P.J. Fleck’s frequent defense (no pun intended) of coordinator Robb Smith made little sense to anyone who watched the Gophers look inept on defense week after week.
The Gophers might not have had the most talented players on defense, but their embarrassing performance was a definite reflection on coaching and one had to wonder when Fleck would acknowledge this.
That finally happened last Saturday after the Gophers gave up 646 yards of total offense in a putrid 55-31 loss to a terrible Illinois team. Fleck, the Gophers coach, had finally seen enough and the next day he fired Smith and named defensive line coach Joe Rossi as his interim defensive coordinator.
On Saturday, the Gophers defense showed us that Fleck probably should have made a change weeks ago. After giving up 43.2 points and 507.7 yards per game in going 1-5 to open the Big Ten season, Minnesota surrendered 233 yards in a 41-10 victory over Purdue. The Boilermakers, who entered the game second in the Big Ten in scoring with 35.8 points per game, rushed for only 88 yards, passed for 145 and were 0-for-12 on third down.
“Sound, simple, fast,” Fleck told reporters in speaking of the Gophers’ defensive philosophy. “We didn’t change our defense. The defense is the defense and the defense works. We got back to us.”
What was so baffling about Fleck’s insistence in sticking with Smith is that defense isn’t Fleck’s strength. What Fleck does know is offense and there have been many signs that his expertise in this area could lead to the Gophers having success. But the rule of thumb for a football coach is simple: Focus on having success on the side of the ball you know and make sure the other side of the ball doesn’t sabotage your chance to win.
In other words, no one is saying the Gophers defense should be fantastic but it can’t continually cost you games. Somehow Fleck didn’t seem to get this and thus enabled his coordinator to run what often looked like a sieve.
Most teams consider an “explosive play” to be one of 20 or 25 yards or more. But let’s give the Gophers the benefit of the doubt and say an “explosive play” is 40 or more yards. Well, Minnesota had given up 13 touchdowns of 40 or more yards this season.
That’s mind boggling.
That ended Saturday as the Gophers beat a Purdue team that entered with five victories, including wins over ranked clubs in Boston College, Ohio State and Iowa. The Boilermakers put up 49 points in a victory over then-No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 20. The 10 points was a season-low for Purdue. Dating to the final two Big Ten games of last season, the Gophers had given up 39, 31, 42, 48, 30, 53, 31 and 55 points before Saturday.
After holding Purdue to a field goal in taking 13-3 lead in the first half, the Gophers increased their advantage to 17 points on the first drive of the third quarter when linebacker Blake Cashman forced and recovered a fumble by Purdue quarterback David Blough and returned it for 40 yards for a touchdown.
Purdue trailed 41-3 in the fourth quarter when it finally scored on Blough’s 9-yard pass to Rondale Moore that capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive. This came a game after Illinois had touchdowns — not drives, but touchdowns — that went for 72, 72, 67 and 77 yards.
Surely, something changed, right?
“(We) simplified the game plan, which allows guys to play loose, play fast, give them that confidence out there,” Cashman told reporters of the difference with Rossi. “That’s really important because I think we lost some of that against Illinois when they came out and hit us in the mouth early.”
For once, the Gophers were the ones doing the hitting on Saturday.