Forget Last Year, Do Not Run Against the 2021 Gopher Defense

Photo: Mark Lebryk – USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Gophers moved to 5-2 (3-1) on the season Saturday afternoon when they ran the Maryland Terrapins out of Huntington Bank Stadium in dominating fashion. But the 326 yards eaten up by Minnesota’s 3rd, 4th and 5th-string running backs doesn’t tell the story of their season so far. The Gophers can hang their 1st-place Big Ten West hat on their new and much much much improved defense.

Before we get into the numbers and compare them to what we saw in 2020, let’s discuss what’s changed personnel-wise since then. In the offseason, PJ Fleck knew he needed to bulk up the middle of his defense, which often parted like it was the biblical Red Sea and opposing backs were Noah.

The Reinforcements

PJ’s staff started their search for reinforcements in Texas, where they picked up grad-transfer linebacker, Jack Gibbens, from FCS Abilene Christian. Gibbens has been the standout of the new additions and currently leads the Gophers in tackles, passes defended and forced fumbles.

Then, they went east to Clemson, SC and picked up a multi National Championship winning defensive tackle, Nyles Pinckney. And to complete their defensive upgrades, Fleck’s staff went up one state and grabbed another defensive tackle, Val Martin, out of NC State.

Those additions, along with a lot of growing up on their own roster, led to the product we’re seeing now, which is something completely different than what was on the field last season.

How different? Well, the Minnesota Gophers ranked near the bottom of the NCAA in all defensive rushing categories last year. You needed triple digit rankings to find them.

In 2021, they’re a nationally top-5 rush defense after seven weeks, which is how long the 2020 season was. It’s a turnaround that not even the most optimistic would have seen coming. Joe Rossi looks like a mad scientist who was given the perfect formula during the offseason.

Sustainable?

With over half of the season over and the best opposing offenses behind them, I can’t imagine the defensive metrics fall that much over the last five games. Purdue and Ohio State have easily the most explosive offenses out of any opponent on the 2021 Minnesota schedule. Iowa and Wisconsin usually run the ball really well but their teams are so pass inept that it’s made their rush offense much easier to game plan against.

As long as they continue playing well, there’s no end in sight for this suffocating rush defense.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan