They have tried blitzes and zones, tight coverage and loose. They have dropped extra defenders into pass coverage one play, then sent them at the quarterback the next. The Gophers have tried to render the forward pass impractical, or at least risky, but so far find themselves backpedaling.
But passing games can be stopped. Tracy Claeys has seen it on tape.
“We spent time watching the Alabama-Michigan State bowl game — you watch that game, there are receivers open, but the quarterback doesn’t have time to throw it,” said Claeys, the Gophers defensive coordinator, referring to the Crimson Tide’s 49-7 rout in the Capital One Bowl Jan. 1. “He drops back and, bam! He’s on his back. You have to be able to put pressure on the quarterback because there’s too much space out there for guys to run around. As we improve the pass rush, your pass defense is going to improve.”
Pretty much has to. After two nonconference games, the Gophers pass defense ranks last in the Big Ten, giving up 296 yards per game and allowing completions on 71.1 percent of passes thrown. That’s a significant drop from 2010, when the Gophers placed fourth in the conference, surrendering an even 200 yards and a 65.0 percent completion rate.
“It’s been tough, but we’re not discouraged,” defensive end D.L. Wilhite said. “I feel like everybody is coming out, even though we’re 0-2, and working hard to get this fixed.”
The problem is, it isn’t just one thing. Southern California used a short, staccato sideline game with Robert Woods to move the ball 6 or 8 yards at a time, finally racking up 304 yards on the day. New Mexico State looked downfield and across the middle for its pair of long, lean receiving targets, Taveon Rogers and Todd Lee, and managed 288 yards.
Quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Andrew Manley each enjoyed long streaks of success, Barkley completing 16 in a row and Manley 14. Neither was sacked, though Manley was intercepted a couple of times.
“It would be easy to fix if it was the same person or same position all the time,” Claeys said. “This play it’s the D-line, this play it’s the secondary. It’s like popcorn going off — you don’t know which one to [correct].”
There have been blown coverages, and lack of pressure, and even a coaching screw-up, too; Claeys blames himself for at least one bad call, when he was taken by surprise by the Aggies’ decision to pull their tailback and use a five-wide passing lineup.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got linebackers playing on wide receivers, and that’s not a good deal,” said Claeys, who expects Miami to utilize similar formations this weekend. “I could have made a better call than what I made. I take responsibility for that.”
Everyone takes responsibility on the defense, Wilhite said, which is why he’s optimistic that improvement is on its way.
“It’s definitely a combination of all three position groups. There are times where we’re not getting pressure at all, and because of that, the [defensive backs] are in coverage too long and the quarterback is getting opportunities to pick them apart. And there are other times where the DBs just need to hold on to coverage a millisecond longer and we’d have been there,” the junior lineman said. “I think we’re making progress. But we’ve just got to figure out a way to put it all together.”
Claeys has tried to rush the quarterbacks by taking a few risks, but “we’re blitzing more than I’d like to.” Still, the pressure had an effect last week, he pointed out. Manley was 14-of-17 for 226 yards in the first half but just 6-of-14 for 62 yards after the Gophers made some halftime adjustments. They didn’t get a sack, but the Gophers made Manley speed up.
“We need to come out firing a little bit more” at the start, said linebacker Mike Rallis. “Once we got into the flow of the game, we started attacking. We need to do that from the get-go. That’s just a mindset. As we get more and more experience in this defense, we’ll start to do that more and more.”