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Minnesota's defense stymies Syracuse running back Jerome Smith for no gain.

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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11 a.m. Saturday at Iowa • ESPN2 (100.3-FM)

Numbers, film don't lie: U defense is much better

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • September 26, 2012 - 12:21 AM

Mike Rallis doesn't like to brag, doesn't like to provide bulletin-board quotes, so when asked whether the Gophers defense is as good as it has looked this season, he puts his answer as delicately as possible.

"You are," the senior linebacker says, "what you put on film."

He also could have said, "what you put on the stat sheet." Because the numbers demonstrate just how much improvement the Gophers have shown this year, too.

Last year? It was ugly: eleventh in the Big Ten in preventing points, 10th in preventing yards. Eighth against the pass, 11th against the run, and dead last -- by a lot -- in creating turnovers.

So far in 2012, the rankings are the Gophers' friend. Fourth in scoring defense. Third in total defense. Fourth against the pass, eighth against the run, and -- in a development so implausible, it should trigger a Congressional investigation -- first in taking the ball away.

Attach all the disclaimers you want about the Gophers' squishy-soft schedule. Those numbers reflect actual, undeniable progress.

"We're definitely getting good," sophomore safety Cedric Thompson said. "We worked hard all during the spring, we worked hard during summer workouts, and it's showing up. People don't give us the credit, but I feel like we're as good as we've showed we are, and that's all that matters to us."

They already have more takeaways (10) this season than during the entire 2011 season (nine), which is a great new habit to pick up. And perhaps even better, they've dropped a habit that damaged their chances of winning time after time last year: Giving up the big play.

Minnesota's defense typically would make a stop, make a stop, then give up a huge gain. Short gain, short gain, length-of-the-field touchdown. The Gophers allowed its opponent to pick up more than 30 yards on a single snap in each of the first nine games.

This year, through four games? Zero. None.

"That was a point of emphasis throughout the offseason -- big plays and turnovers. Those are the big, decisive factors in games," Rallis said. "If we just keep the ball in front of us and make [the offense] go slow, we keep giving ourselves more chances to stop them. Give up a big plays, and we don't get that chance."

The safeties are largely responsible for big-play containment, especially in the running game, and for helping the cornerbacks on long passes. And Gophers coach Jerry Kill has had plenty of praise for Thompson, Derrick Wells, and Brock Vereen, who get most of the playing time at the position. But Thompson says the nothing-big mentality has pervaded the entire defense.

"The linebackers and D-line guys are doing really well at keeping running backs from getting loose," Thompson said. "Every once in awhile, a running back will get through and get out there, but we've been able to stop them. Holding down the big plays definitely feels good."

Especially on big downs. The Gophers have held on third down 40 times in 62 chances, a 35.4 percent opponent success rate that ranks sixth in the league. If the Gophers can continue that trend, and keep converting their own third downs (they're at 43.1 percent), they would be better than the opposition on those critical plays for the first time since 2005.

Trouble is, the schedule changes now. Saturday's game at Iowa is the first of the Gophers' eight Big Ten games, and Minnesota hasn't had a winning record in conference play since 2003. Can the defense keep staying in front of opposing ballcarriers?

"We really believe in ourselves, that we can stop these teams," Thompson said. "So I don't really believe it's going to be a lot harder in the Big Ten."

Now that would truly be a big change.

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