Patrick Reusse: Defensive line could break a bad tradition

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2012 - 1:57 AM

The Gophers' front brings to mind 1977, when the line keyed an upset of Michigan.

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Gophers defensive end D.L. Wilhite got to New Hampshire quarterback Andy Vailas in the first half Saturday, forcing a fumble. Wilhite finished with 1½ sacks.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Jerry Kill's first season as Minnesota coach started with a 1-3 record in nonconference games. The Gophers recorded one sack in those games: from freshman end Mike Amaefula in the victory over Miami (Ohio).

This was simply a dramatization of a shortcoming that has plagued the Gophers for 35 years. It has been a rarity when the Gophers featured one outstanding defensive lineman and it has been dang near miraculous when they had two.

The Gophers' loyal fan base has spent much time lamenting the absence of coverage in the secondary. All these years of cussin' out defensive backs for surrendering 25-yarders on third-and-long has overshadowed a magnificent U of M tradition of a meek pass rush.

The contention here is that the last time the Gophers featured a defensive front that could consistently apply heat was 1977. The seven victories that season included a 16-0 upset over a Michigan team that arrived at Memorial Stadium rated No. 1.

Famously, defensive tackle Steve Midboe pursued Rick Leach backwards until the Michigan quarterback collapsed in a heap for a huge loss. And years later, winning coach Cal Stoll would still cackle and say:

"Midboe woulda chased him all the way to Stub & Herb's, if Leach had kept backtracking."

The opposition athletes on Saturday came from Durham, N.H., not Ann Arbor, Mich., and the quarterback was Andy Vailas, a backup sophomore, but there was evidence in the Gophers' 44-7 victory over New Hampshire that Kill and Co. could be constructing a defensive front to end the long streak of pass-rushing passivity.

It's a streak that reached its peak of futility last season, when the Gophers managed eight sacks from the defensive line over a 12-game schedule.

A week ago, in the steam of Las Vegas, linemen Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite had one sack each.

Overall, the Gophers pass defense benefitted more from the ineptitude of UNLV freshman quarterback Nick Sherry than persistent pressure from the front four. That changed on Saturday when Hageman, Wilhite and their partners overran New Hampshire's offensive line and made life miserable for quarterback Vailas.

We're not going to get in too much of a lather here, since Big Ten rushers are supposed to overrun blockers from the Colonial Athletic Association, but this seemed clear as Minnesota ended a two-game losing streak vs. FCS competition:

There are stronger, faster athletes than fans under 40 are used to seeing on the Gophers defensive front.

The starters are junior Hageman (6-6, 301) and redshirt sophomore Cameron Botticelli (6-5, 284) on the inside. Amafuela and Wilhite, a fifth-year senior, start at end, with sophomore Ben Perry and freshmen Thieren Cockran and Alex Keith as backups. The ends are in the 235-245 range.

The sack total was four: two for Hageman, 1 1/2 for Wilhite and a share of one for Amaefula. The pressure was constant. This was New Hampshire, correct, but this was also an active, athletic front pursuing and pounding Vailas.

Wilhite is the senior man in the group. He is showing some extra grit by playing with an unspecified injury. He now has 2 1/2 sacks after managing only three in the full 2011 season.

"It was definitely a great contrast to last season," Wilhite said. "I think it was five sacks [four officially] for the defensive front. We have a little contest going, Ra'Shede and me, to see who can get to the quarterback. I hate it when he gets the sack and not me, and he hates when I get one."

Then, Wilhite smiled and said: "We don't hate it. We just say that. We're in this together. As long as Ra'Shede and Cameron keep giving us the push from the middle, like they did the whole game, then the fast guys are going to get around the edge and get our sacks."

It's no secret that Hageman is the key to turning this into a high-pressure defensive front. He was a huge talent at Minneapolis Washburn in football and basketball, but off the field and off the court, there have been lapses.

"Ra'Shede's a beast," Wilhite said. "If we make sure that man does the right things, keeps the focus he has right now on football and school ... then, beautiful things are going to happen."

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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