Gophers keep following winning formula
Oct. 15, 2014
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Most of what Minnesota does well is not the glamorous part of football.
Sure, there are the occasional touchdown returns, long runs by David Cobb and crisp play-action completions by quarterback Mitch Leidner, but the Gophers have a decidedly old-style formula in an age of no-huddle, spread-out, high-scoring offenses.
Minnesota plays sound defense and tries to grind the game out by keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible. And halfway through coach Jerry Kill's fourth season, signs abound that it can be a recipe for Big Ten success, perhaps good enough to keep the Gophers (5-1, 2-0) in the West Division race all the way to the end of the season.
They host Purdue this weekend and then go to Illinois, so they're in good position to remain in first place until at least mid-November.
Granted, the book can't be close to being written until after the daunting final run of Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin, three of the five highest-scoring teams in the conference.
The Gophers, though, have become a consistent, aggressive and reliable group under defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. They're allowing an average of 18.7 points per game, fourth in the Big Ten and tied for the 15th among the 125 FBS teams.
"You're seeing more explosive offenses," defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli said, "and the most important thing is to not use that as a crutch because at the end of the day if you say, 'Well, they run a hurry-up,' or 'They have these great receivers,' you're making an excuse to not perform and we won't do that here."
The Gophers are right in line with one of the major goals Claeys has for them: Limit opponents to 17 points or fewer each game. Never mind that fewer than 6 percent of teams in the country average lower than that.
"I still believe in the whole idea it's better to over-demand than under-demand," Claeys said. "You get better results."
The Gophers are tied for first in the conference with nine interceptions, a hallmark of the deep, speedy secondary that has become one of the team's true strengths.
"This is not something that just happened out of nowhere," cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said.
Though they're last in the Big Ten with just 11 sacks, the defensive line has withstood a season-ending right knee injury for tackle Scott Ekpe and received plenty of help from a handful of true freshmen. Linebacker Damien Wilson was even named the conference's co-defensive player of the week, a sign of progress for that young position group.
Finding faster defensive backs was one of the staff's recruiting targets since taking over, and the Gophers have been able to find some standouts who weren't sought after by other Big Ten or major-conference schools.
Generally, programs in the northern states are having an increasingly tougher time attracting the elite-level athletes as population shifts continue southward. Given the raw weather Big Ten teams often play in down the stretch, a ball-control offense and a stingy defense can still be a viable combination in this conference.
This, remember, is a team that beat San Jose State last month despite completing only one pass and playing without Leidner because of knee and toe injuries. The sophomore has shown significant strides since returning, including last week's 24-17 win over Northwestern, taking advantage of the focus on Cobb and turned several play-action fakes into first-down throws.
"I think he's feeling good, feeling better," Kill said. "I always say, if you feel good, you play good."