As football coaches are wont to do, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer spent part of his Monday news conference praising the upcoming opponent. Specifically, he threw a bouquet to the Gophers defense.
“The best thing about [being] 6-0 is a chance to go 7-0 against a team that has a top 20 defense,’’ said Meyer, whose third-ranked Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) are host to the Gophers (3-2, 0-2) on Saturday. He added, "Their defense is outstanding.''
Statistically, Meyer is close to being accurate about Minnesota’s defensive ranking. The Gophers are allowing 324.2 yards per game, which ranks 21st nationally in total defense. That ranking, however, was built on nonconference success, when the Gophers faced offenses that currently rank 123rd (New Mexico State), 118th (Miami of Ohio) and 74th (Fresno State) nationally. Things have changed with the start of the Big Ten season.
In consecutive losses to Maryland (42-13) and Iowa (48-31) to start Big Ten play, the Gophers have allowed an average of 426 yards per game, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten. They’re allowing 45 points per game in league play, and only Nebraska’s 46.3 is worse.
Against Maryland, the run defense was the issue, as the Terrapins rushed for 315 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 8.5 yards per carry. Against Iowa, it was the pass defense that faltered, with Nate Stanley passing for 314 yards and four scores.
The Gophers’ approach against the Hawkeyes, coach P.J. Fleck said, was to stop the run. And they did so by holding Iowa to 86 yards on the ground.
“You’ve got to pick right now: How are you going to stop things, how many things are you going to stop, and how are you going to do it?’’ Fleck said Monday. “Our front seven truly did, in my opinion, stop the run. When you go up against Iowa and you give up less than 100 yards [rushing], that was the mission. … Now did they make some plays? Yes. But I thought we limited that as best as we possibly could.
“We just got beat in the secondary.’’
The Gophers secondary, which lost star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. for the season in the Maryland game, struggled mightily on third down as Iowa converted 10 of 19 chances. Stanley averaged 19.8 yards on his 10 third-down completions, and seven went for first downs and two for touchdowns.
Fleck hinted at changes in the secondary.
“The best players are going to play. If we have to keep shuffling it, we’ll keep shuffling it,’’ he said. “Nobody’s sat there and said, ‘This is my job.’ That’s part of where we’re at.’’
A bright spot on defense for the Gophers has been rush end Carter Coughlin, whose five sacks are tied for the Big Ten lead with Iowa end Anthony Nelson.
“They're not a big pressure team, but they've got a great pass rusher No. 45,’’ Meyer said. “Excellent player.’’
Coughlin and the rest of the Gophers defense will face a huge challenge from the Buckeyes, who are averaging 49 points per game and 565.7 yards per game, both fifth nationally. Leading that is sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins, whose 25 TD passes lead the nation.
“It’s hard to stop him,’’ Fleck said. “You do whatever you can to contain him, slow him down, get him to not be as accurate as he is.’’
Offensive line shift
Iowa’s Nelson had three first-half sacks of Gophers quarterback Zack Annexstad on Saturday, and Fleck replaced starting right tackle Sam Schlueter with true freshman Daniel Faalele to start the second half. How did Faalele play?
“He’s big,’’ Fleck said of the 6-9, 400-pounder. “One thing about Daniel: You’re not going to bull-rush him. You’re going to have to go around him. If that gives us an extra half-second just because he’s out there, just standing there as a pillar, then great. He’s gotten so much better as a football player.’’
Fleck added that he hasn’t given up on Schlueter, a third-year sophomore.
“This is just to give us a little change-up,’’ he said. “Sam Schlueter is very important for our football team. He’s going to be important for our football team now and important for our football team in the future.’’
Annexstad’s ankle is ‘good’
Annexstad aggravated a left ankle injury against Iowa, but Fleck didn’t seem overly concerned that it will limit the true freshman starter.
“It’s good. Tough kid,’’ he said. “It’s going to bother him here and there. It’s not going to just go away.’’
Annexstad was sacked by Nelson on back-to-back plays in the second quarter and came away limping.
“He can help protect himself, and he learned that,’’ Fleck said. “The only time he banged it up was when he tried to do too much. Just throw it away, and you’ll learn your lesson.’’
Gophers-Nebraska at 2:30 p.m.
The Gophers’ Oct. 20 game at Nebraska will begin at 2:30 p.m. and be aired on BTN, the network announced.