Even with the Gophers football team looking somewhat lifeless as it clung to a 14-point lead, defensive backs and special teams coach Jay Sawvel’s voice reflected nothing but confidence.
Eastern Illinois was punting for the fourth time Thursday night after a three-and-out to start the second half. Still, the Gophers, having managed only 21 yards of total offense in the first quarter, were in need of a spark.
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Sawvel told coach Jerry Kill. “We’re going to block it, Murray’s going to get it. Guarantee it.”
Defensive back Eric Murray did get it, deflecting Cody Edwards’ punt attempt at the 20-yard line. As the ball careened backward, Logan Hutton plucked it out of the air, bolting the 2 yards into the end zone for the Gophers’ third touchdown of the evening.
“Coach Sawvel finally gave us the go to go get it,” Murray said. “And that’s what we did.”
It was one of a handful of strong plays by the defense that bellied the score in the Gophers’ 42-20 season-opening victory over the Panthers on a misty night at TCF Bank Stadium. The strong performance, however, came with an asterisk.
Though the Gophers forced three turnovers to go along with the blocked punt, the defense also suffered some major losses on the defensive line, an area that already had some questions and depth concerns in preseason workouts. Michael Amaefula, hampered by a knee injury, never entered the game. Junior Scott Ekpe and sophomore Yoshoub Timms each left in the first quarter because of injuries. And then junior Alex Keith — on the heels of contributing the best defensive performance of the night — walked away nursing a right knee injury in the third quarter.
“I’m concerned,” Kill said. “We just put the next [player] in, and that’s all you can do. I look forward to seeing [on film] how they did. But it’s a lot of young guys and it certainly makes you a little nervous right now. … It is a concern, but the guys stepped up, they put pressure on the quarterback, did a great job.”
In fact, it was the defense that seemed to jumpstart the Gophers. Keith forced one fumble and recovered two. Antonio Johnson snatched an interception. Damien Wilson led the way with 10 tackles.
But at the same time, defensive linemen were dropping like flies. As the veteran line grew smaller, Kill was forced to fill the gaps with freshmen: Gaelin Elmore, Steven Richardson and Andrew Stelter all saw plenty of playing time, and they could be tagged for expanded roles going forward. Kill said he expects Amaefula back next week, but the coach is waiting to see about the seriousness of the rest of the injuries.
In the meantime, the Gophers will piece together what they must.
“Our young guys are ready to play and work hard just like our older guys,” Johnson said. “So I think they’re going to step in and fill that void immediately.”