'U' defense fading away, and fast
Gophers hope to get on track at Indiana
MINNEAPOLIS -- Opposing coaches often approached Minnesota coach Glen Mason earlier this season to tell them how impressed they were by hard-hitting Gophers safety Brandon Owens.
The junior was one of several ball-hawking standouts on a revamped defense that appeared noticeably more athletic. Meanwhile, Minnesota won its first four games.
Then came a sobering 44-14 loss at Penn State, compounded by a season-ending shoulder injury to Owens in the second quarter of that game.
Since then, the defense has continued to struggle. Including the Penn State loss, the Gophers have lost three of their last four games.
"Losing Brandon Owens off our defense, he was one of those guys we talked about for weeks," Mason said. "He was a dominant force making plays, so it hurts you. We can't dwell on that. You need to buckle up and keep on going and give another guy an opportunity and hope he plays well."
Minnesota (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten) heads to Indiana (4-4, 1-4) this weekend, hoping to reverse the trend against the Hoosiers, who rank last in the conference in total offense.
While Owens' loss has made a difference in the defensive play, it's also just one factor in the falloff. Breakdowns in the kicking game and untimely turnovers have forced the team to often defend a short field.
"We kind of stacked the deck against our defense," Mason said about last week's 45-31 loss to Ohio State. "It goes back to the field position problem again. We give them a couple of big plays and the inability to get turnovers in a game like that. Not all phases of the kicking game are poor, but I am not happy with the kicking game."
In Big Ten games, the Gophers have the conference's fourth best overall defense in terms of yardage allowed, but they also rank 10th out of 11 teams in points given up.
"The short field is definitely kind of a downer," said linebacker Mike Sherels, who also missed two games with an ankle injury. "But it is something we have to deal with. We don't make any excuses as far as the short field and that's why teams are scoring on us. We feel as a defense if we do what we need to do, we can stop anybody."
The defensive letdowns have become more disappointing because the Minnesota offense has done its job.
Against the Buckeyes last weekend, the Gophers compiled 578 total yards and scored 31 points against the top defensive unit in the Big Ten. Minnesota, the top rushing offense in the Big Ten, even passed for nearly 400 yards in the game.
Two weeks earlier, the Gophers totaled 510 yards -- 411 on the ground -- in a 38-34 loss to Wisconsin.
In the three losses, Minnesota gave up 539 yards and 44 points to Penn State, 366 yards and 38 points to Wisconsin and 449 yards and 45 points to Ohio State. That makes it tough for the offense to overcome.