To say the Gophers football team made a big improvement defensively in its last four games in 2018 would be an understatement, going from giving up 42 points to fewer than 15 points per game.

Whatever Joe Rossi did after taking over for Robb Smith as defensive coordinator worked wonders.

But Rossi’s scheming was put the test Thursday night when South Dakota State’s adjustments led to a brutal third quarter before the Gophers defense pulled it out with big plays late in a 28-21 victory at TCF Bank Stadium.

“All week long, coach Rossi was talking about discipline, discipline, discipline, detail, detail, detail,” said defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere, who made a game-sealing fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. “It definitely tested our connectivity as a defense, but I thank the Lord that we hung in through it all.”

The Gophers’ new defensive strategy to mix it up with the pass rush proved to be a game-changer in the outset, but an ugly third quarter nearly cost them.

An interception returned for a touchdown by Chris Williamson after the Gophers pressured South Dakota State quarterback J’Bore Gibbs could have been the turning point. That interception gave the Gophers a 20-7 lead to open the second half.

Still, Rossi’s defense needed another big play in the final period to redeem itself after giving up 190 yards and two touchdowns in the third quarter, as South Dakota State pulled ahead 21-20.

After the Jackrabbits picked up great field position on a long kickoff return with 5:39 to play, they eventually had a first down on the Gophers 32-yard line. Micah Dew-Treadway’s stuff on that first play from tailback Pierre Strong was Minnesota’s first tackle for loss in the game.

The Jackrabbits’ potential winning drive ended three plays later, as the Gophers’ first sack of the night came when it counted the most.

On fourth-and-10, Gibbs had nowhere to go dropping back when Esezi Otomewo and Tai’yon Devers sandwiched him.

In the third quarter, Gibbs tried to avoid a sack when safety Antoine Winfield Jr. blitzed and nearly took his legs out. Gibbs’ errant pass was intercepted by Williamson and returned 43 yards to give the Gophers a 13-point advantage.

Gibbs was rattled to that point, but he hadn’t been sacked. The Gophers were unable to bring the redshirt freshman quarterback down for most of the game — and he eventually got a bit comfortable. He converted a fourth-and-1 on a run. And he capped a go-ahead drive with a 17-yard pass to his tight end for a 21-20 advantage.

Earlier in the game, the Gophers for the first time used four defensive ends as his front with Devers, Boye Mafe, Otomewo and Carter Coughlin. South Dakota State twice got thwarted on third-and-long in the first quarter trying to figure out how to deal with the extra emphasis on the pass rush.

In the end, Rossi sticking with his idea to get after the quarterback proved to give the Gophers another reason to rely on their defense. DeLattiboudere’s fumble recovery drew applause from fans after a poor handoff from Gibbs with 8:12 left in the fourth quarter, which led to the Gophers retaking the lead.

“It was crazy,” DeLattiboudere said about the atmosphere after the play. “Those are the kind of moments as a college football player that you dream about at night.”