Legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is credited with coining the oft-repeated phrase, “Defense wins championships.” And while Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck didn’t come out and say those exact words in his press conference on Monday, he made it clear he believes you have to have a dominant defense to compete in the Big Ten.
“You have to have a really good defense. I believe that in the Big Ten. That’s my belief. I’m not saying that that’s [true] for [all of] college football. But I know what works for us,” Fleck said. “I might be 39, almost 40, so I’m almost over-the-hill. But I still believe in defensive football.”
If anything, the last four games of Gopher football have perhaps solidified that belief, as Fleck’s squad has stumbled to a 1-3 start in large part because of a defense that, put simply, can’t seem to play defense. Minnesota currently ranks 115th nationally in rushing defense (238.3 rushing yards allowed per game) and 100th in scoring defense (35.8 points allowed per game). The Gophers are ranked a respectable 37th in pass defense (209 passing yards allowed per game) by virtue of the fact that opposing offenses have had no reason to throw the ball.
But Fleck believes that Minnesota is “investing” in their defense, even if the early returns have been ugly through the first four games of this season.
“I know it might not be what people want it to be, but people have to peel back the onion a little bit and just look at who’s playing,” Fleck explained. “They’re very good players. We’ve recruited some really talented players. You might be sitting there going, ‘I don’t see that.’ You might not see it yet. But it’ll hit, and it’ll happen, and we’ll see the fruit of the labor eventually. And you want to see it sooner. Everybody wants to see it sooner. So do I. So do our players.”
To his point, underclassmen have figured heavily into the rotations at every level of the defense. Against Iowa, 19 defensive players saw the field for at least 12 snaps for Minnesota. Nine of them were freshmen or sophomores. With that said, youth and inexperience can’t explain away the Gophers’ struggles up front on their defensive line, which is led by senior defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway and redshirt junior defensive ends Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe.
Asked whether the Gophers are getting “outmuscled” and “out-physicaled” up front, Fleck conceded that some of their players might not be as physically mature as the opponents they have been matched up with, with the caveat that it is the responsibility of the coaching staff to recognize that and figure out a way to close that gap by highlighting their strengths.
“Part of that is we’re finding out what a lot of their strengths are as we play this season, which you can usually find out what that is in the offseason too,” Fleck admitted. “We’ve gotta just be better. We gotta find ways to be able to stop the run, and then when there’s tackles to be made, we gotta be able to tackle. And we’re not tackling well yet. I said ‘yet’ because we will.”
He cited Northwestern’s turnaround as an example of a program that has grown from failing.
Last season, the Wildcats finished 1-8 in the Big Ten, including a 38-22 loss to Minnesota in which the Gophers racked up 423 total yards of offense. Today, Northwestern is in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West with a 4-0 record, backed by a dominant defense that ranks 8th nationally in rushing defense (91.8 rushing yards allowed per game) and 7th in scoring defense (14 points allowed per game). The Wildcats’ defense boasts nine upperclassmen starters, including seven seniors.
Fleck stopped short of urging people to trust the process, but he is by no means ready to hit the panic button, and is instead leaning on his experience as a head coach.
“I’ve been the worst coach in America — which I’m sure a lot of people probably feel that right now too, in our [fan base]. I’ve been that before, and I’m glad I have been. I’m glad a lot of my staff has been. We’ve all been at the bottom, and we’ve all been at the top. Because you’ve seen that whole range, everybody knows how to handle that. You take it for exactly what it is.”