The theme of the Gophers' defensive triumph over Syracuse on Saturday night was reiterated throughout the 17-10 win. But the tone was set on the first play of the game, when Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib's initial pass was intercepted. That's when it started.
It was one of four forced turnovers by Minnesota, which once again highlighted a vastly improved defense from a year ago, and a stunning turnaround from notoriously memorable Gophers defenses of the recent past. A year ago, Minnesota managed just nine takeaways through the entire season. This year? A different story, apparently.
"We're very confident now, and the coaches, they're more confident in us as well," said Michael Amaefula, who had a tackle, a sack and a fumble recovery on Saturday. "They're letting us go get 'em. We don't have to do as many stunts because we're getting so much pressure, they're like if we can send four, we can drop more back in coverage, go out there and play football, and that's when it gets real fun."
It looked just that for Minnesota's defense in front of a raucous home crowd, as the Gophers harassed Nassib all night, sacking him three times, and completely shut down dynamic receiver Marcus Sales, a senior who had netted at least 100 yards in Syracuse's first three games but made his first catch against the Gophers in the Orange's last drive of the game, when Syracuse scored its first touchdown.
A true team effort halted a team that had scored at least 28 points in its past three games and developed a reputation for a high-flying and efficient offense that came in averaging 533 yards a game. Two different players made interceptions; two more recovered fumbles; three others took down Nassib for a loss.
"If you can put pressure on the quarterback -- and we were able to do it with four people a lot of times -- and when you do that you've got a chance to play pretty good in the secondary," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "Part of it has to do with kids are familiar with what we're doing. I think we're doing a good job with disguising our secondary coverage, and we're doing some things defensively to keep the quarterback off-balance."
Perhaps there was no better example of the Gophers' pressure and defensive intensity than when facing the biggest threat from Syracuse, in the third quarter.
Facing an Orange first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Gophers defense stayed poised and systematically shut down the Orange's offense. Jerome Smith, taking a handoff, was met by a wall. On the next play, he was chased all the way to the sideline by Derrick Wells for a 3-yard loss. When Minnesota blitzed on the next play, the ball popped out of Nassib's hand on a hard hit by Brock Vereen and was intercepted by Aaron Hill.
"I feel after four games we have 10 times the confidence we had against UNLV," Vereen said. "It's just going to keep building and hopefully we keep winning."