MINNEAPOLIS — All throughout fall camp, the sense in Dinkytown was that Minnesota’s defense was much stronger than the Gophers’ offense.
One game into the 2014 season, it’s hard to dispute that claim.
While Minnesota’s offense was slow out of the gates in Thursday’s season opener, its defense set the tone. The Gophers forced three turnovers and also blocked a punt to stymie an Eastern Illinois offense that was one of the best in the Football Championship Subdivision last season. The 42-20 final score doesn’t indicate how one-sided Minnesota’s victory actually was, as the Gophers’ defense was pitching a shutout until the Panthers scored with 6:57 remaining in the game.
It would have been the first shutout by a Gophers team since 2006. Instead, Minnesota’s second-team defense allowed three late scores by Eastern Illinois in the final seven minutes, including one at the final horn.
Forget the 20 points. This defense passed the eye test Thursday.
"The score doesn’t really indicate how good the defense played," said Jerry Kill, who was victorious in the first game of his fourth season at Minnesota.
With sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner battling nerves early in Thursday’s contest, Minnesota’s defense was in midseason form. Though Eastern Illinois started driving down the field on its first possession, the Gophers eventually forced the Panthers to punt.
The next defensive series lasted just four plays after Leidner’s fumble was recovered by the Panthers at the Gophers’ 28-yard line. But a missed 41-yard field goal by Eastern Illinois’ Nick Bruno kept the Panthers off the scoreboard.
That’s when Minnesota’s defense ratcheted up the pressure.
The Panthers fumbled on the third play of their third drive, and defensive end Alex Keith recovered the ball on Eastern Illinois’ 5-yard line. That helped set up Minnesota’s first touchdown of the night when Leidner scored on a 2-yard run just a few plays later.
Another fumble recovery by Keith — one that he forced this time — proved to be vital in the third quarter with Minnesota hanging onto a 21-0 lead. Eastern Illinois was driving and was knocking on the door, threatening to snap the Gophers’ shutout, when receiver Stephen Bravo-Brown had the ball stripped by Keith. The Gophers lineman then recovered the ball on Minnesota’s 4-yard line, helping temporarily preserve the shutout.
One of Minnesota’s best defensive players wasn’t even expected to be a starter at the beginning of the year. But an injury kept Michael Amaefula out of Thursday’s game, elevating Keith to the starting defensive end role for the first time in his career.
"Those guys rotate, but they’re all starters," Kill said of the defensive line. "But he played good."
The Gophers secondary has a chance to be one of the best in the Big Ten this year, and that unit opened 2014 with a strong performance despite the 310 total passing yards put up by Eastern Illinois quarterbacks Andrew Manley (18-for-34 for 200 yards) and Jalen Whitlow (14-for-23, 110 yards). A good chunk of that yardage came in garbage time after Minnesota’s starters were taken out of the game. The Panthers threw for just 81 passing yards in the first half and 162 after three quarters.
Minnesota safety Antonio Johnson picked off Whitlow late in the third quarter to halt another Panthers drive and in turn set up Leidner’s second rushing touchdown of the night.
"We were ready for everything. We watched a lot of film," Johnson said. "Nothing really surprised us. We came out ready to play."
One of the biggest plays of the night came from a Gophers defensive player, although it took place on special teams. Cornerback Eric Murray blocked a Cody Edwards punt deep in Eastern Illinois territory, and wide receiver Logan Hutton caught the loose ball and took it two yards for the score.
As Minnesota’s defensive backs and special teams coach, Jay Sawvel works every day with Murray, the Gophers’ top cornerback, so he knows what the junior from Milwaukee is capable of. It sounds like he knew Murray could block punts, too.
"We wanted to get the ball back. (Sawvel) said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Murray’s going to block it. I guarantee it,’" Kill said. "He came untouched. He can run. It was a big play in the game."
The blocked punt and ensuing touchdown put Minnesota up 21-0 as the Gophers started to put the foot on the gas a bit against their FCS opponent. For the most part, though, it wasn’t Minnesota’s offense applying the pressure. It was the speedy, athletic defense making the Panthers uncomfortable for much of the night.
Kill’s team will certainly need to jumpstart its offense a bit after it sputtered out of the gates in the first game. But there’s no question Minnesota feels comfortable with its defense’s ability to stop opponents. The Gophers did just that Thursday.