What happened to the Minnesota Gophers defense?

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 30: Max Bortenschlager
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 30: Max Bortenschlager /

Coming into Saturday versus Maryland, the Minnesota Gophers defense was touted as one of the best in the country. Then, they turned in a horrendous effort against the Terrapins. So, what happened?

Through the first three games, the Minnesota Gophers were dominant on defense. The team only allowed eight points per game and surrendered 239 yards per game. These impressive performances put them in the top-five of total defense in the country. So, heading into the game last Saturday against Maryland’s third string quarterback, it seemed that the Gophers would bode well once again.

As we now know, that was not the case. The Terrapins proceeded to rack up 262 yards on the ground and 416 total yards. Maryland was also able to accumulate 23 first downs and converted over half of their third down chances. It’s worth noting that Maryland’s running backs are no slouches, but the Minnesota Gophers looked like an entirely different defense.

There are a multitude of reasons as to why the Gophers struggled last Saturday. It could be that the quality of competition drastically improved. Even though the Terrapins were trotting out their third string quarterback, they were still a significantly better team than all of Minnesota’s previous opponents.

The bye week could have contributed to such a poor performance defensively too. It is no secret that an amount of corrosion develops when a team has a week off from competition. Oiling the gears back up after a week off can be difficult, and the Gophers are not the first victim of that.

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An injury to defensive leader Antoine Winfeild Jr. was also a detrimental hit to the Gopher defense. Winfield went down early in the Maryland game with a hamstring injury. The mental and physical toll this takes on a defense goes wholly unnoticed in most cases. Losing a leader can translate to poor play on the field. Imagine if the Vikings were without Harrison Smith, would that negatively affect their entire defense? The answer is yes, and the same rings true with Winfield Jr. and the Gophers.

Lastly, and perhaps the most glaring issue was the lack of adjustments as the game went along. It was clearly evident that Maryland wanted to consistently run a read option as their primary offensive scheme. The Gophers struggled to stop this the entire game.

Early on, the Gophers would run a scheme in their front seven which penetrated the inside of the Terrapin offensive line. This would have been a good game plan, if Maryland was running inside running plays. However, the goal of the read option is to bounce outside of the tackles and utilize the whole field.

Minnesota continued to play defense as if Maryland was consistently running north to south, but they wanted to and were running east to west. This puts tremendous pressure on the secondary to make tackles they are not used to making. The result, as we saw, were steady eight, nine, and ten yard gains for the Terps on the ground.

The few times the Gophers adjusted, Maryland was able to run it right at them with great success. Credit to the Maryland offensive line, but a lot of the big Terrapin plays were to due an over-pursuit by the Gophers. Watch Ty Johnson’s game-winning touchdown run and see how the defense reacts:

That is tremendous blocking, but the Gophers look totally clueless as to what  play was coming next. Their lack of variety and adjustments on defense was the primary reason from their demise.

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On top of that, the secondary ran a zone coverage pretty much the entire game. This led to bigger run plays because there was usually not a Gopher defender within four yards of the ball carrier. The middle of the field was opened up due to the linebackers sticking to their assigned zones. We saw Maryland quarterback Max Bortenschlager rush for a touchdown right up the middle as there was no Minnesota linebacker ready to make an immediate tackle.

A zone coverage’s primary function is to limit deeper passes around the field. However, in what universe does a third string quarterback, with nearly no starting experience begin to look deep on a consistent basis? Max Bortenschlager rarely looked to throw deep downfield, but yet Minnesota kept believing he would!

The majority of the Terrapin passing plays were little out routes, maybe 5 to 7 yards. These plays succeeded because Gopher defensive backs were planning for deep routes. Bortenschlager completed 64 percent of his passes on Saturday, his longest completion being for 27 yards. That is a big play, but by no means is it a ‘deep pass’. Minnesota just did not game plan adequately, to be honest.

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Purdue, Minnesota’s opponent this Saturday has not shown the same firepower Maryland has offensively. That is not to say the Gophers will take them lightly, especially after last week. Last Saturday was worrisome, but now it is time to move on and hope the Gopher defensive scheme is up to task.