Opponents preview: Minnesota defense

Part three of BadgerNation.com's three-part look at the 2005 Gophers

Minnesota's defense is in need of drastic improvement this season if the Gophers hope to be more than a middle-of-the pack team in the Big Ten. Forget the non-conference season last year, when Minnesota's defense did a respectable job against the run and of keeping points off the board. The Gophers were mediocre at best in these areas once the conference season rolled around, particularly during the 1-5 collapse that defined the season.

The Gophers return seven starters, but the four departed starters will be sorely missed.

2004 by the numbers

Total defense: 396.67 yards allowed per game (No. 75 nationally); 398.20 yards allowed per conference game (9)
Scoring defense: 22.75 points allowed per game (39); 24.90 (8)
Passing defense: 266.0 (109); 245.90 (10)
Passing efficiency: 126.67 (67); 128 (9)
Rushing defense: 130.67 (36); 152.40 (7)
Touchdowns allowed: 30 – 17 passing, 13 rushing; 21 – 11 passing, 10 rushing
Third-down defense: 43 percent allowed on 82 of 189; 47.3 percent allowed on 61 of 129 (9)
Turnovers gained: 20 – 12 interceptions, 8 of 17 fumbles (68); 11 – 7 interceptions, 4 fumbles (5)
Net punting: 36.95 (36); 37.6 (5)
Kick coverage: 19.38 (43); 22.4 (7)
Punt coverage: 6.23 (16)

Defensive line analysis

The Gophers defensive line must improve against the run. But perhaps more importantly, the unit needs to develop pass rushers in a hurry. With a new defensive coordinator (David Lockwood, previously the secondary coach) at the helm, Minnesota is expected to blitz more and that may become even more pronounced if the front four cannot get a push.

The team must replace defensive end Darrell Reid, who led the team with 17.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season. That leaves senior defensive tackles Mark Losli (6-foot-6, 290 pounds) and Anthony Montgomery (6-5, 305) as the leading returning players in that department, with three each last season. The tackle tandem is also the unquestioned strength of an otherwise suspect defense.

Losli has started 33 games the past three seasons and has been productive, with 100 tackles and 14 sacks. He is a pretty reliable player in the middle.

Montgomery has ideal size and good experience, having started all 12 games last year and six games as a sophomore in 2003. He had 48 tackles, including nine for loss, last year. Montgomery has shown marked improvement during his career and could be in line for a breakout season, which is exactly what Minnesota needs.

The top reserves at tackle are sophomores Neel Allen (6-3, 285) and walk-on Todd Meisel (6-5, 255), who have minimal experience.

The starting defensive ends are senior Keith Lipka (6-3, 260) and junior Eric Clark (6-4, 265). Neither has been a particularly exciting or effective player off the edge, though they can hold up reasonably well against the run. Clark had 15 tackles and two sacks as a part-time starter last year. Lipka chipped in seven tackles and one sack in nine games.

The top reserves at end are junior Maurice Buchanan (6-3, 255) and freshman William VanDeSteeg (6-4, 235).

Linebackers analysis

One of the players to watch on this defense and the entire Gophers team is walk-on middle linebacker Mike Sherels, a hard-hitting sophomore who won a starting job despite the presence of some more experienced candidates. Sherels (6-0, 230) should have the opportunity to flow to the ball and make plays with Losli and Montgomery locking up blockers in front of him. Sherels had 10 tackles as a reserve last year.

Minnesota's leading tackler a year ago was linebacker Kyle McKenzie, who made 79 stops. A senior, McKenzie (6-1, 235) has started 23 games the past two seasons; he had 61 tackles as a sophomore in 2003. McKenzie had seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks as a middle ‘backer last year and could be used more aggressively this season as a strong-side edge linebacker. His continued development will be crucial to Minnesota's run defense.

Sophomore John Shevlin (6-1, 220) is the starter on the weakside. He had 14 tackles in nine games as a redshirt freshman last season and he started one game — the Music City Bowl win over Alabama. Shevlin and Sherels are each going to be counted on to add a physical presence to a front seven that was wanting in that regard at times last season.

Junior Mario Reese (6-3, 230) started six games at defensive end last season and finished the year with 26 tackles and two sacks. He has been moved to linebacker this season and will sub in on the outside. Even as a situational pass rusher, he may lead the Gophers in sacks this year.

Other top reserves include redshirt freshman Leland Jones (6-2, 215) in the middle and sophomore Mark Mullaney (6-0, 210) on the outside.

Secondary analysis

Minnesota's passing defense was beyond awful last year, ranked No. 109 in the country and No. 10 in the conference in league-only games. With their starting strong safety and best cornerback moving on, the Gophers have a lot of work to do. Perhaps nothing is more crucial for Minnesota's season than fixing its pass defense, and that, of course, starts with the secondary.

Two converted linebackers will play key roles here. Junior Brandon Owens (6-2, 210) moved from linebacker to cornerback before the Music City Bowl and has now found a home as the Gophers' starting strong safety.

Owens' backup is senior Terrance Campbell (6-2, 205), who was second on the team with 77 tackles last year, when he started 10 games as the weakside linebacker. He played in 12 games his redshirt freshman year in 2002 and started 12 games at linebacker the following year. Now Campbell is fighting for playing time in the secondary, but he should be a valuable reserve.

Senior John Pawielski (5-11, 200) returns to the starting lineup for the second season, after opening all 10 games in which he played last year. He was ranked fifth on the team with 70 tackles last year and would have finished higher, but he broke his leg against Iowa, left that game early, then missed the final two contests of the season. Pawielski is considered a good tackler, but he is not particularly strong in coverage.

Senior Quentin White (6-0, 200) and sophomore Dominique Barber (6-0, 180), Marion Barber's younger brother, are also in the mix at safety.

With Ukee Dozier off to the NFL, junior Trumaine Banks (5-10, 185) becomes the No. 1 corner. Banks missed two games last fall due to injury but started the other 10 contests and had 45 tackles, three interceptions and nine pass breakups. He started 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2003, with 56 tackles and seven pass breakups. Banks, though, needs to improve and be more of a lockdown corner for Minnesota's passing defense to get in gear.

Considering Banks' experience, however, expect teams to go after the other side of the field with aplomb. Sophomores Jamal Harris (6-0, 180) and Desi Steib (6-1, 185) are in competition for the No. 2 corner spot, with Harris having the edge coming into training camp. Harris started three games as a redshirt freshman last year, played in all 12 and finished with 20 tackles and one interception. Steib is a good athlete with elite speed and very good size for a corner. But he and Harris will face a steep learning curve.

Special teams notes

Redshirt freshman Justin Kucek (6-0, 180) will replace Rhys Lloyd at punter. Lloyd averaged just 39.8 yards per punt last year, but that statistic is deceiving. He knocked 13 punts inside the 20 and incredibly did not have a single touchback all year. The Gophers were also strong in punt coverage and that combination led to one of the better net punting averages in the nation.

Kucek probably has a bigger leg than Lloyd, but if he can duplicate Lloyd's overall production it will be a boon for Minnesota.

The Gophers' kick coverage was respectable, but could have been better in Big Ten play.

Matching up with Wisconsin

When the Badgers' struggling offense met Minnesota's struggling defense last year, the former made short work of the latter. Expect much of the same this season, even if the game is in the Metrodome. Wisconsin's offense will be better than it was last season and the Gophers' defense will be about the same.

The big question is whether Minnesota can get off the field. The real issue with the defense, and the pass defense in particular, was its inability to stop opponents from moving the chains. Minnesota's defense allowed third-down conversions 47.3 percent of the time, the third-worst number in the conference, and just percentage points better than Illinois and Northwestern.

While Wisconsin's offense was mediocre overall, it was very proficient on third down; its 44.2 percent success rate in conference play ranked fourth in the league.

As far as personnel goes, the Badgers should have a clear advantage on the offensive line, though Minnesota's defensive tackle tandem will make some plays. UW also has a big edge matching up with the Gophers' secondary, especially with pass catching threats in tailbacks Brian Calhoun and Booker Stanley and tight end Owen Daniels. That trio will pose matchup problems for the Gophers. And Minnesota does not exactly set up well against UW's wide receivers either.

This game looks like it could be a high scoring affair, much like contests in 2001 and 2003 at the Metrodome. This time, however, give the Badgers an edge.

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