Minnesota garners first win of the year against Maryland

This week, the defense looked like a completely different unit, shutting down the Illinois offense en route to a 41-14 victory on the road.

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Nur B. Adam

Gophers linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin follows the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 24. Minnesota fell to Michigan 49-24 in their first showing of the season.

Paul Hodowanic

In Friday night’s team meeting, Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck sat the team down and read them a book. No, it wasn’t a detailed book on scheme, situation or football at all.

It was the children’s book, “Everybody Poops.”

“I know that sounds crazy, but we didn’t play very well. But poop can be used as fertilizer if you grow,” he said. “It was a very unique team meeting but I think we got the message across. They played okay.”

The timing is fitting considering last week, the Minnesota Gophers defense surrendered the most yards they had given up to any team in the 21st century, 675 to the Maryland Terrapins, a real stinker.

This week, the defense looked like a completely different unit, shutting down the Illinois offense en route to a 41-14 victory on the road.

“They showed tonight what they can become,” Fleck said of the young defensive unit. “They’re starting to realize what they can be and just go. Sometimes you need a little confidence, a little success to bread that confidence… we were more consistent tonight.”

Illinois managed only 287 of total offense. Quarterback Taylor Coran threw for a measly 106 yards on 6-17 passes. Minnesota sacked Coran four times, broke up four passes and forced a fumble.

After giving up a combined 42 points in the first quarter in the opening two games of the season, the Gophers defense forced punts on Illinois’ first four drives of the game before the Illini finally scored.

“The defense was flying around today. We really cleaned up our details today. That was the point of emphasis,” linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said.

In the second half, the Gophers forced another four punts, bringing the total to eight for the game. They had just two punts all season leading up to the game.

The performance is perhaps even more impressive considering they were without their signal caller Joe Rossi, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. Defensive backs, safeties and co-defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak took over in his place.

“This was a team effort on defense. Coach Rossi was involved in every single meeting,” Fleck said. “I was really proud of the defensive staff. We’ve got a lot to clean up, a lot to get better at, but coach Harasymiak has been in that position before… I thought he did a great job calling a really good game.”

The Gophers will need to prove they can replicate this type of performance against a better offense. Illinois averaged just over 15 points a game entering Saturday’s game, was down to its fourth-string quarterback because of positive COVID-19 tests and was missing 14 total players due to the virus. Minnesota still has games against Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue, all of which offer a tougher test than Saturday.

Still, the win was a much-needed result after the defense created zero momentum through two weeks. The team was tasked with replacing seven starters on the defensive side this season, including four who were drafted into the NFL. They were also missing veteran defensive end Keonte Schad who was out for undisclosed reasons.

Nine players had at least three tackles and the big plays were held to a minimum. Defensive end Boye Mafe continued his strong start to the season as well. The redshirt junior had six tackles, two sacks and a force fumble.

The Gophers will need more performances like Saturday from Mafe and the rest of the defense if they hope to get back in Big Ten title contention. Currently sitting fifth in the Big Ten West standings, Minnesota still has games against every team above them, the first of which is next Friday against Iowa at home.

As for the team meeting, the players aren’t surprised about anything Fleck throws at them.

“That’s coach Fleck,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “I think the guys really took to it. It was perfect for us.”