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Minnesota Football: Gophers’ defense became “the one who knocks” this season

Joe Rossi and his staff looked to an unlikely source to rally the defense

Guaranteed Rate Bowl - West Virginia v Minnesota Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s been more than eight years since Breaking Bad was on the air, but it wasn’t until last year that Minnesota head football coach P.J. Fleck finally got around to watching the AMC series, taking advantage of the increased time spent at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fleck made clear in his press conference following the Gophers’ 18-6 win over West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl that he does not look to Walter White — the anti-hero of Breaking Bad and a high school chemistry teacher who turns to producing meth to cover the costs of medical treatments after he is diagnosed with cancer — as a role model, but conceded that White’s iconic “I am the one who knocks” speech struck a chord with the team.

“Not promoting anything that is going on in the actual show, at all,” Fleck clarified. “We took one specific scene and that fit what we were doing, just to be specific on that before the articles come out.”

For those unfamiliar with the show, the speech in question comes as Walter’s wife pleads with him to admit he is in over his head, fearing that he’ll open up his front door one day and find himself on the receiving end of a bullet from one of his criminal cohorts. Walter is indignant, declaring in no uncertain terms that he is the hunter, not the hunted.

It’s not difficult to understand why this line might resonate with the members of Minnesota’s defense. A season ago, the Gophers fielded one of the worst defenses in the country, ranking 102nd in rushing defense (207.1 rushing yards allowed per game) and 70th in scoring defense (30.1 points allowed per game). They weren’t a defense that inspired fear.

But this season, the Minnesota defense started knocking, and the end-of-year stats tell the tale of a unit that went from playing on its heels to stopping opposing offenses in their tracks:

  • The run defense allowed 97.8 yards per game, which ranked 8th nationally. That is the lowest average by a Minnesota defense since 1962 (52.2 YPG).
  • The pass defense allowed 181.2 yards per game, which ranked 9th nationally. That is the lowest average by a Minnesota defense since 2015 (179.5 YPG).
  • The defense allowed 17.3 points per game, the lowest mark by a Minnesota defense since the 1999 team allowed 16.3 points per game. It’s also only the second time since 1977 that a Gopher defense has averaged fewer than 20 points allowed per game.

Much of the credit for the turnaround goes to defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, who was a nominee for the 2021 Broyles Award, which is awarded annually to the top assistant coach in college football. Rossi didn’t win the award but he was rewarded with a contract extension through 2023, with a base salary of $800,000 and a raise of $150,000 annually.

Last season, the team’s struggles on the defensive side of the ball were a weekly topic of conversation. After a 35-7 loss to Iowa dropped their season record to 1-3, Fleck preached patience, offering an explanation that looks prophetic in hindsight:

“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.”

To his credit, the 2021 defense looked a lot like the 2020 defense in terms of personnel. Mariano Sori-Marin, Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo, Coney Durr, Jordan Howden, Tyler Nubin, Justus Harris, and De’Angelo Carter were all starters a season ago. The starters who were new additions — transfers Jack Gibbens and Nyles Pinckney and true freshman Justin Walley — seemed to fill all of the necessary holes. The results speak for themselves.

There will be plenty more holes to fill next season with six starters walking out the door, but for now we can at least appreciate all the doorsteps that this year’s defense darkened.