On Tuesday, Minnesota football coach Glen Mason discussed the two-headed monster of his defense last year – playing well early and struggling down the stretch before coming up big in the Music City Bowl versus Arkansas.
“Will the real Gophers defense please stand up?” he joked.
On Saturday night, his defense put on its good head and stood up the Troy State offense in a 48-7 victory.
“The defense dominated the game early,” Mason said. “Every once in a while (the Trojans) made a play. But they’re not getting big plays on us. They’re not getting sustained drives.”
Minnesota’s defensive unit shut out Troy State and held it to just 90 yards of total offense before a 20-play, 80-yard drive gave the Trojans their only score of the game midway through the fourth quarter.
Despite losing the shutout, the Gophers defense held Troy State to less than three yards per offensive snap and just three-for-17 on third down conversions. Trojan quarterbacks were sacked four times for thirty yards, and the Gophers forced three fumbles, recovering two of them.
The fumble recoveries came on consecutive defensive plays in the first quarter with the game still scoreless. Minnesota notched its first points – a 52-yard field goal by Rhys Lloyd – after the second repossession.
“We didn’t get any turnovers last week,” said Minnesota safety and co-captain Eli Ward, who forced the second fumble. “Those two turnovers gave us good field position and good momentum. We built off that.
“You always hate to lose a shutout at the end. Some of the reserves were in there, but I give credit to Troy State because they didn’t quit.”
Sophomore linebacker Terrance Campbell recorded a pair of sacks and forced a loss of 21 yards in the third quarter when he spun quarterback Hansell Bearden into throwing a backward lateral out of bounds.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Eric Clark pounced on the first fumble, pawed a pass at the line of scrimmage on the previous play and sacked quarterback Aaron Leak to force a fourth down in the second quarter.
After the game, Mason emphasized the talent and flashes of potential the 6-foot-3-inch, 240-pounder has been showing. Clark knows his place on the team.
“That’s what they put me in there for – to make big plays for them,” Clark said. “They give me freedom out there to make those plays. So I just try to do that every time I get a chance.”
The Gophers stymied a trio of Trojan quarterbacks, who threw for just 64 yards on 10-for-31 passing in the game. Minnesota’s run defense held Troy State back to 125 yards on 40 carries.
Mason credited the experience of his defensive line with halting the Trojans’ running attack. Senior co-captain Dan Kwapinski, junior Darrell Reid, and sophomore Anthony Montgomery controlled the line of scrimmage throughout. Sophomore defensive end Mark Losli recovered the fumble forced by Ward.
“The first thing we did was stop the run,” Ward said. “After that, they couldn’t do too much.”
Mason and his players know Troy State isn’t the stiffest defensive challenge they will face this season, but they could see and feel the improvement on Saturday. We’re bigger; we’re stronger. Up front, you can see that,” Reid said. “I know we haven’t played any Big Ten teams yet, but you’ve got to see how the defense is bringing a new attitude to the game.”