Joe Rossi has built a reputation for coordinating Gophers defenses that limit explosive plays and get off the field on third down. When working at peak efficiency, Rossi's defense has owned the game's big moments, keeping the score down and giving Minnesota's offense chances to use long, clock-draining drives to shorten games.
Over the past two weeks, though, Rossi's defense has been anything but efficient. First gashed for 519 yards in a 31-13 loss at No. 15 North Carolina and then riddled for 492 yards in a 37-34 overtime loss at Northwestern, the Gophers suddenly enter Saturday's homecoming game against Louisiana with issues on a defense that's usually been reliable.
What's gone wrong?
"Everything,'' Rossi said Wednesday, assessing the loss to Northwestern, when the Gophers blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead. "… It's not up to the standard. They have three consecutive drives where they come away with points. We played poor zone coverage. We played poor man coverage. We didn't rush the passer well enough.
"Poor performance is a result of two things: coaching and playing,'' he added, "so, players gotta be better, coaches gotta be better.''
Limiting big plays and defensive third-down stops were strengths for the Gophers last year. They allowed 130 plays of 10 yards or more in 2022, which was the ninth-fewest among the 133 FBS teams. This year, they've already allowed 55 such plays, which ranks 85th. In the past two games, they've surrendered 41 plays of 10 yards or longer.
"It was just really us not being us — being able to play the situation, being focused, being confident,'' Gophers safety Tyler Nubin said. "... In that fourth quarter, we weren't us.''
Minnesota limited opponents to a third-down conversion rate of 27.9% in 2022, which was sixth best in the nation. This year, opponents are converting 50.9% of their third downs, which ranks 128th. In the past two games, opponents are 20-for-34 on third down (58.8%).
"If we cover better,'' Rossi said, "the third-down percentages will improve.''
Don't chase the laser pointer
Much of the Gophers' troubles against Northwestern came from overreacting to fakes. Late in the second quarter, cornerback Justin Walley bit on a double move by Wildcats receiver Bryce Kirtz, resulting in an 80-yard touchdown reception. The fourth quarter saw linebackers and defensive backs get out of position by reading quarterback Ben Bryant incorrectly. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Northwestern had 10 gains of 10 yards or more. The Wildcats averaged 15.4 yards on those plays.
Rossi compared the breakdowns to a cat playing with a laser pointer.
"Have you ever taken a laser beam and put it on the ground with a cat?'' Rossi asked. "They run around chasing the laser. In the quest to make a play, sometimes guys do that. It's like, 'The quarterback looks over here, I'm going over here. If the quarterback goes over there, I'm going to go over there.' … We can't chase the laser beam. We can't chase plays.''
While the way the Gophers lost at Northwestern certainly stunned the team, Nubin stripped it down to the basics.
"It's just a result,'' he said. "In a result, that's just data. We're gonna pull data from every single game, whether it's a win or a loss, and we're gonna come back and get better the next week.''
A challenge awaits
It would behoove the Gophers to shore up their defense quickly because Saturday's opponent comes to Minneapolis armed with a strong offense. The Ragin' Cajuns (3-1) are averaging 38.8 points per game and have the nation's fourth-ranked rushing offense at 238.0 yards per game.
Dual-threat quarterback Zeon Chriss averages 10.3 yards per carry, has scored four TDs and has completed 73.5% of his passes.
"They can beat you a lot of ways,'' Nubin said. "They've got athletes everywhere and a young quarterback that can run all over the place.''
To get the defense back on track, Rossi and coach P.J. Fleck have emphasized a renewed focus on details during practice this week.
"The last drive, just unacceptable,'' Fleck said of Northwestern's 12-play, 80-yard march that tied the score with 2 seconds left in the fourth quarter. "Our eyes are in the wrong spot. We're not detailed enough. And that comes down to: Is it personnel? Is it coaching? Is it scheme? It's all of it. And we're finding out what our players can do and what this team can do.''
Rossi praised his players for how they've responded during practice and have worked to correct their mistakes to avoid a collapse like they experienced at Northwestern. The proof, though, will come on game day.
"We talk about how there is no momentum,'' Rossi said. "Momentum is the things that you allow to have happen. And so, each plays is its own play. If you want to change momentum in your favor, make a play.''