As the Gophers marched through the nonconference season with a 3-0 record, much of the intrigue and attention centered on the team’s offense. After all, coach P.J. Fleck’s team is starting a true freshman at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, and the performances of those three youngsters has been eye-opening.
A somewhat under-the-radar story line, however, has emerged. The Gophers defense is playing pretty darn well.
The Gophers have allowed nine points per game, a figure that ranks seventh among the 130 FBS teams. They are allowing opponents to rush for only 72 yards per game and gain 256.3 total yards per game, both figures that rank sixth nationally.
“Stifling defense. Salty. Stingy,’’ Fleck said Saturday night after the Gophers beat Miami (Ohio) 26-3 on the strength of a defense that scored nearly as many points (two) as it gave up.
Of course, it must be pointed out that the Gophers’ three opponents so far have a combined 2-8 record. And only Fresno State, which the Gophers beat 21-14, is among the nation’s top 25 teams in scoring offense (22nd at 43.7 points per game). Miami ranks last at 10.3, while New Mexico State is 127th at 13.8.
Beginning Saturday at Maryland, the Gophers will put that defense to the test against Big Ten competition. The Terrapins had 407 and 565 yards of offense in wins over Texas and Bowling Green, respectively, before sputtering to 195 in a 35-14 loss to Temple on Saturday. Maryland, which edged the Gophers 31-24 in last year’s Big Ten opener, has increased its athleticism through top-30 recruiting classes in 2017 and ’18. The Gophers will try to counter that with their defensive speed.
“One thing we can do is run,’’ Fleck said. “A lot of our schemes are designed to make us run and put us in a position to use that to our advantage.’’
That was the case Saturday, when the Gophers shut down Miami’s offense, allowing the RedHawks to reach Minnesota territory on only three of 13 possessions.
The run defense was strong, as the Gophers held Miami to 91 yards on 31 carries. Looking deeper into the stats, what was impressive for the Gophers was the number of times they held the RedHawks to 1 yard or fewer on runs. Seventeen of Miami’s carries were for 1 yard (five times), no gain (eight) or for a loss (four times, including two sacks). Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber was especially active in shutting down the Miami run game. The junior had three tackles on 1-yard gains, three tackles on runs for no gain and one tackle for loss on a run.
“As the game went on, they stuffed the run more and more to where we couldn’t really run at all,’’ Miami coach Chuck Martin said.
Barber, whose eight tackles tied for the team lead with linebacker Kamal Martin, sees a defense that’s enjoying its job.
“We’re all having fun playing together. That’s a big part of it,’’ he said. “We practice like pros and play like kids. When you’re out there having fun, it’s easy to make plays.’’
Senior cornerback Antonio Shenault, who made seven tackles and intercepted a pass Saturday, believes being in defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s system for a second year has helped.
“It makes a lot of difference,’’ Shenault said. “Knowing the system really well allows you to play really fast off instincts.’’
It doesn’t hurt, either, to have a true freshman at cornerback in the speedy, 6-1, 195-pound Terell Smith, who has an interception, leads the team with four pass breakups and is tied for second with 18 tackles.
“Oh, man. You guys have seen him,’’ Shenault said. “He’s going to be an elite player here. Once he gets more comfortable with the schemes and continues to play with confidence, he’s going to be unbelievable.’’
Pleased with the 3-0 start, Fleck also warned there’s much more work to do.
“We were 3-0 last year, too,’’ he said. “Now we get into Big Ten play.’’