When watching the Halloween eve horror film and all the carnage it contained, Joe Rossi barely could stand it.
A 76-yard touchdown pass here. A 39-yard scoring run over there. A 17-point lead squandered in the fourth quarter. And in the end, 675 yards and 45 points surrendered.
"It's painful to watch, quite frankly,'' Rossi said.
But Rossi, the Gophers defensive coordinator, knows there is value in reviewing what transpired last Oct. 30 in College Park, when Maryland moved the ball against the Gophers for more than one-third of a mile on its way to a 45-44 overtime victory. Snippets of that game were part of the video cut-ups Rossi distributed to his players this week, even though the Terrapins have a different offensive coordinator this year.
"We see some of the things that maybe hurt us last year,'' he said.
When the Gophers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) face Maryland (4-2, 1-2) on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium, Rossi can be secure in the knowledge that he's bringing a much-improved defense to the matchup.
How much better than the 2020 defense that allowed 30.1 points per game? Let's count the ways.
- In their last game, a 30-23 victory over Nebraska, the Gophers held Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez to a career-low minus-17 rushing yards. They also had a goal-line stand, another fourth-down stop and their first safety in three years.
- This isn't the first time Minnesota has made life miserable for an opposing quarterback. On Sept. 18 at Colorado, they limited Buffaloes QB Brendon Lewis to minus-27 rushing yards on the strength of four sacks. As a team, Colorado rushed for minus-19 yards on 21 carries.
- The Gophers run defense is allowing 86.8 yards per game, sixth-best among FBS schools. Their total defense (319.3 yards per game) ranks 26th and their scoring defense (20.2 points per game) is 36th.
"Players working really hard, assistant coaches doing a good job of teaching and demanding,'' is how Rossi explained the 180-degree turn. "… If both groups are doing their job, you're going to see improvement.''
Coach P.J. Fleck took it a step further.
"They are playing very selfless football, and they're having a lot of fun playing together,'' he said. "And that's what the culture is all about.''
Gifts from the portal
There is, of course, an argument to be made for skill, too, and it's evident that the Gophers have more of that on defense this year. Fleck and his staff dipped into the transfer portal and added three defensive players that are making big impacts — tackles Nyles Pinckney from Clemson and Val Martin from North Carolina State, and linebacker Jack Gibbens from Abilene Christian.
With Pinckney and Martin in the defensive line mix, the Gophers rotate eight players who are more than happy to share their roles and the credit. Boye Mafe and Thomas Rush have five and 3½ sacks, respectively, while fellow ends Esezi Otomewo and MJ Anderson came up huge against Nebraska, with Otomewo getting the sack for the safety and Anderson batting down two passes.
"We all know what the goal is — to get sacks and create pressure,'' Mafe said. "But we as a whole, we realize it's not just about one person. It's more being in unison, playing together.''
Against Nebraska, push from the interior from Pinckney, Micah Dew-Treadway and Trill Carter helped the ends keep contain on Martinez. They might need a similar effort against Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa, who torched Minnesota's defense last year for 394 passing yards and three TDs, plus 59 rushing yards and two TDs.
"You get the push, and last week you get some people contained in the pocket,'' Rossi said. "Now, the quarterback isn't able to improvise.''
Martinez found that out when Otomewo wrapped him up in the end zone, with the QB intentionally grounding the ball and the safety boosting Minnesota's lead to 23-16.
"I was jumping on [Otomewo], and he looked kind of mad because the ball was thrown away, and he didn't realize the situation," Mafe said. "I had to remind him, 'You know that's a safety, right?' He was like, 'No, he threw the ball away.' I said, 'No, that's a safety.' … You see him work so hard and to be in that situation, it was fun."
Still 'a long way to go'
Last year, Maryland found room in the middle and averaged 10.2 yards per play while taking advantage of the Gophers linebackers. This year, Mariano Sori-Marin is much improved and has a steadying presence in Gibbens beside him.
"He's everything I thought he was and then some,'' Rossi said of Gibbens, whose 38 tackles lead the team.
The Gophers secondary, which lost standout cornerback Benjamin St-Juste to the NFL, has made strides with depth this season. True freshman Justin Walley has helped at cornerback, and he's tied with Gibbens and cornerback Coney Durr for the team lead with three pass breakups. Safety Tyler Nubin contributed a key play last week, making the fourth-and-goal stop against Nebraska.
"In the years I've been here, I don't think we had a goal-line stand like that,'' said Durr, in his sixth season with the Gophers. "... Just bringing that intensity every play until they get in the end zone is critical.''
While praising the defense's improvement, Fleck is quick to add, "Does that mean we've arrived? No way. We've got a long way to go.''