Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
Doesn't a week off, right in the middle of your profession's busiest stretch, sound like a welcome reprieve?
It doesn't to Tracy Claeys, not after watching the Gophers' 31-13 loss in Iowa.
"When you play like that, then you don't play the next week, it's miserable," said Claeys, the Gophers' defensive coordinator. "I've had a miserable off week. I know we're better than that, but you've got to wait two weeks, and everybody is talking."
And what is everybody saying? "Everybody thinks we fell off the edge of the Earth," Claeys said.
What's frustrating to him is how magnified a run of mistakes in the second quarter became, how the Gophers allowed a competitive game between two fairly even teams, in his estimation, to turn into a blowout. Iowa's first three possessions encompassed 15 plays -- 12 of them gaining fewer than four yards, and six for no gain or a loss of yardage. The second play of the game was a 45-yard completion on a botched coverage, but even then, the Gophers forced the Hawkeyes to settle for a field goal.
"I wasn't disappointed with the way we came out of the gate. They ran a little trick play type of route that we hadn't seen, but we tackled it and held them to a field goal. That's what I'm used to," Claeys said. The Gophers forced Iowa to punt away its next two possessions, and there was no inkling that the game would turn lopsided.
But over the next dozen plays or so, the defense made one awful play, one ugly mistake, after another, turning a three-point tug-of-war into a four-score laugher.
"Plays 1-15, we didn't play bad; we just gave up that one pass. But then plays 17-28, we hit a stretch in there that wasn't good," Claeys said. "It's frustrating as hell, because all of a sudden, the game's over -- 24 (straight) points. You're trying to catch up from 24-0. Because of that little swing in there, you (bleeped) it away, and I think we're better than that. So it's very frustrating."
After allowing three points on the first three possessions, seven bad defensive plays from that point in the game to halftime -- six of which gained between 20 and 47 yards, after the Gophers had not allowed a 30-yard gain all season -- handed Iowa three consecutive touchdowns, and essentially the game.
Claeys said he's not sure what happened there that allowed the roof to cave in. The attitude seemed good, the players didn't stop trying. Coach Jerry Kill credited it to momentum, that Iowa fed off its loud sellout crowd and just got on a roll. But the mistakes were simple ones, Claeys said, and the solutions as well.
"During that stretch, yeah, I don't like it, the kids don't like it, because we didn't play very well," Claeys said of all the big gains. "We mis-fit three plays (left gaps undefended), we missed tackles on four, and on one play, we got our eyes in the backfield," allowing the Hawkeyes to pull off a flea-flicker for a touchdown.
The players looked for schematic adjustments at halftime, but Claeys said there weren't any to make -- the solution was just to execute better. "And in the second half, Iowa got 50 yards (actually 46) and they were running the same damn stuff," the defensive coordinator said, noting that the Hawkeyes didn't score an offensive point after halftime. "If you tackle well and get where you're supposed to be, we're good enough to play. ... But because of those eight plays, we fell off the end of the world. So I'm ready to play again, quite frankly."
Claeys said he doesn't blame fans for being disgruntled about the Iowa loss, even after four victories to open the season. But he and the coaching staff have taken care to make sure that the defense doesn't get discouraged.
"We watched those plays as a defense. I don't want 12 plays to define us, because we're better than that. I believe that," Claeys said. "I don't want perception to become reality. Everybody's all, 'Because of one game, they ain't worth a damn. They ain't worth a damn. But we played pretty good defense, we really did, except for those eight plays. I mean, we're capable of a lot better, we really are."
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