There are three words to describe Minnesota’s defense during Saturday night’s 48-14 win over Oregon State — fast, physical, and disciplined. Whether it was linebacker Jonathan Celestin blowing up plays in the backfield or defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. making a tough tackle in space, the Gophers displayed a glimpse of their true potential on defense.
Early in the season, much of the talk surrounding the Gopher football team has been focused on the emergence of quarterback Conor Rhoda and the offense. However, an underrated aspect of Minnesota’s team through the first two games has been their defense. Fans are accustomed to quality defense as the Gophers have finished 21st and 24th in total defense over the past two seasons. The unit has continually improved every season and is showing positive momentum under the new regime.
Through two games, the team’s ability to get off the field on third down has been a pleasant surprise. Teams are converting on third down at a 28.5% clip against the Gophers. Minnesota held their opponents below a 30% third down conversion rate just twice per season over each of the past three years. In addition, the coaching staff has made sound adjustments at halftime, including playing more coverage to counter Oregon State’s quick rhythm passing attack. Yet Smith still brought pressure on notable pass rushing downs to cause disruptions. It helped the Gophers create pressure in the second half, holding Oregon State to just 35 yards over the final 30 minutes. They tallied three sacks and took advantage of more 1-on-1 matchups within their four-man fronts.
More importantly, the defense allowed only three rushing yards in the second half against both Buffalo and Oregon State. The success has been the result of sound gap integrity and physicality at the linebacker position. More importantly, the interior of the defensive line has created mismatches and inside pressure. Teams have schemed to double-team Steven Richardson, but he’s still impacting plays. His skill-set creates 1-on-1 matchups for his fellow defensive lineman. His interior pressure sparked one of Minnesota’s three turnovers during Saturday night’s 48-14 win. It set their offense up with a short field and shifted momentum in favor of the Gophers. In 2016, Minnesota finished tied for sixth nationally in takeaways per game. This opportunistic trait will need to continue as the Gophers move forward into Big Ten play.
However, with an above average front-seven, have we really witnessed the full potential of this defense?
The short answer is: probably not.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith has been shifting his approach throughout games and everyone should expect to see more creativity as the season progresses. In week one, the team ran several stunts and twists up front, including a double-A gap package with linebackers Jonathan Celestin and Thomas Barber “sugaring” the A-gaps. Last year, the Gophers took plenty of concepts from Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillip’s playbook. They used a glimpse of his one-gap 3-4 concept to try to maximize the potential of the talented front-seven. This year, the approach may closely mirror Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s. Zimmer loves to bring double-A gap pressure, but drops his linebackers into coverage or spies the quarterback. He also loves to send delayed blitzes and uses stunts/twists up front to create mismatches. The Gophers have the perfect personnel to run a few of these concepts out of their base 4-3 defense or hybrid 3-4 look.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith can use the athleticism of Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin, and Blake Cashman at the “R” (edge rushing) spot. He may dial up creative sub-packages to manufacture pressure. If Minnesota can get off to a quick start and force teams into passing downs, Smith should deploy packages to fully take advantage of their talented front-seven. It will help compensate for the inexperience and lack of depth in the secondary.
Despite early concerns, the secondary has surrendered 178 yards per game, which ranks in the top-third of the country. Redshirt freshman cornerback Kiondre Thomas has shown growth with more experience and Antoine Winfield Jr. has been the heartbeat of the unit. Cornerback Antonio Shenault was targeted frequently Saturday night, but managed to prevent big chunk plays. The secondary will continue to evolve with experience, but can ill afford to sustain an injury at cornerback. The Gophers’ front-seven will continue to aid the secondary if they can create consistent pressure and takeaways.
Finally, one of the key formulas to P.J. Fleck’s past success has been his squad’s ability to win the turnover battle. In 2016, Western Michigan posted a +1.4 turnover margin per game, which ranked first in the country. Through two games, Minnesota has a +1.0 margin and has committed just two total turnovers. Fleck’s “ball is the program” philosophy has helped Minnesota become more disciplined and efficient on both sides of the ball, at least in the early goings. The defense recovered every loose ball, and aside from a red-zone interception in week one, the offense has prevented catastrophic mistakes. The idea of maximizing possessions and taking care of the football can be a difference-maker in close contests.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith has made it known he wants to place the best 11 players on the field, which leaves the door open for several of these schematic decisions to occur. Minnesota has been showing improvement on offense, but there’s no doubt their defense will be a strength when they enter Big Ten play.