The Gophers defense heard so many glowing tributes of TCU’s vaunted offense in advance of their season opener that you could hardly blame them if they shouted in unison, “Enough already!”
Of course, nobody would have faulted them for sharing that same message with their own stumbling, bumbling offense at halftime on a steamy Thursday night.
For all the hype about TCU’s offense — all deserved by the way — the prime-time opener also revealed a salient counterpoint.
The Gophers defense is pretty darn good, too.
Maybe even better than advertised. They just didn’t get enough help in a 23-17 loss.
“We’ve got a good defense. I’ve said that all along,” coach Jerry Kill said.
The Gophers contained TCU’s run-and-gun offense as well as could be expected, but the Gophers same old problems on offense doomed their chance at a program-defining upset in front of a record crowd at TCF Bank Stadium.
The stadium was electric in anticipation of the most important game for Gophers football in decades. The atmosphere felt like an event, a chance for the Gophers to make a convincing statement against one of college football’s elite teams.
The defense answered the challenge. The offense, not so much.
Most of the pregame conversation focused on the marquee matchup: TCU’s offense vs. the Gophers defense.
Members of the Gophers defense heard about it nonstop, 24/7.
How do you stop Trevone Boykin?
How do you limit their speed attack?
How do you hold them under 50 points?
Those were obvious, pertinent questions because the Horned Frogs own one of the most explosive and hard-to-stop offenses in college football. They returned a Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback and 10 starters off a unit that averaged 46.5 points per game last season.
They operate at a blistering pace that sends defenders to the sideline in search of oxygen. They have terrific athletes and a creative scheme, a lethal combination.
The Gophers professed an appropriate amount of respect for TCU’s offense, calling the Horned Frogs the toughest challenge they will face all season. But privately they also felt confident in their ability to hold their own.
And they did.
The Gophers created two turnovers, generated enough pass rush to disrupt Boykin’s timing a handful of times and limited TCU’s big plays.
Was the night perfect? No, but the defense gave the Gophers a chance to win.
“We had some guys flying around and making some plays,” cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said.
The Gophers can take a lot of positives from their defensive performance. Namely, that contributions came from a lot of sources.
Senior cornerback Eric Murray put on a show for representatives of 15 NFL teams in attendance by forcing a fumble with a textbook tackle and later intercepting a Boykin pass, both coming deep in TCU’s territory.
True freshman linebacker Julian Huff showed no stage fright in his college debut. He altered at least three plays with his speed off the edge.
On one, Huff snuffed out a screen pass to the running back that disrupted Boykin’s primary read. He later pressured Boykin on an option play, forcing a quick pitch that resulted in a tackle for loss.
Throw darts at the defensive roster and you’d probably hit the name of a player who made a key play.
Antonio Johnson recovered a fumble. Damarius Travis collected 10 tackles. Ace Rogers made a tackle that replays seemed to indicate could have been ruled another fumble.
Adekunle Ayinde broke up a pass on third down.
Theiren Cockran had tackle for loss on third-and-5 inside TCU’s 10-yard line in the final minute of the first half. That led to a missed chip-shot field goal.
The defense’s depth and speed kept Boykin and Co. from running wild. The Horned Frogs converted only seven of 19 third-down chances and finished 23 points under their scoring average from last season.
The Gophers defense kept the game close long enough to make things interesting. They just needed more help from the other side of the ball.