The Minnesota Golden Gophers have begun the 2020-21 season 1-2. Their offense has not skipped a beat from last year’s historic run, but their defense currently ranks No. 93 out of 123 schools in fewest points allowed per game, at 36.0 per contest.
What is wrong?
The Gophers’ historic 11-2 run last year, saw their defense rank in the top 30 nationwide in nearly every major team statistical category. To begin this season it has not been the same story, so what happened?
The obvious answer would be the sheer amount of starters from last year’s team that either graduated or are now in the NFL. Antoine Winfield Jr, Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin, and Chris Williamson are all currently on NFL rosters, while Thomas Barber, Sam Renner, and Winston DeLattiboudere all started last season and they have now graduated from the program. That is seven serious members of last year’s defense that are now gone, a regression should be expected, but a bottom-tier defense in the country?
We have now established that Gophers’ DC Joe Rossi‘s defense lost a tremendous amount of production from a season ago, but that is no excuse to have one of the worst defenses in the country. I am here to look deeper and tell you why Minnesota’s defense has struggled to find consistent play this season.
2020 was expected to be redshirt-junior Boye Mafe‘s time to breakout. Heading into the season it seemed like the Hopkins, Minnesota native would take over Carter Coughlin’s role as the team’s lead pass-rusher. To much surprise, Mafe was held out of the starting lineup in week one. The 6-foot-4 defensive end’s presence was still felt, as he recorded the team’s only sack against Michigan. His role has continued to increase with 10 total tackles 2.5 sacks, and a big-time forced fumble in weeks two and three combined, most recently playing a season-high 64% of snaps against Illinois. Mafe has been a bright spot on this Gophers’ defense establishing himself as their biggest playmaker.
DT Micah Dew-Treadway and DE Esezi Otomewo were expected to be the veteran leaders of the d-line this season. Both players have played well, but have struggled to make the splash play like Mafe, something the Gophers’ have badly needed to find. DE Thomas Rush, DT DeAngelo Carter, and DT Rashad Cheney‘s snap counts all hover around 50% each week. Carter stands out of the three, as the redshirt freshman has recorded one sack, and even reeled in an interception against Maryland. In conclusion, all six major players on the d-line have flashed moments, but they each struggle with consistency, a theme on this Gophers’ defense.
Overall the Gophers’ defensive line has not been the problem this defense. They certainly aren’t great, but even though they have struggled to find consistency, they have made plays, something lacking from the back end of this defense.
To put it bluntly, this is where the Gophers’ 2020 defensive problems lie. As two long-time starters in Martin and Barber are no longer with the program it was going to be tough to find the same production. Junior Mariano Sori-Marin was someone that Minnesota needed to step up, and he has struggled mightily in doing so. He has struggled to find a rhythm in run defense. For example, in last week’s win over Illinois, he graded at 29.1 (out of 100) in run defense according to PFF. If this defense starts finding its stride it will have to be because of Sori-Marin.
The remaining linebackers have been highlighted by youth, as true freshman Cody Lindenburg has been the clear No. 2 thus far. The Anoka, Minnesota native has shown the potential to be a very good player in the future, but he too has made costly mistakes, further letting up big plays. Redshirt-freshmen James Gordon and Donald Willis have added to the youth moment both finding themselves in a very similar position as Lindenburg. Lastly, redshirt-sophomore Josh Aune has seen his role diminish week-to-week after starting in week one against Michigan.
The linebacking play needs to improve, plain and simple. If Minnesota wants to see improvement on the defensive side of the ball it has to start with the linebackers. The Gophers currently rank No. 123 out of 123 schools in yards per play, at 8.2 and that starts with the big plays continuously allowed from the linebackers.
Out of all three levels, the Gophers’ secondary has likely shown the most consistency so far this season. As a team, they’re ranked No. 112 in rushing yards allowed per game at 238.3 and No. 70 in passing yards allowed per game at 241.7. The senior trio of Coney Durr, Benjamin St-Juste, and Justus Harris have all played the overwhelming majority of snaps at the position so far this season. Durr and St-Juste on the outside, while Harris has manned the nickel position. All three players have played great at times this season, but to reiterate, consistency needs to be the theme of the Gophers’ hopes of defensive improvement.
At the safety position, sophomore Tyler Nubin and junior Jordan Howden have virtually been the only players to contribute this season from the position. Both players are one and two in tackles on the team with 21 and 19 respectively something very common in a Joe Rossi defense.
The defensive back room has clearly missed Antoine Winfield Jr. There have been no glaring holes, but Winfield Jr’s splash plays have desperately been missing so far this season. Going forward, limiting the big plays and creating turnovers will need to improve.
Where do the Gophers go from here?
Overall, the main thing that has stood out to me so far this season, is the lack of playmakers on the defensive end. Turnovers and splash plays are what takes “bad” defenses to “good” and “good” defenses to “great”. For how the offense has looked, the Gophers might only need a “good” defense to compete in games this season. Two turnovers and six sacks in three games will have to improve, while a team simply cannot consistently compete allowing 8.2 yards per play.