With a rash of injuries and absences, the Gophers had to compensate against Michigan this past Saturday.
And they learned the hard way what happens when the team fails to adjust on the fly: namely a season-opening 49-24 loss that knocked the Gophers out of the top 25 rankings.
The offense struggled without the right side of its line. The defense had to start a true freshman at linebacker. Special teams lacked its first choice at kicker and punter.
“Defense was put in a tough position with short fields all night,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “And against a team like that, that’s hard to win, especially when a team like Michigan doesn’t give you the football at all.”
Michigan punted only once after its first possession. The Gophers punted four times, averaging just 35 yards from grad transfer Matthew Stephenson. Kickoffs weren’t much better at about 37 yards from hobbled Brock Walker, who still was recovering from sports hernia surgery.
With starting punter Mark Crawford, kicker Michael Lantz and kickoff specialist Grant Ryerse all out for undisclosed reasons, the defense didn’t have much room for error. It ended up allowing Michigan and first-time starting quarterback Joe Milton 481 total yards.
Fifth-year senior cornerback Coney Durr, though, said his unit can’t blame Michigan’s good starting position for its poor stats.
“First and foremost, it’s our job as a defense to get the offense on the field,” Durr said Tuesday. “ … Sometimes you are going to be put in tough situations, and you’ve got to find a way out. You’ve got to have that mentality on defense that wherever they get the ball, they can’t get in the end zone.”
The Big Ten’s COVID-19 protocols mandate players sit out 21 days after a positive test. Injuries could take more or less time to return. But either way, the Gophers might never be completely at full strength this season, with a quick turnaround before Friday’s 6:30 p.m. game at Maryland.
Fleck, though, said his focus will remain on his players’ development, even with such a short time frame to fix mistakes in a nine-week, nine-game season. And the best way to accelerate growth on the field is to play.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces on that [defensive] side, and not just replacing the draft picks, but also the guys behind the guys that have played. Some of that is very youthful, and some of that is inexperienced, but they are very talented,” Fleck said. “ … I don’t like the result of the game. I don’t like the rushing yards. I don’t like all that, but again, this is a step-by-step process. I expect the defense to continue to get better as we go throughout the year.”
Durr agreed there’s plenty of potential on defense, including sophomore safety Tyler Nubin, one of the new starters after Antoine Winfield Jr.’s NFL departure. Nubin was among the defensive players who struggled Saturday, with plenty to learn from on film.
“[Nubin’s] going to be — I don’t tell him that — but I know he’s going to be a pretty good player,” Durr said. “I just try to tell him, man, don’t try to force anything. Play within your game and just let the game come to you.”