Five Gophers football players had restraining orders lifted this week, allowing them to resume playing games at TCF Bank Stadium, starting Saturday against Purdue.
Perceptionwise, this removed a cloud that hung over the program for two months. But from a pure football standpoint, the biggest development is having KiAnte Hardin as a fixture at cornerback.
Hardin missed four of the team's first eight games in the fallout from a Sept. 2 incident. The Gophers have allowed 16 points and 171.8 passing yards per game with him, compared to 28.3 points and 253.8 passing yards without him.
"When he's available to us, we can do all the things we want to do," coach Tracy Claeys said.
Last month, after an initial three-game suspension, Hardin came back and made an immediate impact.
Early in the Iowa game, the Hawkeyes tested him with a deep pass, and he showed off the speed with which he won the 100-meters state title in Missouri last year and his 40-inch vertical. The sophomore tipped the ball from receiver Jerminic Smith and returned the interception 31 yards. By game's end, Hardin had added seven tackles.
"He got gassed at the end of the first quarter," defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said. "He was like, 'Can you put someone else in?' I was like, 'No. You have a TV timeout, and you get your little butt ready to go play again. I'm not putting anybody out there instead of you.' "
Claeys originally suspended Hardin, cornerback Ray Buford, safety Dior Johnson and defensive end Tamarion Johnson while Minneapolis police investigated what happened a few hours after their Sept. 1 season opener.
The coach reinstated the players when Hennepin County announced it was declining to press charges. But the alleged victim, who is part of the Gophers gameday operation, filed restraining orders against the four players and two others, keeping them from TCF Bank Stadium for the Oct. 22 game against Rutgers.
On Wednesday, the woman agreed to a settlement. The restraining orders were removed, replaced by a court order that allows the players to be at the stadium but not within 20 feet of her. Hardin has been unavailable to the media since the preseason.
The program did not celebrate this week's courtroom decision, at least not publicly, but it's clear how relieved they are to have Hardin back.
"It's a big impact," senior safety Damarius Travis said. "He's a playmaker and a ball hawk. He can knock down passes. He can also tackle, too."
Hardin, a sophomore from Webb City, Mo., is listed at 5-10, 175 pounds.
"He's smaller, but he's strong," Claeys said.
With Hardin and Jalen Myrick at cornerback, the Gophers have two of the fastest players in the Big Ten blanketing receivers.
The coaches' certitude that those two won't get beat creates options with safeties Travis and Antoine Winfied Jr., which helps the run defense, blitz packages, everything. Buford plays in the team's nickel package.
In three Big Ten games with Hardin and Buford, the Gophers have given up an average of 13.7 points, well below the average (27.7) for those three foes — Iowa, Maryland and Illinois.
But the other two Big Ten games were different stories. Penn State averages 230.5 passing yards per game but threw for 335 against the Gophers, winning in overtime. The Nittany Lions had nine plays that gained 20 or more yards — the same number Minnesota allowed in its three Big Ten games with Hardin, combined.
Rutgers averages 138.8 passing yards per game but passed for 222 at Minnesota. The Scarlet Knights, averaging 18.5 points, narrowly lost to the Gophers, 34-32.
The next week, former coach Jerry Kill said: "I don't understand that whole [restraining order] situation, and it isn't my business, but KiAnte Hardin's important to that football team. And you take him off the defense and they ain't near as good."
The Gophers are 3-1 with Hardin and 3-1 without him, but anyone watching the defense closely can see the difference. Purdue will be the next test, with sophomore quarterback David Blough and big-play receiver DeAngelo Yancey. The Boilermakers have attempted 88 more passes this season than any other Big Ten team.
"They kind of spread the ball around," Sawvel said. "… You've got to defend everybody a little bit."