Commentator Hat asked in a mgoboard post he made about Minnesota's defense, wondering aloud how they could elevate from the worst in CFB to more than serviceable this season, so much so that the unit is helping tp spearhead one of the most dramatic single season turnarounds in Big 10 and college football history. I have some thoughts on the Minnesota team, but rather than keeping that thread going, I figured I would hog all the glory and write a diary piece on the matter.
I like this Golden Gopher team as I have bet on them four times (all winners) bet against them once (a loss) and taken the Over in two of their games (one win, one loss). Needless to say, I have found myself watching a lot of the Gophers this season. Here's how I see their turnaround happened, with much of the focus on the defensive end, which began the question in the first place. One caveat is that I am banging this out at work, so it might be a little unorganized and not every fact 100% true. Hey, I am writing on a blog, what do you expect.......J/K.
Send in The Fixer
First year defensive coordinator Ted Roof has gained a reputation throughout his career of turning around previosly bad defenses and molding them into quality stop units. He was the DC at Georgia Tech for 2000 and 2001. In 2000, the Jackets were 12th nationally in rush defense and 20th in scoring D. In 2001, the defense was ranked 23rd in overall total D. After that season, he moved to Duke, where the Devils defense had put up similar numbers to Minny's D last season. In his first year in Durham, the Devils, who had had the nation's 113th ranked total defense the year before, had the league top rushing defense and in 2002, they were ranked 58th nationally in total D. He knows how to turn bad defenses around, even if the reclamtion project is taking place at a program not known football winning, like Duke. Or now at Minnesota.
Unfortuneatly, Roof was such a good DC that he got the head coach position at Duke. Typically, he failed there, as most would and was fired after winning only 8 games in a four year stretch as the head man. Make no mistake, however, this guy can coach a defense. Many have defended UM's DC Scott Shaffer due to his reputation of being one of the best, young up and coming DCs in the country. Well, that was Roof before he made the fateful decision to take the Duke head coaching job. Free from task of first head coaching gig at a lonely, lowly place for football, Roof has said he feels rejuventated. He's probably having the most fun coaching football as he's had in a long time.
The results show on the field. The Gophers were the worst in the country last year in total yards allowed, permitting 518 yards a game. This season, they're giving up just 362 per game, good for 68th nationally. They've improved from 36.7 points per game (109th nationally) to 17.1 points per game (20th nationally). Only 11 football teams across the land have picked off more passes than the Gophers oppurtunistic D.
The Fixer has succeeded in turning around another defense. He ought to be a strong candidate for the Frank Brolyes Award, given annually to the best asssitant coach in the country.
Cupboard Not Bare
The Gophers weren't devoid of talent, but it was far and few in between. However, Minnesota has received solid to great play from the holdovers of last year's porous D. They had a good defensive line to begin with with Willie VanDeSteeg, Garrett Brown, Lee Campbell and Steve Davis. Michigan fans may remember Davis as the freshmen phenon the OL could not block in the 2005 Jug Game. This foursome is probably among the top 3 DL's in the conference and have a combined 18.5 sacks and 21.5 TFLs. As long as you have a solid DL, you can creat a good defense, right? Deon Hightower is a solid LB. Kyle Theret at Safety was thrown to the wolves last year as an undersized true freshmen. He's responded with a breakout second season, leading the team in INTs and second in tackles. He has a Jamar Adams type of game and tackles anything that comes near him.
Jazzing it up with Jucos
So, the Gophers weren't devoid of defensive talent and had a pretty good defensive line to build off. Despite that, this defense would not be clicking had they not had an influx of new talent to work with. Roof was hired after the recruiting season, so this is all the work of Head Coach Tim Brewster. He dipped into the JUCO ranks and signed six guys to play defense, three of whom have stepped right in to revamp the Gophers back seven which leaked like a sieve all last year.
Traimaine Brock (1, FS), Traye Simmons (15, CB) and Simoni Lawrence (21, OLB) have been JUCO revelations for this program. Newcomers to the team this season, that trio represents three of the team's top five tacklers and have given Minnesota big play potential. What's interesting is not one of them is playing the position they played last fall in Junior College. Brock was a corner, but now a free safety, Simmons a safety, but now a corner and Lawrence, a safety, now an outside LB. Lawrence has really impressed me. He plays up on the line a lot, next to one of Minny's pass rush specialists, either Davis and VanDeSteeg. Folks, this is pretty tough to block. Lawrence has had a big season with 3.5 sacks, 6.5 TFLs and he's scored a pair of defensive touchdowns. He's a big play waiting to happen. I cant wait to see how Michigan blocks him.
Minnesota has gone from one of the worst turnover margins in the nation to one of the best. They were -15 last year, and this year, I suspect they're over +10. I dont have those at my finger tips. Obviously, the recrafted secondary has a lot to do with that on the defensive end, but credit here belongs on the offense on many levels. QB Adam Weber threw 24 picks in his freshmen season. He has 3 this season. Wow. Just wow. Michigan is heading for a -10 or higher turnover margin this season, but ask yourself, how much better the team would be if they get a reversal like the Gophers have had? Or even enough change in fortune to break even on turnovers. The Wolverines would be at least 2 wins better in the standings, if not more.
Yeah, but they've played a high school schedule
The Gophers have not played a murder's row of a slate and they have the fortune of skipping MSU and PSU this year. However, that should not detract from their accomplishments. Both last year and this year, they played BGSU and FAU. Last year, they allowed over 30 to each team. This season, only 20 points combined. Last year, IU, Illinois and Purdue all had scored more than 40 on the Gophers before November rolled around. This season, a combined 35 points between those three teams. Their schedule may be 'meh' at best, but its basically the same slate they struggled to a 1-10 mark against last year. This is no faux improvement.
Ok, genius, you lost me about 1,000 words ago. Does this have anything to do with Michigan?
Oh yeah, about that. Clearly, we should fire Shaffer and hire Roof the Fixer. Actually, thats not a bad idea, but Roof is probably going to get another HC coach in the future and will probably stay at Minnesota until that inevitable offer comes his way. And, I took an oath, with many others here ,not to seriously call for anyone's head in the first year. One thing I like about Roof as a DC as opposed to Shaffer is that he's not rigid with his system. He's basically putting his best guys out there on the field and turning them loose. They have a new DC, but unlike the UM players right now perhaps they're not as burdened by trying to learn a fancy new system, which, like their offensive counter parts, might not exactly match their own personal skill sets.
In Shafer's defense, however, you could argue that Roof inherited as many quality, proven defensive players as Shaffer did. Honestly, I dont think that is a far fetched argument. The defensive lines are basically a wash, perhaps a slight nod to UM. But the LB Hightower and S Theret are better tacklers right now than anyone in the Michigan Back 7.
What Roof has that Shafer lacked are all those JUCO trump cards that he's been able to insert into the lineup and play all over the field. I will not suggest that Michigan hand out scholarships to a half dozen JUCO prospects a la Brewster. But, the lesson here, though, is to be creative with where players go on the field. Would the Gophers be as good now if they played Lawrence at his JUCO position of Safety? No. In fact, they're better because he was moved to that hybrid OLB spot, where he's been downright dominant for stretches of games. With this year's freshmen and next season's recruits, we can only hope that Michigan can find its Brock, Lawrence and Simmons they way the Gophers did this season. And, if so, its reasonable to think (in large part due to the testimonials of GSimms) that Shafer will use those parts to the benefit of his Okie D.
Minnesota in 2007/2008 is a case study for Michigan. They had tremendous success under Glen Mason. They were in a bowl game virtually every year and Mason, while never breaking through into the upper ranks of the Big 10, still led the Gophers to its best era of football in years. They set records for having multiple 1,000 yard backs in the same season. But, they canned him in favor of a younger, more energetic guy who ran the, gasp, spread. A 1-11 season ensued with a lot of people tsk tsking the administration for making the coaching change. Now Michigan has all the pundits mocking them for going the spread route and ruining decades of tradtion. We see what Minnesota is doing in Year 2 of their spread. We can only hope Michigan sees similar improvement.
The only other item worth stressing is the turnovers. Over the last 25 years, 70 percent of the teams who finished the season with a negative, double digit turnover margin went on to improve their record the next year. And, in the Big 10 we've seen woeful teams climb significantly in the standings by rebounding their TO margin the following season. Penn St did the trick from 2002 to 2003 going from 4 wins to a New Year's Day Bowl. Illinois went from 2-10 in 2006 to the Rose Bowl the following. And, now, we have the Gophers after a 1-10, 0-8 in the league season, starting directly at January football.