Thomas Barber could hardly find the words to explain what last year’s loss at Illinois was like.
The 55-31 drubbing to the team that finished last in the Big Ten West last season will not be a treasured memory for the senior linebacker.
“Just, you know, frustration,” Barber said . “… As you can see, I don’t like talking about it. But yeah, we know what happened.”
In that game, the Gophers allowed 646 offensive yards, including 430 rushing. The Illini peppered them with explosive plays, like three scoring drives of more than 70 yards.
It marked the end of former defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s tenure with the Gophers, as coach P.J. Fleck fired him and promoted current D-coordinator Joe Rossi to the position on an interim basis.
What went wrong for the defense in that game, according to Fleck, was tackling. And somewhat ominously, that was his biggest complaint from the Gophers most recent game at Purdue this past Saturday, too.
The defense allowed a 99-yard drive in the fourth quarter, for example, including several converted third downs, all from missed tackles.
Fleck said the Gophers are 2-2 in their four games when it comes to the tackle battle. And while record-wise, the team is 4-0, that’s an area he’d like to improve. Part of that comes from balancing wrapping up with trying to strip the ball. And part of it is how the game has evolved to demand more tackles in space.
But that can be hard to adjust when teams don’t tackle in practice as much anymore with concerns about concussions.
“We use a whole tackling circuit,” Fleck said. “Whether you are tackling somebody head on or tackling somebody from the side or now you’re behind the guy, and you have to sweep the ankle, we work on all three of those tackles all the time, the rugby-type tackle, all of that. You work on it in drills, but it’s hard to simulate it at full speed all the time in the season, so you try to do everything you can to do that out of the season.”
When the players do have the opportunity to practice tackling, Barber said there was a mind-set change when Rossi took the helm. He said the starters had to be tougher on the scout team, tackling harder, being more physical and not “tagging off.”
But the Gophers aren’t taking what happened at Illinois last year or even what happened at Purdue last week as an indication for this Saturday’s game.
“It’s a completely different year,” Fleck said. “… I don’t talk about last year with our team. This isn’t — we don’t talk about words like revenge or things like that. Those things do not exist in our program.”
The Illini are 2-2 this year but still sport running back Reggie Corbin, who rushed 13 times for 213 yards last year against the Gophers. But the good news for the Gophers is, that game was a turning point for the team. With a much better defense, the Gophers finished the year 3-1, and continuing into this season are 7-1.
“It had to. It had to be the line in the sand,” Barber said. “… But like Rossi always says, ‘There’s nothing that we changed.’ We still run the same defense.”
Just better now. Hypothetically.