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No defense: Loss to Illinois will send Gophers spiraling back into irrelevancy

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Maryland
Oct 30, 2020; College Park, Maryland, USA; Maryland Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) throws during the overtime against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Gophers’ football team opened its abbreviated Big Ten season on Oct. 24 with an opportunity rarely presented to this program. That would be the chance to be front and center in the local sports pages and to be a focus of the sports-talk world in the Twin Cities. The Twins had made a quick exit from the playoffs, the Vikings had only one victory and the Wild and Timberwolves’ seasons were on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Gophers were coming off an 11-2 finish in 2019, having beaten Auburn in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla. P.J. Fleck’s team had lost some key pieces from its defense, but had quarterback Tanner Morgan and standout wide receiver Rashod Bateman (who opted out and then back in) returning. There appeared to be reason for genuine excitement about a program that had so often been an afterthought.

But as the Gophers (0-2) prepare to play Illinois on Saturday afternoon in Champaign, they are faced with the reality of a must-win game unless they want to return to afterthought status. It’s not that the Gophers have lost their first two games, it’s how they have lost those them.

Michigan cruised to a 49-24 victory in which it had 481 yards, including 256 on the ground. Wolverines quarterback Joe Milton threw for 225 yards in his debut, and while the loss was embarrassing it did come against Michigan. The nice thing was it looked as if the Gophers were set up for back-to-back road victories against Maryland and Illinois. Only one problem.

A defense that struggled to stop the pass or the run, and tackle anyone against Michigan, actually was worse in College Park. Maryland, which was blown out 43-3 in its opener against Northwestern, rallied from a 17-point deficit to win 45-44 in overtime against the Gophers. Minnesota’s defense proved its ineptitude was no fluke, surrendering an incredible 675 yards, including 394 through the air, as quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa looked like the best QB in his family. Maryland’s yardage total was 29 more than Illinois had in a 55-31 victory over the Gophers on Nov. 3, 2018. Why is that significant? Because that performance got defensive coordinator Robb Smith fired the next day.

The Gophers had four players from their defense — safety Antoine Winfield Jr., linebackers Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin and defensive back Chris Williamson — selected in the NFL draft last April so it’s not surprising that there were some early-season struggles. But there is a big difference between struggles and flat out being awful and, so far, the Gophers defense has been embarrassingly bad. Fleck likes to point out that that experience is an issue, but some members of his defense look as if they have never before been on a football field.

The Gophers are giving up the most yards per play in the country at 9.48, and the average of 47 points against puts Minnesota last in scoring defense in the Big Ten. The good news is Illinois’ 15.5 points per game is the worst in the conference.

The Gophers will be without defensive coordinator Joe Rossi on Saturday after he tested positive for COVID-19, meaning defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak will take over the play-calling duties. The Gophers will be facing an Illinois team that had more than a dozen players sit out its 31-24 loss to Purdue last Saturday because of concerns about the coronavirus.

Illinois’ top two quarterbacks, Brandon Peters and backup Isaiah Williams, are both out for coronavirus-related reasons and third-stringer, Matt Robinson, injured his ankle against Purdue. That means the Gophers might be facing Illinois’ fourth QB, Coran Taylor.

Illinois also has not been much of a threat in the run game, so there are no excuses for the Gophers to struggle defensively in this one. But the pressure to win is tremendous. If the Gophers do lose, the excitement Fleck’s team created last season will be long forgotten and a familiar refrain will be repeated: Same old Gophers.