The 2020 season was a season to forget for the Minnesota Golden Gophers defense. But there is one play in particular that is seared into my memory.
On a first quarter drive in the Maryland game last year, quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa saw rush end Thomas Rush and linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin bearing down on him in the pocket. He was able to spin out of pressure and then beat them both in a foot race down the sideline for a 39-yard touchdown run. Neither defender even laid a hand on him.
The Terps finished that game with 281 rushing yards, 394 passing yards, and 45 points. Tagovailoa earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors after throwing for 394 passing yards and three touchdowns, in addition to 59 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Minnesota also allowed Maryland running back Jake Funk to run wild, as he racked up a career-best 211 rushing yards on 21 carries, averaging 10.2 yards per carry.
The Gopher defense ended the year ranked 102nd nationally in rushing defense (207.1 rushing yards allowed per game) and 70th in scoring defense (30.1 points allowed per game).
But 2021 has been a different story for defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s unit and that was readily apparent to anyone who watched Minnesota in Saturday’s 34-16 win over Maryland.
On the opening drive of the game, the pocket collapsed on Tagovailoa and he tried to scramble free, only to have defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney knock the football loose from his grip, forcing a fumble that was then recovered by Coney Durr. Thomas Rush was even able to get a measure of revenge, sacking Tagovailoa on third down in the second quarter after the Terps’ quarterback was able to evade pressure from defensive end Esezi Otomewo and Pinckney.
The contrast between the two games could not have been more stark. Maryland finished the game with 79 rushing yards, 189 passing yards, and 16 points, and many of those yards came on a 91-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes of the game. There would be no Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors for Tagovailoa, who was 17-of-27 for 189 passing yards and one touchdown. On the ground, he was only able to scamper for 10 rushing yards.
Minnesota currently ranks 5th nationally in run defense, allowing an average of 85.7 rushing yards per game. One big reason for that turnaround has been the addition of transfer linebacker Jack Gibbens, who leads the team with 48 total tackles and was the top tackler for the Gophers on Saturday against the Terps. His presence has also allowed Mariano Sori-Marin to play to his potential after struggling for much of last season. But I think both Gibbens and Sori-Marin would be the first to say that it all starts up front with the Gophers’ defensive line.
Head coach P.J. Fleck did not mince words when asked in his postgame press conference how this defensive line group ranks among the others he has coached throughout his career.
“I think it’s the best. I’m not afraid to say that,” Fleck said. “That’s no disrespect, okay. Don’t say like I disrespected somebody by saying that. I mean, you asked a question. It’s [been] nine years. I’ve had some really good ones. But I just think the talent, the skill, how connected they are, and the depth of them, that has to be the best, because that’s what you strive for.”
Minnesota utilizes a rotation of eight defensive linemen: Boye Mafe and Thomas Rush at rush end, Otomewo and M.J. Anderson at defensive end, and Pinckney, De’Angelo Carter, Micah Dew-Treadway, and Val Martin at defensive tackle. All were key contributors last season, with the exception of Pinckney and Martin, who transferred in from Clemson and NC State, respectively.
Pinckney has been the anchor up the middle, leading all defensive tackles with 13 tackles. He has also registered two tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks. Mafe leads the team with seven tackles for loss and five sacks, but Rush is not far behind with six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Anderson and Carter have each recorded two pass break-ups at the line of scrimmage. Otomewo, of course, made his presence known against Nebraska, forcing an Adrian Martinez incompletion in the end zone that turned into a safety. A different combination of linemen are making an impact each week.
Fleck’s reference to how connected they are as a unit is evident from watching them play together. Take this second quarter play from the Maryland game as an example. Mafe reads the run and sets an edge with outside leverage, preventing the running back from bouncing outside. Instead, he funnels the back right into the waiting arms of Pinckney and the linebackers.
After surrendering 201 rushing yards to Ohio State in the season opener, Minnesota’s defense has allowed an average of 66.5 rushing yards per game since then. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi deserves credit for orchestrating a remarkable turnaround from last season, but Fleck also points to the improved play up front and the man responsible for leading that particular group.
“It goes back to the people that are really developing them too and our defensive staff and [defensive line coach] Chad Wilt. I mean, he is fantastic,” Fleck said on Saturday after the game. “You talk about a guy who can truly develop skill, and combine it with talent and create a culture inside that defensive line room. It’s a hard room to coach. That’s a lot of personalities. A lot. And he’s done a great job to bring it all together.”
There is certainly more work to done as the Gophers look to change their best over the final five weeks of the regular season, but Minnesota sits atop the Big Ten West with Iowa at the moment in large part because of the way the defensive line has helped transform this defense.