A group text went around in the Gophers defensive line’s group chat this week, setting the tone for Nebraska on Saturday after a standout game against Illinois.
“ ‘Hey, we’re going to practice even harder than we did last week,’ ” rush end Carter Coughlin said of the message. “ ‘Scouts, make sure that that happens.’ ”
Minnesota’s defense held the Illini offense to just three points last Saturday, though coach P.J. Fleck actually credited the unit with a shutout, since he took responsibility for an ill-fated timeout to ice the kicker on a first-half field goal. After failing to wrap up tackles against Purdue in the Big Ten opener and struggling as a whole most of last year, the Gophers showed their capabilities under defensive coordinator Joe Rossi.
And Coughlin said to expect an even better game this weekend.
“Everything that you saw on Saturday, we practiced at that intensity for the entire week,” Coughlin said Tuesday. “That’s something that was kind of missing earlier in the season. And last week, we saw what we can do when we practice like that. So today was even crazier than last Tuesday was, and I promise you, tomorrow will be even crazier than last Wednesday.”
Coughlin added the defense was “firing on all cylinders” with everybody doing their job. Fleck called the performance “outstanding.”
“They swarmed to the football. The tackling was really good. The spatial awareness was really good. I thought our rush lanes were better,” Fleck said. “... We had to condense the running lanes. I thought we did a better job of doing that.”
In that 40-17 victory against Illinois, with 14 of those points from offensive turnovers, the Gophers allowed the Illini just 91 rushing yards and 248 total offensive yards. They also held Illinois to five of 17 on third-down conversions.
Coughlin said going into the game, the Gophers knew the cornerbacks would be under pressure in a game plan designed to stifle Illinois’ run, including standout running back Reggie Corbin.
“The corners killed it,” as Coughlin put it.
Several players have made impactful plays throughout the season, such as safety Antoine Winfield Jr.’s game-saving interception at Fresno State. But senior linebacker Kamal Martin has shown he has NFL potential at linebacker even without playing in two games this year because of suspension and injury.
Martin — at 6-3, 235 pounds — has 18 solo tackles and eight assists. He also has two interceptions and a pass breakup and has forced two fumbles.
“He’s put in a position this year where he can really maximize his skill set,” said Coughlin of Martin, one of his best friends. “And that’s why he’s having the games that he’s had because he’s a freak of nature. He’s an unbelievable linebacker, and him playing our ‘Will’ position just allows him to be all over the place making plays like he should.”
The Gophers have had some help this year, though, against Illinois and other opponents who have played inexperienced quarterbacks. Illinois starter Brandon Peters left the game early because of an injury. But the Gophers have tried to use those in-game changes to their advantage, adjusting on the fly. It could be the same this weekend, with Nebraska starter Adrian Martinez questionable after a leg injury in last week’s 13-10 win against Northwestern.
“We don’t know who’s playing this week,” Coughlin said. “But we need to prepare for both [quarterbacks], and we need to know the strengths and weaknesses of both of them. Still going to be the same game plan but just have different emphasis in different places.”