Joe Rossi assumed control of the Gophers defense in the aftermath of one of the worst performances in program history. His boss, P.J. Fleck, had no choice but to change defensive coordinators last November after Illinois turned a Big Ten game into a seven-on-seven drill, scoring seven touchdowns, including four that covered 65-plus yards.
Seven touchdowns in one game against a bad team represented a final straw. In six subsequent Big Ten games under Rossi’s helm, the Gophers defense has given up 11 touchdowns total.
Friendly reminder: Coaching matters.
And now the Gophers get to face the worst offense in college football in the birthplace of this glorious sport, Rutgers University, site of the first college football game back in 1869. Rutgers defeated Princeton 6-4 that day in what was a shootout compared to modern day Scarlet Knights offense.
Rutgers ranks dead last in FBS in scoring offense at 11.8 points per game and 128th (out of 130 teams) in total offense.
Their quarterback, freshman Johnny Langan, completed five passes against Indiana last week for a total of 1 yard. That’s not a misprint. Rutgers passed for 1 yard. Singular. For the game.
In four Big Ten games this season, the Scarlet Knights have been edged 165-7.
Bravo, Jim Delany. Adding Rutgers to the Big Ten’s football lineup was a real coup.
The Gophers have given up only one offensive touchdown the past two games combined, so they have a chance to extend a streak of dominance that isn’t customary for them historically.
“Everybody is having fun out there,” said safety Antoine Winfield Jr., one of the stars spearheading the charge.
A 6-0 start has brought gushing praise for the Gophers offense, rightfully so. Their stable of running backs and wide receivers have been terrific, with quarterback Tanner Morgan steady at the controls.
It’s easy to overlook their defense when focused on that offensive skill, but the contribution of Rossi’s group might be even more noteworthy.
The Gophers are 9-1 since Rossi’s promotion, with his defense giving up only 21 touchdowns in that span — 2.1 per game. That percentage decreases to 1.8 when factoring only Big Ten games. They rank No. 22 nationally in total defense.
“We’re taking ownership of who we are and who can be,” linebacker Kamal Martin said. “We still have to get better.”
Three things in particular stand out with the defense, especially in wins over Illinois and Nebraska the past two weeks: Tackling has improved after a sloppy effort in that area at Purdue; the defense is playing fast; and their best players are performing like their best players.
The number of missed tackles against Purdue was cringeworthy. Rossi said players devoted themselves to working harder on tackling drills in practice after that game, to the point where coaches now tell them to ease up.
“Like, ‘Hey, listen, we’ve got to relax a little bit,’ ” Rossi said.
Tackling since then has been crisper, perhaps attributed to better focus on technique and/or more guys swarming to ball carriers. Whatever the case, Rossi didn’t see that one display of missed tackles as cause for alarm.
“If something is a problem one time, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an epidemic,” he said. “You can give it some antibiotics and get it fixed for the next week. If it’s an epidemic, it might be chronic illness. It might be a sign of a bigger problem. I didn’t think it was that case.”
One reason for that confidence is his leadership on defense. The Gophers have playmakers who look like future NFL draft picks in Martin, Winfield and Carter Coughlin. That trio provides true difference-makers at all three levels of the defense.
The overall speed and depth on defense also have improved significantly during Fleck’s tenure. It’s not perfect yet. Not a finished product. But the upgrade in talent is obvious. And Fleck has the right defensive coordinator in place now. The difference is evident in both statistics and optics.