Minus Joe Rossi, Gophers defense steps up big in win at Illinois

Esezi Otomewo #9 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers tries to recover a fumble by Coran Taylor #7 of the Illinois Fighting Illini in the fourth quarter of the game at Memorial Stadium on November 7, 2020 in Champaign, Illinois. Minnesota defeated Illinoi ((Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images))

P.J. Fleck and the University of Minnesota football program knew there might be some growing pains on defense this year.

The Gophers were replacing seven starters from last year. To name them: Antoine Winfield Jr., Chris Williamson, Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, Thomas Barber, Winston DeLattiboudere and Sam Renner. Four of them are chasing NFL careers. Martin is a starting linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, Coughlin just got his first NFL sack on Tom Brady and Winfield was the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month in September.

There would be lumps, but it started worse than anyone following the Gophers could’ve expected. They allowed 481 total yard and 42 points to Michigan to open the season. Last week, 675 total yards. Taulia Tagovailoa accounted for five touchdowns as Maryland beat Minnesota 45-44 in overtime.

The Gophers are hoping Saturday’s effort in a 41-14 win at Illinois is the start to seeing tangible change. The Illini managed just 287 total yards, 139 in the first half and Coran Taylor passed for just 106 yards. Minnesota limited Illinois to 3-of-11 on third downs.

“This was a team effort on defense. This is going to be a process on defense. We’ve got a lot of inexperienced guys playing a ton of key positions that haven’t played a ton or haven’t played at all,” Fleck said after the win. “Those guys are just going to keep getting better by playing the game.”

Minnesota was dealt more adversity before kickoff Saturday. They were without defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, the play-caller, after he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. He was immediately sent home, and participated in every team meeting virtually.

Fleck said Rossi was quarantined at his home, and could hear his kids nearby while he was working. Joe Harasymiak, the coach for safeties and defensive backs, took over the play-calling duties.

“We don’t let our circumstance dictate our behavior, and that’s exactly what the defense did. Coach Harasymiak, next man up, did an elite job today calling the game. He told us at the beginning of the week when we found out that the call doesn’t matter. The person sending the call onto the field doesn’t matter. It’s the same calls that Coach Rossi would’ve called,” linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. “Coach Rossi was with us all week scheming, everybody did an elite job. But it wasn’t the call, it was the players coming together with the coaches to focus on the details and execute them.”

Entering Saturday, the Gophers were allowing more than 10 yards per play, near the bottom of the NCAA. Against Illinois, 5.4 yards per play and just 14 first downs. On the first series of the third quarter, the Gophers had Illinois at a 4th and goal from the 48-yard line after a 15-yard penalty, followed by a 23-yard loss after a Taylor fumble.

The Gophers were also without Keonte Schad on the defensive line, haven’t had Jamaal Teague this season and rotated as many as seven freshmen throughout the game.

Boye Mafe got two sacks, and DeAngelo Carter and Esezi Otomewo each added one. They created pressure in the backfield, and the Illini only had a few explosive plays after the Gophers were getting gashed left and right in their first two losses.

“They showed tonight what they can become. Again, it’s that grasshopper with the top on the jar. They’re starting to realize what they can be if they just go,” Fleck said.

The next test? An Iowa squad that put up 49 points on Michigan State on Saturday.