The unit has long been the team's weak link, but after stopping Juice Williams and Illinois it is building a reputation.
MARLIN LEVISON • firstname.lastname@example.org Kyle Theret stopped Ilinois’ Juice Williams from scoring in the third quarter. The ball was marked a half-yard short of the goal line, and Illinois failed to score on the series.
CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — Gophers football coach Tim Brewster sprinted across his old field while Joel Maturi, his boss, closed on him like a cornerback.
Maturi attempted a high-five. They missed, hugged and ran off celebrating the biggest victory of Brewster's tenure. Minutes later, Brewster grabbed a lectern and hollered, "We've got kind of a philosophy: 'Why not us? Why not now?' "
In previous years, the answer was obvious: Because your defense stinks.
Before the past couple of weeks, the rallying cry of Gophers defenses seemed to be, "Why us? Why now?''
Saturday, the defense delivered a surprising 27-20 victory at Memorial Stadium over last year's Big Ten Rose Bowl representative. The Gophers surrendered 550 yards, getting outgained by 238, proving that football statistics lie more often than politicians.
The defense earned what Brewster called a "program-changing'' victory, creating three vital turnovers, keeping dynamic Illini quarterback Juice Williams from winning the game with his legs, and stopping Illinois on a fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Big plays win football games, and the Minnesota defense produced the biggest plays of the game.
Linebacker Steve Davis stopped Williams a half-yard short of the goal line on fourth-and-goal in the third quarter, while the Gophers led 14-6.
Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg sacked Williams three times, forced the fumble that Simoni Lawrence returned for a touchdown and caused the fluttering pass that cornerback Ryan Collado intercepted to seal the victory.
Davis and VanDeSteeg could not have known there would be days like this. The two seniors recruited by Glen Mason struggled as juniors.
Davis, considered a dynamic pass-rushing defensive end by Mason's staff, now shares time at outside linebacker. Was his tackle of Williams the highlight of his career? Davis grinned sheepishly and said: "Yeah. It was a big stop for us.''
Williams faked an inside handoff out of the shotgun, then drove to his right. Only Davis could stop him.
"It was just me and Juice, one on one, and I told myself, 'I've got to make this tackle,'" Davis said. "I ended up making it. We got the stop on fourth down, and it was very exciting for me.''
VanDeSteeg played last season despite a broken hand. He managed one sack, nine fewer than his sophomore total. Saturday, he might have been the most important player on the field.
With the Gophers determined to "corral'' Williams, as Brewster put it, it was up to VanDeSteeg to create pressure. He belted Williams all day, creating two of the Gophers' three turnovers. "I'm a senior,'' he said. "I'm a captain. I've got to step up and make plays. The defense kind of rolls on me, a little bit.''
A year ago, the Gophers lost to Illinois 44-17. A week ago, Illinois won at Michigan 45-20.
Somehow, the 2008 Gophers held Illinois to three points in the first half and led 14-6 entering the fourth, before a blown coverage and Williams' prolific passing enabled Illinois to close to within seven.
VanDeSteeg had to be worried. "No,'' he said. "At the end, that was probably the funnest five minutes I've ever played. There's nothing like it. It's up, down, up, down, up, down, you've got to make a play, you've got to make a play. And we did, and the offense did.''
Davis may have made the biggest play of all. "My career has gone OK,'' he said. "There are some things that you would like to do better, and I've still got the rest of this season to try to do better.
"But as a team, this is by far the best, so far. Starting off 6-1, going into a bye week, we're already bowl-eligible, this is very exciting for me, very exciting for the seniors. We just want to keep pushing and get to that Rose Bowl.
"Because if we can get to the Rose Bowl, that would be the best thing in the world for me.''
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. email@example.com