It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Charles Dickens penned that line in his 1859 novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” and had Chuck stuck around another 158 years, he could’ve written a not-quite-so-classic sequel: “A Tale of Two Gophers Run Defenses.”
In their 3-0 nonconference start, the Gophers ranked first nationally in run defense, giving up a mere 59 yards per games. That translated into the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, too, at eight points allowed per game.
Those stats came against teams that rank 77th (Oregon State), 80th (Buffalo) and 112th (Middle Tennessee) nationally in rushing offense. So, there is that.
In their three Big Ten games, however, the Gophers have allowed an average of 213 rushing yards, which ranks 13th of 14 conference teams and 97th nationally in conference games only. And it’s not surprising that Minnesota’s scoring defense in conference games (30.7 points allowed) is 10th in the Big Ten and 83rd overall.
Also not surprising, given those stats: The Gophers are winless in conference, and now an even 3-3 on the season.
Overall, the feast-or-famine Gophers are tied for 44th in run defense (136) and 24th in scoring defense (19.3).
“When we’ve allowed less than 100 [rushing] yards, we won our first three games,” Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber said. “[Allowing] more than 100 yards, we’ve lost.”
The latest struggles came last week against Michigan State, which ran for 245 yards, including 194 by LJ Scott, and gave the Gophers fits on sweeps.
“They attacked us where we weren’t very good, the perimeter,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “I would have done the same thing.”
Shoring up that perimeter starts with a commitment to the task, but the execution has been hampered by a secondary missing sure-tackling safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and two other starters at times. Last week, Adekunle Ayinde moved from safety to cornerback, while this week cornerback Justus Harris is expected to join safety Ken Handy-Holly as true freshmen who see action.
“We’ve gotta get guys on the same page,” defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “We’ve had some guys move around in spots, but, hey, that’s football. When one guy knows where another is, that helps out and you get all the bricks in the wall. That’s what we’re spending an awful lot of time in practice on.”
The good news for the Gophers is that their homecoming opponent Saturday, Illinois, doesn’t run the ball well. The Illini (2-4, 0-3) rank last in the Big Ten in rushing offense (118.3 yards per game) and just lost their best running back, Mike Epstein, to a season-ending leg injury.
After Saturday, however, the task stiffens for the Gophers with games remaining against the Big Ten’s top rusher in Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (164.3), the No. 4 rusher in Northwestern’s Justin Jackson (85) and No. 7 rusher in Iowa’s Akrum Wadley (80.5). Wisconsin leads the Big Ten at 263.8 rushing yards per game, while another opponent, Michigan, is fourth at 185.
“The Big Ten running game is different than the previous three games that we played,” Gophers defensive end Carter Coughlin said.
Stopping the run, Fleck indicated, has more layers than just moving players near the line of scrimmage for support.
“We made adjustments to be able to stop that,” he said of the Michigan State game. “Then you’re softer in the middle and you expose yourself to a play-action passing game at times. So, you’ve got to be able to continue to mix it up, keep them guessing.”
The solution, simply, is winning individual battles.
“Coach Fleck has really emphasized dominating the line of scrimmage,” Ayinde said. “It’s getting our front seven in the backfield, it’s getting our DBs to set edges and just rallying to the football.’’