MINNEAPOLIS - The poor performances attributed to Robb Smith’s defenses at Minnesota were often exacerbated by the play of the position group he oversaw.
When Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck dismissed Smith as his defensive coordinator a week ago, breakdowns from linebackers were a factor.
Now under the direction of interim coordinator/linebackers coach Joe Rossi, the improved play from that trio - senior Blake Cashman, junior Thomas Barber and junior Kamal Martin - was a primary reason the Gophers were able to shut down Purdue’s offense in a 41-10 win Saturday, Nov. 10, at TCF Bank Stadium.
In the 55-31 drubbing by Illinois on Nov. 3, the linebackers’ miscues stood out as the Illini ripped off huge chunks of yards in a 646-yard outing.
To start that game, Cashman failed to quickly read a pulling tackle and was slow to get around the rest of the offensive line’s blocks on a 72-yard touchdown. On Saturday, Cashman, a senior captain, took his share of the blame for his performance in Champaign, Ill., agreeing with Fleck that it was his worst game.
In the second half against the Illini, Martin lost track of his pass-coverage responsibility and contributed to giving up a 30-yard touchdown pass. Later, Barber couldn’t get off a block, a key factor in a 77-yard touchdown run for the Illini.
With the staffing change, Fleck wanted Rossi’s defense to play “simple, sound and fast.” Against the Boilermakers, those criteria ended up: check, check and check.
Cashman had a team-high nine tackles, a half-sack and a 40-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Barber had eight tackles and 1 1/2 sacks; Martin chipped in five tackles.
“It was a simplified game plan, which allows guys to play loose, play fast and give them the confidence out there,” Cashman said. “That is really important because I think we lost some of that against Illinois when they came out and hit us in the mouth early. It flustered us and got us frustrated.”
Cashman said Rossi pared down the call sheet to a small list against Purdue. “But we ran those calls toward so many formations and plays that Purdue liked to run,” he said.
Fleck said a key to their success was re-training defenders’ eyes to be in the right spot and not be distracted by Purdue’s pre-snap motions and shifts.
“Deception is all based on eyes in the wrong spot,” Fleck said. “If you are constantly thinking, thinking, thinking and you have our eyes in three different spots, then your eyes are never in the right spot. We got back to our eyes in the right spot, period.”
While the Gophers kept Purdue from posting any explosive plays of 20 yards or more, Minnesota’s defense generated one of its own in the third quarter. Holding onto a 13-3 halftime lead, Purdue started the third quarter with the ball and a quick 14-yard pass from David Blough to Rondale Moore, an electric freshman receiver who was kept in check throughout Saturday.
Two plays later, the Gophers had defensive end Carter Coughlin crash down on the Boilermakers’ running back, forcing Blough to keep the ball on a read option. Blough’s stiff-arm to Cashman didn’t work, and Cashman stripped the ball, scooped it up and ran 40 yards for a touchdown.
“They did a great job up front running the stunt,” Cashman said. “It was a play that coach Rossi, we had run, I think, a handful of times throughout the week, so he got me prepared very well.”
Rossi could be a candidate for the full-time defensive coordinator position at season’s end. But before that, the Gophers (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) are a win away from bowl eligibility and will need an upset of West Division champion Northwestern (6-3, 6-1) at home at 11 a.m. Saturday or rival Wisconsin (6-4, 4-3) in Madison on Nov. 24.
“He was excited,” Barber said of Rossi in the locker room. “All the hard work he put in and to be put on the spot like that. No one was expecting that, but he prepared us, and we prepared well. He was very excited, and he knows that it’s only one game and we have to finish two games strong for the seniors to get them a third game.”