It doesn't take much to make an argument that the Gophers are exceeding expectations. For a team that many thought would struggle with Montana State, a 6-1 start with two Big Ten wins is rather impressive. And while it's easy to look at the record and simply give the Gophers an "A" at the midway point of the season, that wouldn't really be a fair testament to how they've played.
The other day, we graded the offense. Today, we grade the defense as a whole, the defensve line, linebackers and secondary.
Feel free to disagree or add your own.
The story of the 2008 Gophers football team has been the defense. One year ago the Burnsville Blaze would have had a better chance of shutting down Florida Atlantic than the Golden Gophers. Flashforward one year later and the Gophers, with a new gameplan energized by some new talent, shut down FAU. It's no stretch to describe the Minnesota defense as "ball-hawking." Even the most rosy outlook on the season could not have predicted such a turnaround defensively.
Now, admitting that there has been improvement is only half of the equation. Because in some respects the turnovers--some taken, others given--have masked some of the issues that could still haunt the Gophers.
Comparitively to 2007, statistically the Gophers are improved. But, the Gophers are dead last in the conference after seven weeks in pass defense, allowing more than 1800 yards through the air. That's about 400 yards more through the air than Michigan, which ranks 10th in the conference. Now, in some cases these numbers can lie. Passing yards can be inflated by a stout run defense or by having significant leads that foce teams to play with large deficits. Neither is really the case for the Gophers.
The defense is in the middle of the pack in the conference against the run, allowing more than 120 yards per game on the ground and a 4 yards per carry average. Those numbers add up to a total defense that finishes 10th in the Big 10 having allowed more than 380 yards per game.
Looking back on an NCAA-worst defense last year that allowed a mind-boggling 518 yards. So, it's esay to look at Ted Roof's defense and start pontificating about the coaching offers he'll receive in the offseason. But in context, in my opinion, the Minnesota defense, while drastically improved, is still a big weakness.
I assume we can agree that a grade for last year's defense would be an F. For the entirety of the MInnesota defense in 2008, at the mid-way point, I give the group a B-. Based solely on numbers this grade would be lower. But the defense has come up big on third downs and made difference-making plays to get them an above average grade.
On to the positions:
Defensive line: I tapped Willie VanDeSteeg as one of "My Guys"--a bloggers version of picks to click if you will--to return to form this season. After the Illinois game, where he caused havoc on the Illini and Juice WIlliams, it was clear that VanDeSteeg is, once again, the rusher the Gophers need to help protect the secondary. Through seven games, WVDS has 6.5 sacks, 11 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles to go along with 32 total tackles to lead the D-line. WVDS has been aided by a somewhat improved secondary that allows the D-line enough time to generate pressure. In the middle, Eric Small and Garrett Brown have both had their moments at tackle. Meanwhile, Derrick Onwuachi has been steady, though I think he could breakout a bit in the second half as attention starts being focused on WVDS. Overall, this unit has been a plus for the Gophers but it can certainly take strides. Grade: B- based quite a bit on the play of WVDS.
Linebackers: I want to focus on two players in particular here who have made a world of difference for the Minnesota defense. The first is Lee Campbell, a converted defensive end (good move by Brewster) is second on the team with tackles (42), has picked up two sacks blitzing off of the corner, made two interceptions, recovered two fumbles and has been pretty much everywhere.
The second linebacker to cause havoc has been Simoni Lawrence. One of Brewster's JUCO recruits, Lawrence has added speed to a linebacking corps that lacked it a season ago. Like Campbell, Lawrence has been effective rushing from the edge. He's compiled 31 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for a loss and has been effective against the pass.
Bringing in Lawrence and moving Campbell from defensive end is a big reason the Gophers can play a more disruptive 3-4 defense at times. Add in the play of Deon Hightower, and the linebacking corps has been a strength for the Gophers. I give them my highest grade on the defense. Grade: A.
Secondary: Many of you will probably disagree with this, but I'm grading the secondary rather low. As a unit, depth is an incredible issue here. With Marcus Sherels banged up during a defensive struggle against Indiana, Ryan Collado came in and was immediately picked on. Now, Collado hasn't been atrocious. He's made a few plays. But beyond my depth concerns are actual numbers that indicate this unit in particular has a long way to go.
Yes, Traye Simmons has made big plays. Tramaine Brock has been an improvement over most anything we've seen in recent years. But the Gophers are allowing 7.6 yards per completion, the highest number in the conference. Also consider that the Gophers are allowing a relatively high percentage of passes to be completed (57 percent). That means by comparison the Gophers are allowing big plays at a high rate. Take away the turnovers Minnesota has capitalized on, and the perception of the secondary in particular and the defense in general would be drastically different.
So, in my opinion, this group has been better than what we're used to, but all the bending this group is doing could well start breaking more than we'd like if the pass defense doesn't take strides in the weeks ahead. Grade: C.