Until last week, it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t much of an issue. But, the Gophers football team is suddenly in a hurry to improve its pass rush.
The numbers show the need. Through its first five games, Minnesota has a total of three sacks. The opposition has combined for 18. There’s been a void of bull markets (and bull rushes) in the Gophers’ sack exchange this year.
“It concerns me that we have not been able to get to the quarterback more than we have,” Gophers coach Jim Wacker said. “Only three sacks in five games is not going to cut it. Right now quarterbacks feel very, very confident back there throwing the ball on us. Somehow we’ve got to step up the heat.”
Saturday would be an ideal time for Minnesota to step it up. With Michigan State coming to the Metrodome for Homecoming, the Gophers (0-2 in the Big Ten) are in dire need of a victory. Their ability to put pressure on Spartans quarterback Todd Schultz should have a direct impact on the game’s outcome.
Minnesota’s need for an improved pass rush came to a head after its 26-24 loss at Northwestern last weekend. The Gophers failed to sack Wildcats quarterback Steve Schnur, who was able to set up and complete 17 of 25 passes for 278 yards.
Minnesota did force Schnur from the pocket at times, but the defense couldn’t bring him down. This was particularly costly on a critical fourth-down, with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Schnur faced pressure, but he was able to scramble for two yards and the key first down.
Up until then, the Gophers’ lack of sacks hadn’t really hurt them. They entered the game ranked 19th in the country in pass efficiency defense, having given up just 480 yards and four touchdowns in their first four games. Minnesota’s ranking fell to 50th after the loss at Northwestern.
But Gophers defensive coordinator Tim Rose is hardly panicking. Rose said he may have emphasized the Wildcats’ rushing game too much in last week’s game plan. He also pointed to the elusiveness of Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb and Purdue QB John Reeves as reasons for the low sack totals.
“There’s a lot more to consider when judging the pass rush than just sacks,” Rose said. “You can force the quarterback to run, or you can hit him and make him less effective as the game goes on, or you can disrupt his timing by making him move his feet and throw on the run.
“The negative is we haven’t been getting the sacks. But we’re going to continue doing as many different things as possible to keep them off-balance.”
So, other than the usual adjustments, Rose isn’t planning many changes for the Gophers’ defensive alignment Saturday. They will continue to keep three players on the defensive line, except when they move up any of their four linebackers as extra pass rushers.
About the only new look will come at linebacker, where senior Ben Langford is slotted to move from the inside position to the outside. And that move wasn’t designed so much to improve the pass rush as it was to improve the overall defense. Langford had been splitting time with Rufus Smith, and Rose wants Langford on the field as much as possible.
Any increased pressure will have to come from the players themselves — not from tactical changes. They’re well aware of the situation. And they know it’s time to start delivering.
“This week we’ve really noticed that we haven’t gotten a lot of sacks,” defensive tackle Raymond Baylor said. “We’ve pretty much just taken it upon ourselves to play harder and put more pressure on the quarterback. We will get better.”