We are just 4 games into the 2022 season and I am getting defensive.
Am I insecure and defensive about the fact that the Gophers barely ranked after moving to 4-0 and absolutely dominating every one of their opponents? No, do not care one bit about their ranking. It is meaningless at this point.
Am I defensive about the lack of any love for Mohamed Ibrahim who is a former Big Ten running back of the year and is currently 2nd in the country in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns? No, not really. Recognition of his talent and production will come.
Am I defensive about the many dismissive comments made about this Gopher team because of their strength of schedule?
No, after 4 games of this season, I am really giddy about the Gopher defense. And there is not nearly enough praise being heaped upon Joe Rossi and all of the guys contributing to this side of the ball.
To begin with, let's take a step back.
You may recall that the 2021 Gopher defense was also elite. Based on efficiency metrics, the Gopher defense finished somewhere around 11th or 12th in overall defense last season. They were 2nd in the Big Ten in scoring and yards allowed. The 2021 Gopher defense was fantastic.
So maybe the 2022 version shouldn’t surprise us. But for the fact that they lost 6 starters from that unit, 4 of them currently participating on NFL rosters or on the practice squad. So they lost more than half of their starters and they lost some high-quality guys in that number. There were certainly questions about this Gopher defense after losing so much.
And while it may be too early to definitively say it, this Gopher defense might be better.
The credit here really has to go to Joe Rossi. And this is where today’s TMP may turn into more of a love letter to Coach Rossi.
After Saturday’s win over Michigan State, PJ Fleck is the first Gopher coach to have a .500 or better record in Big Ten play since Jim Wacker was 1-0 in his first season. What is impressive, it is a tangible sign that Fleck has this program moving in the right direction and it may very well be the reason for a post all on its own. But let's look a little deeper at the team’s record since Rossi took over what was a struggling defense.
In 2017 and part of 2018 under PJ Fleck, the Gophers were 3-12 in the Big Ten. After they were embarrassed at Illinois in 2018, Rob Smith was let go as defensive coordinator. Enter Joe Rossi and the program has gone 19-10 in conference games since he has been in charge.
Since Fleck and staff have taken over there have been 12 players drafted into the NFL. Eight of those 12 have been defensive players. All of them were drafted in 2019 or later after Rossi took over as DC.
Individually we are seeing a number of guys who are improving and the fact that they replaced 6 starters and have been playing this well is really impressive.
What Rossi does so well is he gets his defenses to work together. When they have struggled it has been a situation where one or two guys are trying to do too much. Trying to do their job and someone else’s. But now that he has been here long enough, since he has been able to be a consistent teacher over several seasons, his defensive units get it.
This year is more of the same. All three levels are doing their job, they are executing their game plans and they are dominating opponents. The starting defense for the Gophers has given up 3 points through 4 games. Every other score has come with a full slate of backups on the field. They are playing fast and with confidence.
I have a lot that I really love about this 2022 Gopher squad. And I am extremely thankful that Kirk Ciarrocca has come back to be in charge of the offense. But let's not forget about Joe Rossi and the work that he is doing on the other side of the ball. The Gophers are matching what their Big Ten West rivals have already mastered. An efficient and balanced offense to go with an elite defense.
Coach Rossi continues to get raises, extensions and his name is going to start coming up frequently for open head coaching vacancies. I certainly hope he continues to get the contracts he has earned and is the Gopher’s defensive coordinator until he finds the right opportunity to be a head coach. Until then, this side of the ball is in great hands.