In comparing stats alone, the Gophers defense ranks among the best in college football, alongside heavyweights Alabama, Clemson, Wisconsin and Penn State. Minnesota has the No. 1 scoring defense (eight points per game) and rushing defense (59 yards per game), while ranking fifth in total defense (239 yards).
But only five sacks in three games? That's not "elite" enough for Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, especially not since the team had nine sacks at this point a year ago, en route to nearly breaking the school record for sacks in a season.
"Starting off in Big Ten play, we've got to get more than we have been," linebacker Carter Coughlin said. "We've been doing all right, but you know Coach Fleck talks to us about striving for 'elite.' So I think we have a ways to go."
Saturday would be a good time to get those sack numbers up. Maryland comes to TCF Bank Stadium for the Big Ten opener with its third-string quarterback behind center, the second game in a row the Gophers (3-0) play a team without its starting QB.
The Terrapins are turning to Max Bortenschlager after Kasim Hill suffered a season-ending knee injury last week in a loss to Central Florida.
"The biggest thing you want to do is you want to disrupt the quarterback," defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. "There's a variety of different ways to do it. You can do it with true pressure on him. You can do it with different looks, different coverages, different disguises.
"For us to be successful in the Big Ten, we got to be able to draw from all those different things. We can't be a one-trick pony."
Looking ahead, the eight remaining Big Ten opponents aren't exactly elite either at quarterback. Two of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks, Penn State's Trace McSorley and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, aren't on the schedule. The best passer the Gophers face could be Iowa's Nate Stanley, who leads the conference with 12 touchdown tosses but is a first-year starter, or Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook, who has shown off his accuracy lately but often has been a one-dimensional game manager.
If the Gophers build momentum by getting after the quarterback Saturday, it would mirror last season's 31-10 victory at Maryland. The Gophers' first conference win last year featured three sacks.
After that game, Minnesota's defense went on a tear against opposing QBs in victories against Rutgers (four sacks), Purdue (six) and Northwestern (seven).
Those seven sacks against the Wildcats were one short of the single-game school record, set in 2000 against Iowa.
The Gophers' 37 sacks last year were four away from the 1997 team's single-season mark.
During bye-week practices last week, Fleck had his linemen work on getting to the QB after breaking into the backfield — putting emphasis on finishing with a sack.
"In the third game, I felt like I was getting back there a lot, as well as the other D-linemen, but we weren't finishing," said defensive tackle Steven Richardson, who doesn't have a sack after recording seven last year. "So we knew what we needed to work on in the bye week. Once we get past, what do we do after that? How can we finish on the quarterback?"