Sid Hartman
See more of the story

Linval Joseph had one of the greatest highlights of his career in the Vikings’ 23-21 victory over the Eagles on Sunday when he grabbed a fumble by quarterback Carson Wentz in midair and returned it 64 yards for a game-changing score. It was the first touchdown of Joseph’s career.

This has been a banner start for the ninth-year defensive tackle. He added his first sack of the season later in the game.

“I mean, I consider myself an athlete, but I feel like everyone got a chance to see that I am faster than what I look,” the 6-4, 329-pound nose tackle said after the game.

Joseph has 14 solo tackles through five games, putting him on pace for a career high (which is 42 in 2015) and ranking eighth on the team. He has two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, a sack, a forced fumble and that fumble recovery and return for a touchdown Sunday.

One big change for Joseph is playing alongside Sheldon Richardson, who signed with the Vikings in March. The two have made a great combo in the middle of the defensive line, and their impact can’t be overstated with defensive end Everson Griffen being away from the team while dealing with a mental health issue.

How does Joseph like playing with Richardson?

“Really good, really explosive player who wants to learn and make the team better,” Joseph said. “He helps the defensive line tremendously. … He’s a fast learner. He’s making things a little bit easier for us.”

Looking to improve

While Joseph has helped the Vikings’ run defense to allow only 99.4 yards per game, the 13th-best mark in the league, there is no question the defense is looking to improve in a number of ways the rest of the season. It ranks 21st in total yards allowed per game (378) and tied for 23rd in points allowed per game (26.2), after leading the NFL in both categories last year.

“Every year you set the goal to be better than you were last year, and if you just work hard, study and prepare properly, we have a chance to be better than we were last year,” Joseph said.

Does he have any personal goals?

“I mean, just to be better than last year, to be honest with you,” he said.

When asked who he has relied on to help him continue to improve, he pointed to his position coach.

Andre Patterson, our D-line coach, he helps us tremendously, a very smart guy,” Joseph said. “He puts us in good positions to make plays and in this defense, if you do your job, plays will come to you.”

Questions new rules

Joseph is one of many Vikings with an opinion on the new rules that limit how a defensive player can hit the quarterback.

Such a call played a big role in the Vikings’ victory Sunday, when Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett was flagged for roughing the passer late in the first half. Two plays later, Kirk Cousins hit Adam Thielen for a 3-yard touchdown pass and a 17-3 halftime lead.

“The new rule is crazy, it’s the new age of football,” Joseph said. “I mean, you just have to adapt to it and try to make smarter decisions.”

Will he change his style?

“I’m going to keep doing my job,” he said. “If it comes up to me, it comes up to me, but as of now it hasn’t come up to me.”

Joseph said that when it comes to his time with the Vikings, he continues to have one goal in mind.

“I have been here for five years, and they love me here and I want to give them all I can give them,” Joseph said. “I want to give them a Super Bowl ring.”

Fleck returns to OSU

P.J. Fleck’s first football coaching experience was under Jim Tressel at Ohio State in 2006 as a graduate assistant. The Buckeyes went 12-1, 8-0 in Big Ten play.

Now Fleck will return to Columbus to face No. 3 Ohio State (6-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) as coach of the Gophers, who are a 29½-point underdog, one of the widest point- spread deficits in recent Gophers memory.

The Gophers are reeling from a number of injuries, but they’re still finding ways to get better.

Fleck said the defense has shown improvement in some areas. With the secondary missing Antoine Winfield Jr. — out for the season because of a foot injury — the Gophers are starting two seniors in Jacob Huff and Antonio Shenault, two freshmen in Terell Smith and Jordan Howden and sophomore Kiondre Thomas.

“We have had two games where we have given up too many points,” Fleck said losing to Maryland 42-13 and Iowa 48-31. “I think our front seven has played really well. I think our back end is still a work in progress as we keep going.

“We have to keep getting more pressure on the quarterback. We have to continue to work on the fundamentals and details, technique [and] get more pressure on the quarterback from people besides just [junior linebacker] Carter Coughlin.”

Fleck said the Gophers have 33 freshmen on their two-deep roster at this point, but he’s not using that as any kind of excuse heading into one of the toughest environments in college football.

“You prepare like any other team. You do what you do as a coach,” he said. “You prepare to put your players in the best position to be successful. Our players understand the type of challenge that they’re up against, but we have to get better every single day. That is all we’ll focus on.”

And while Zack Annexstad had three interceptions last week against the Hawkeyes, his three touchdown passes were a season high. His 218 passing yards were his second-highest total this season.

Fleck said he is standing behind his freshman quarterback.

“Yeah, 100 percent, he is getting better every single week,” Fleck said. “He has to limit the amount of interceptions he has, but he’s learning what he can do and cannot do when he’s in that pocket and out of that pocket. He’s growing.”

Jottings

• Eden Prairie football coach Mike Grant had a great relationship with former St. John’s coaching legend John Gagliardi, who died Sunday at age 91, so it will be an emotional moment for him Saturday when he is presented the Bob Basten Excellence in Leadership Award during halftime of this weekend’s St. John’s-St. Thomas game. The annual award goes to a St. John’s alum who has displayed overall excellence in their community and great levels of leadership.

• The Arizona Cardinals will have two assistant coaches with local ties on their staff when they face the Vikings on Sunday. Running backs coach Terry Allen spent three season with the Vikings from 1991-1994 and ran for 2,795 yards on 641 carries. Assistant offensive line coach Steve Heiden is from Rushford, Minn., and played at South Dakota State before playing tight end for 11 years in the NFL.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com