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Minnesota Football: The Monday Perspective is getting defensive

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The Gopher defense has been bad, but let’s keep things in perspective.

Penn State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Time for 2020’s first installment of The Monday Perspective. I took the first week off, just not really sure how to react to the opening week’s loss to Michigan. Then the Maryland game happened and to be honest, I’m not really sure that I have any clearer picture on how I feel about this 2020 team. But that’s never stopped me from having an opinion, so here goes.

The incredibly late start by the Big Ten really added to the anticipation of the 2020 Gopher season. 2019 was a special year for the program, one that was thoroughly enjoyed by the fans. It was special. Which brings me to my first thought.

2020 is not a continuation of 2019

I was fortunate enough to work at the Badger basketball camp in the summer of 2000, directly following their run to the Final Four as an 8-seed. Dick Bennett was the coach and each week would take time to sit and chat with all of the coaches working his camp. He was quite candid in those little sessions, it was a real treat (even if it was Wisconsin). He talked about the challenge of letting that prior season go. Last season was last season, the upcoming season was completely new. It was like the old Vikings, when they would come to a new land, they would burn their ships. Not allowing the thoughts of going back to creep into their minds.

The 2019 Gopher football team did not accomplish the equivalent of a Final Four. But the point is that last year was last year. A lot of guys returned, several needed to be replaced but this team is going to be different.

But more than just having a different roster makeup, it isn’t a continuation of last year’s success. Last year was great, but there was no guarantee that this team would take the logical next step. My point is that we, as fans, do not have to connect last year to this year. Or even take this year’s ugly start and apply it to 2021. This year is this year, the current group is struggling but no way does that diminish what happened last year.

There is still plenty of reason to believe that the program is improving and in a good place. We are absolutely not entitled to good season after good season just because 2019 was elite. The program depth isn’t there to reload. This is all still a process.

If you believe that last year was the new baseline for expectations, then you are going to be very disappointed this season (likely most seasons). But progress is not linear.

We knew the defense would be a step back.

Even if we didn’t want to really look at things objectively to see that this defense was replacing 7 starters, 4 of whom are currently on NFL rosters, and there was bound to be a step back. Did we think it would be this bad? No, but optimism always reigns for your own team.

A couple of the guys who are stepping into more primary roles saw significant reps a year ago. Boye Mafe and Mariano Sori-Marin played quite a bit in 2019 without starting most of the time. But the rest of the new starters are getting their first significant playing time and learning on the fly. Tyler Nubin is struggling as he steps into the spot vacated by Antoine Winfield Jr. Be excite about Nubin’s potential and talent, but to expect there wouldn’t be a dropoff there is foolish. Same can be said for Thomas Rush taking Carter Coughlin’s rush edge role. Same can be said for Cody Lindenberg who is replacing Kamal Martin. Just those three spots are significant levels of experience and talent that are being replaced.

Now, this is not a knock on the 2020 starters. Their predecessors struggled early in their careers as well. In 2019, those guys had the benefit of having learned on the fly in 2017 & 2018. This is the place we are in for half of the defense right now.

Giving up 49 points to what we thought was a good Michigan team, didn’t seem...quite so bad. Till they gave up 45 points and over 600 yards of offense to a Maryland team who scored 3 the week prior.

The good news is that much of the problem is mental. Bad angles and slow reads lead to missed tackles. Not following your assignments leads to losing contain and allowing big plays. These things can be simplified and fixed until the mental part of the game catches up.

When will this occurs? It’ll be slow and sporadic. But it will come.

This season is far from over

I’m still willing to let it play out. You may recall that last year this team really should not have beat South Dakota State or Georgia Southern. Both teams missing their starting quarterbacks really beat themselves while the Gophers were trying to figure out their offensive and defensive lines. Thank God for a kick return penalty on the Jackrabbits and thank God the Gophers converted 3rd and 25 against Georgia Southern. Losing those games changes everything about the 2019 season.

But the point is, they struggled early and looked really bad at times in the non-conference part of the season. Eventually the staff figured things out and this became one of the best teams in the country.

Our ceiling is not that high in 2020, but I’m certainly willing to let this season play out and see how we improve. For me, this weird Covid season is about getting a ton of experience for the guys who are new and needing it. But I do expect to see improvements as we go.