Now that we’ve reached the midpoint of the season, midterm exams are upon us, and I’ll be handing out grades to each unit on both sides of the ball for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. I covered the offense on Tuesday and here I’ll cover the defense and special teams.
Here is where the defense ranks from a statistical standpoint:
S&P+ Defense: 38th
Passing Defense: 192 YPG (7th B1G, 26th nationally)
Rushing Defense: 119.8 YPG (7th, T-36th)
Scoring Defense: 23.8 PPG (9th, 52nd)
(If you subtract the four defensive touchdowns the Gophers have allowed this year, that average drops down to 19.2 points allowed per game, which would be tied for 25th nationally.)
I find this to be a tough unit to grade. In terms of stopping the run, the Gophers have been solid up front. They’ve faced two Top 50 rushing offenses so far — Georgia Southern and Nebraska — and held both of them below their rushing average. Notre Dame transfer Micah Dew-Treadway hasn’t quite been the force of nature O.J. Smith was last year, but he is drawing a fair share of double teams that have allowed opposing teams to underestimate senior defensive tackle Sam Renner. JUCO tackle Keonte Schad has also been a solid contributor.
Generating a four-man pass rush has been a challenge, even with All-Big Ten rush end Carter Coughlin. Teams have done whatever they can to neutralize Coughlin — including holding him and daring the refs to call a penalty — so every snap has been a fight for him, but he is still making his presence felt, even if it doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score. Defensive ends not named Carter Coughlin have only accounted for 4.5 sacks through the first six games. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has certainly had success dialing up creative blitzes, but I’d like to see more from the likes of Winston DeLattiboudere, Boye Mafe, and even Tai’yon Devers.
It’s been a two-man show for the most part, with seniors Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber taking the bulk of the snaps at linebacker for the Gophers. Martin leads the defense with 41 total tackles and is tied with Antoine Winfield Jr. for the team lead in interceptions with a pair to his name. He actually missed two of the Gophers’ first three games, one due to a “coach’s decision” and the other due to an undisclosed injury. Sophomore Mariano Sori-Marin stepped in and struggled mightily against South Dakota State before faring better against Georgia Southern.
It’s been an uncharacteristically quiet season so far for Barber, who has struggled at times, especially when called upon to drop back into coverage. Martin is the more athletic of the two and thus more versatile, as he has been able to make more plays against the pass.
I felt like this unit was being disrespected in the preseason, considering the wealth of experience that was returning. At best, prognosticators were underestimating the caliber of the Gophers’ returning talent. Junior Coney Durr has been their most consistent cornerback, starting all six games and leading the secondary with six pass break-ups. Kiondre Thomas has been getting a lot of attention from opposing quarterbacks and his struggles in man coverage opened the door for Michigan transfer Benjamin St.-Juste to usurp his starting role. St.-Juste started to find his footing against Purdue and has started both of the Gophers’ games since then.
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is healthy and was already back to nabbing game-saving interceptions by the second week of the season. Sophomore Jordan Howden has looked much improved opposite Winfield after being thrown into the fire last year as a true freshman. At slot corner, senior Chris Williamson has been hit or miss at times, but he leads all Gophers defensive backs with 33 tackles this season. He and Winfield have also combined for 4.5 sacks.
Their worst game of the season was against Purdue, when poor tackling in the secondary — especially in run support — allowed the Boilermakers to find success on offense late in the game and cut the gap to a touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter.
Jacob Herbers has been okay at punter, averaging 39.3 yards on 23 punts. That average ranks 90th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten, so obviously there is ample room for improvement. Herbers did earn Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his performance against Purdue, when he downed parts the 2- and 1-yard lines.
True freshman kicker Michael Lantz is 4-of-6 on field goal attempts and 25-of-27 on point after attempts. His longest of the first half of the season was a 37-yard game-winning field goal against Fresno State in overtime. He missed a 51-yard field goal against Purdue and had a 36-yard attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown by Georgia Southern.
Redshirt sophomore Grant Ryerse has been handling kickoffs. Of his 37 kickoffs, 20 of them have been touchbacks. Two of those kickoffs have gone out of bounds.
In the return game, Minnesota is ranked 38th nationally in average kickoff return yards (23.3 yards per return), albeit on only six returns. On the flip side, the Gophers rank 45th in average kickoff return yards allowed (19.3 yards per return). From a punt return standpoint, Minnesota has been decidedly mediocre, averaging a meager 7.75 yards on four returns. But the punting unit has been exceptional, limiting opposing returners to 4 yards per return, which ties them for 26th nationally.