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Continued: Gophers defense goes from brutal to respectable

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 8, 2008 - 11:55 AM

References to Gophers football and stout defense have been used in correlation to one another in the autumn of 2008. Previously, these items have had as much in common as George W. Bush and public approval.

The Gophers ended a nine-game Big Ten losing streak last Saturday -- 16-7 over an Indiana team in the Metrodome that was alleged to feature explosive offense and lousy defense.

This was the first time the Gophers had held a Big Ten opponent to one touchdown (or less) since a 45-0 victory over Illinois on Oct. 23, 2004 in the Dome.

Indiana was the fourth opponent in this season's first six games that the Gophers also faced a year ago. Those four teams -- Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, Ohio State and Indiana -- scored 136 points in regulation and went 4-0 against the Gophers in '07. This year, they scored 61 points and went 1-3.

When the first 11-loss season (with one victory) in Gophers history was over, they had allowed an average of 518.7 yards per game and were ranked last nationally at No. 119.

Halfway through 2008, they are 5-1 and are allowing 354.3 yards per game. That's No. 62 nationally, which might not play at Oklahoma but is lofty territory for the Gophers.

There's another important factor: A year ago, Adam Weber threw 19 interceptions and the Gophers lost 10 fumbles. They finished with 29 giveaways and a meager 14 takeaways. Through six games, Weber has two interceptions and the Gophers have a 17-7 advantage in turnover margin.

Everett Withers was the defensive coordinator a year ago and then departed for North Carolina. His replacement was Ted Roof, available after being fired as Duke's head coach.

Employees and athletes at the Nagurski-Gibson complex, along with selected media types and the Dinkytown fan base, have been enthusiastic in laying the blame at Withers' feet for the 2007 defensive fiasco.

The allegation has been this: Withers' system was too complicated for our lads to digest, while Roof offers simpler schemes that allow the Gophers to play with aggressiveness rather than doubt.

Strange thing about the Withers bashing: North Carolina is off to a 4-1 start after going 4-8 in 2007 and Withers' work with the defense is getting some of the credit.

So, Steve Davis, it can't be that Tar Heels defenders are smart enough for Withers' game-planning and the Gophers weren't? This improvement has to be about personnel, not schemes.

Davis, a senior linebacker and co-captain, smirked and said: "I couldn't say it was coaching last year. What I do know is that as a group we came in dedicated that we weren't going to play defense like that again."

He paused and then said: "We are confident in what we're trying to do for each game. And, we're also faster in the back. We're better for both reasons -- confidence and personnel."

The lowest moment in a bottom-crawling season came against Illinois in the Metrodome in early November. It was 34-10 at halftime and the Illini had 429 yards. The final totals were 44-17 and 655 yards for the visitors.

On Saturday, the Gophers go to Illinois to again face quarterback Juice Williams. They will have a clearer read on the level of defensive improvement by early afternoon.

"I wouldn't say the Illinois game was the worst moment of last season, because when you don't win there are many bad times," Davis said. "That was the one game where we really were blown out ... didn't have a chance.

"All I can say is this is a different year and we're a different team."

Running back Rashard Mendenhall destroyed the Gophers along with Williams a year ago, rushing for 201 yards and two touchdowns. Davis was asked if the Illini has been successful in replacing Mendenhall after he left early for the NFL and now is on the Pittsburgh Steelers' injured list.

"They have some good backs," he said. "I don't think they have anyone as fast as Mendenhall with that same size."

Willlie VanDeSteeg, the outstanding senior defensive end, played 50 percent of the defensive snaps in the Illinois game because of a shoulder injury.

"That game was tough to take," he said. "Illinois has great athletes -- then and this year -- but we also have a whole different attitude defensively.

"We're looking forward to going down there and playing a tough ballgame."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. preusse@startribune.com

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