MINNEAPOLIS — It’s been a while since the University of Minnesota football team has had a defense to be reckoned with. After four non-conference games, it’s perhaps too early to say that about the 2012 Gophers, but Minnesota’s defense has certainly passed the litmus test thus far.
Saturday’s game against visiting Syracuse was the biggest challenge so far for Minnesota’s defense, and the Gophers stood tall. They held an Orange offense that had averaged 32.7 points per game to just a field goal and a late touchdown as Minnesota improved to 4-0 with a 17-10 win.
“Our defense has played amazing all season,” said Gophers quarterback Max Shortell, who made his second career start Saturday in place of the injured MarQueis Gray. “To hold them to just 10 points … our defense did a tremendous job creating turnovers, giving us great field position. Hats off to the defense. They played amazing.”
With the offense struggling to find much of a rhythm, it was the Gophers defense making big plays time after time. Minnesota’s secondary picked off Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib twice, and the defense also forced — and recovered — a pair of fumbles.
From the first snap of the game, there were early indications that Minnesota’s defense was about to have a big game. Nassib’s first pass of the night was tipped and intercepted by a diving Cedric Thompson. The Gophers safety gave his team the ball on the Orange 34-yard line and ignited the sellout crowd of 50,805 at TCF Bank Stadium.
While Minnesota couldn’t convert the first turnover into points, the interception was a sign of more good things to come for the Gophers defense.
“That set the tone for the game,” safety Brock Vereen said of the early interception. “I think the defense fed off of that for all four quarters.”
Entering Saturday’s game, Nassib had thrown for 320 yards or more in each of Syracuse’s first three games. That included a 482-yard, four-touchdown performance in the season opener against Northwestern.
But Nassib didn’t stand much of a chance against the Gophers on Saturday. He was pressured all night by the defensive line, which finished the game with sacks from D.L. Wilhite, Michael Amaefula and Roland Johnson. When he did throw downfield, Nassib was missing receivers. His longest pass of the day went for just 24 yards. He finished the game 21-for-31 for a season-low 228 yards and one touchdown to go along with his two interceptions.
Nothing Syracuse’s offense did on Saturday caught Minnesota’s defense off guard.
“We’re very confident now. Coaches are more confident in us as well,” said Amaefula, who had a sack and also recovered a fumble. “… We come into the game (and) we focus on stopping the run. And as soon as we can stop the run, we can make a team one-dimensional. Once you make a team one-dimensional, we’ll go get it on the pass rush.”
Minnesota’s second interception of the game came at a critical time. Syracuse was at the tail end of a lengthy third-quarter drive and had the ball third-and-goal at the Minnesota 4-yard line. As Vereen blitzed up the middle and put a hit on Nassib, Gophers senior linebacker Aaron Hill stepped under Nassib’s errant throw for the interception.
It stalled the Orange drive and kept points off the board, preserving a 14-3 Gophers lead with just over four minutes to play in the third quarter.
“Just a tremendous goal-line stand in the red zone,” said Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill. “They ran the ball inside, we stopped it. Then they got the ball outside. We rallied to it, got them in third down.
“The kids just rose to the occasion.”
Syracuse added a late touchdown with under a minute remaining, but the Gophers recovered the onside kick to hang on for the 17-10 win. For Syracuse, the 10 points were the fewest it had scored since losing 27-10 to Louisville on Oct. 29, 2011. The 350 total yards of offense were the fewest the Orange have amassed this year — the previous low was 455.
Through four games, Minnesota’s defense has allowed just 19.0 points per game. The most points the Gophers have allowed all season was 27, but that came in a triple-overtime game against UNLV to open the season.
Minnesota has also intercepted seven passes in four games. The Gophers had just four picks all of last season. And after sacking opposing quarterbacks 19 times in 12 games in 2011, Minnesota has 11 sacks in four games in 2012, including three on Saturday.
The Gophers defense will surely face some tougher tests once Big Ten play begins next week. But for now, the story of the season for Kill’s team might just be what the Gophers are doing when they don’t have the ball.
“From the first game against UNLV, we had 10 times the amount of confidence that we had last year,” Vereen said. “But I feel after these four games, we have 10 times the amount of confidence that we had at UNLV. So it’s just going to keep building and hopefully we keep winning.”