angles at his elbows.
Schlecht’s goofball display is a sign the Gophers defense is finally playing up to the expectations.
Before Minnesota’s game against Illinois two weekends ago, Gophers coach Glen Mason said his team was underachieving. The defense took this to heart.
It seemed impossible, but the Gophers defense stopped Illinois and quarterback Kurt Kittner 44-10.
The Illini game was merely breakthrough No. 1. Could the defense continue its stand?
Against the Lions, Minnesota answered with a resounding yes. By the game’s end, a Joe Paterno coached team had been stripped of the ball twice, both during crucial drives, and had amassed six offensive penalties.
This drew big words from the little Paterno.
“That’s a good defensive football team,” Paterno said. “They’re strong. They’re good. No. 97, 91 and 92 can play with anybody.”
Paterno was referring to senior linebacker Ben Mezera, defensive end Karon Riley and freshman tackle Maurice White, respectively.
The two veterans and the newcomer were only a part of a Gophers defense, however, which did everything but put the Lions offense in a straight jacket during the first half.
Penn State went the entire opening quarter without a first down. Its offense had run just 12 plays for 20 yards total offense.
“(The defense) played hard, they really did,” Mason said. “It was a long time into the game before Penn State got a first down.”
By halftime, the Lions had just three first downs — two of which resulted from penalties against the Gophers defense — and a field goal.
Despite its solid play, Minnesota’s defense was far from the clear. The Gophers offense moved inside the redzone three times during the first half, but each time settled for a Dan Nystrom field goal.
“We weren’t worried. You know, field goals, we’ll take them,” Riley said. “We just want the offense to take care of their side of the ball and we’ll take care of our side of the ball.”
In the second half, Penn State started to move the ball. The Lions more than tripled their total offense yardage — they had 88 heading into the half and picked up 199 more in the second half. Penn State also found the end zone twice.
“We all knew Penn State was going to make a surge because they are a good football team,” Riley said. “In that fourth quarter we had to dig down deep and go out and get it. It helped that our offense did a good job of keeping us off the field and on the bench in the first half.”
A determined defense found the will to force back-to-back fumbles in the fourth quarter and take the Lions out of the game.
The first mistake was forced by Gophers cornerback Trevis Graham. With Minnesota up 22-10 and about 10 minutes remaining on the clock, Graham jarred the ball loose from Lions tailback Larry Johnson. The ball was recovered by Riley at midfield.
Minnesota punted and sent the defense back on the field with about seven minutes left. This time Schlecht was the instigator.
On the first play, Schlecht sacked Lions quarterback Rashard Casey at Purdue’s 12-yard line and knocked the ball loose. Gophers tackle Matt Anderle recovered the ball.
Schlecht said the back-to-back fumbles brought confidence to Minnesota’s defense.
“It shows us we’re capable of playing at a level where we can be successful,” Schlecht said. “These last two weeks build momentum for us.”
The next test for the Gophers defense is Saturday, as the team travels to Ohio State. Riley said the past two wins could help Minnesota make the grade against Ohio State.
“A win always helps,” Riley said. “It helps the confidence, it helps the bruises it helps a lot of things.”
Like Schlecht, Riley planned to first savor Saturday’s win before looking ahead.
“I think we’re going to celebrate this game (Saturday) and then get ready for Ohio State,” Riley said.
Sarah Mitchell welcomes comments at smitchell at daily.umn.edu.