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Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Takeaways, swagger highlight Gophers' hot start

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

No one would have blamed Tim Brewster or his players for turning their attention to Ohio State as soon as they left the Metrodome field Saturday afternoon.

The way the Gophers dominated Florida Atlantic, they could have started scheming for Terrelle Pryor and the possible return of Chris "Beanie" Wells early in the fourth quarter of a 37-3 romp.

 
 AP Photo/Paul Battaglia
 Marcus Sherels is part of a secondary that has racked up six interceptions and 23 pass deflections.

But Minnesota wasn't just another BCS team polishing off a fairly negotiable nonconference slate before getting its first major test in league play. In four weeks, the Gophers quadrupled their wins total from all of last season, Brewster's first as head coach.

The nation's worst defense in 2007 has become an opportunistic bunch of talented junior college transplants and holdovers who have upgraded their play. The offense has surged behind quarterback Adam Weber and Eric Decker, limiting mistakes and putting up points in Year 2 of the Spread Coast system.

For the Gophers to gloss over these accomplishments, regardless of the competition, would be a disservice to their fans and themselves.

"As coaches and players, we don't do a good enough job of savoring victory," Brewster said Monday. "We had a great victory over a really good football team on Saturday, and I wanted to make sure our players savored the victory."

So Minnesota celebrated Saturday before reconvening Sunday. Players went through their running and lifting. Then they studied the Florida Atlantic film and made corrections.

"Once we had all of that done," Brewster said, "we started talking about Ohio State."

The Gophers open Big Ten play on Saturday with a visit to the 14th-ranked Buckeyes. But before breaking down the matchup, here's a look at the reasons behind Minnesota's 4-0 start after a 1-11 clunker in 2007.

IMPROVED TURNOVER MARGIN

The Gophers were far too generous last season and ranked 114th nationally in average turnover margin (minus-1.25). This fall, Weber and the offense have safeguarded the football. More important, the defense is consistently taking it away.

Minnesota leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally in turnover margin (plus-2.75) through the first four games. The Gophers have three more takeaways than any other Big Ten team and two fewer giveaways.

First-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof and his staff have placed a special emphasis on forcing turnovers. Tuesday practices are called "Takeaway Tuesdays," and defenders go through a rotation of takeaway stations that changes every week.

"It's a fumble recovery [station], it's an interception station, it's a blitz redirection strip station, it's cut-block, it's scoops and scores, it's different things we rotate just to emphasize it," Roof said. "Throughout the practice, we keep track of them and we start the defensive meeting off the next day with the takeaways from the previous day's practice, just as a way of making a big deal of it.

"No matter what style of offense or defense you have, if your offense isn't giving it away and you're taking it away, you've got a pretty good chance to win."

No unit has embraced the takeaway trend more than the secondary, which returned only one part-time starter (safety Kyle Theret) from last year. The four starting defensive backs -- Theret, safety Tramaine Brock, cornerback Traye Simmons and cornerback Marcus Sherels -- have combined for six interceptions to go along with 23 pass deflections.

"We just go out snatching the ball, clawing at the ball, breaking on the balls, just doing everything to get a turnover," said Brock, who leads the team with 28 tackles. "Doing that on Tuesdays is going to fall in place on game day."

DEFENSIVE CHEMISTRY

Winning isn't a novelty for every member of Minnesota's roster.

"My last year at juco, I went 12-0, so the feeling, it's regular to me," Brock said. "It's like I'm really 16-0."

Brock, who came to Minnesota from Mississippi Gulf Coast community college, is among several junior college products brought in to fix a flimsy defense. Two junior college additions -- Brock and Simmons -- start for the Gophers defense and several others (LB Simoni Lawrence, DE Cedric McKinley) play prominent roles.

Blending so many new players with the holdovers presented a challenge entering the season. But so far the mix is working as Brock and the others have brought a winning edge.

"You never know when you're bringing in new parts and new pieces to a thing," Brewster said. "The players we've brought in on defense have really fit in well. Chemistry is such a huge part of any team success and our team has really good chemistry."

Brewster put his returning starters on notice by adding so many jucos, but several holdovers have stepped up.

Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg, who played with a broken wrist last season, already has six tackles for loss, doubling his total from all of 2007. Linebacker Deon Hightower also has made more plays and both Lee Campbell and Sherels are settling in nicely following position switches.

"It's a real plus to have Willie VanDeSteeg healthy," Brewster said. "He's kind of the heart and soul of our defense."

CONTINUED PROGRESS ON OFFENSE

Minnesota's offense really wasn't that bad last year. Weber ranked 20th nationally in total offense and Decker ranked among the nation's top 50 receivers in both receptions and receiving yards.

But turnovers and late-game mistakes repeatedly doomed the unit.

Year 2 has brought more polished play from Weber, who has completed 71.8 percent of his passes with only one interception in 110 attempts (he threw 19 last year). The sophomore ranks 16th nationally in pass efficiency (164.8 rating) and has combined for nine touchdowns (7 pass, 2 rush).

 
 Joel Auerbach/US PRESSWIRE
 Eric Decker leads the Big Ten in both receptions and receiving yards.

"It's an experience thing," Brewster said. "You name me a quarterback that didn't have growing pains their first year playing. We looked at a lot of different things he was doing, really working with his feet and that type of thing and then looking at all his decisions."

Minnesota is weathering the loss of promising running back Duane Bennett, as true freshmen DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon are filling in nicely. Decker, meanwhile, has emerged as arguably the Big Ten's best receiver. He leads the league in both receptions (32) and receiving yards (113.5 ypg).

"I couldn't imagine another wide receiver in America playing like Eric Decker," Brewster said. "And not just running and catching. I could put a highlight tape together of this kid blocking that would blow your mind."

SWAGGER DEVELOPING

Roof has won as many games in the last month as he did in the last four seasons as Duke's head coach. He admits he sleeps better these days, but the savoring part isn't easy with Ohio State up next.

"I know where we are. We didn't need to play Ohio State to figure that out," Roof said with a laugh. "They're a great football program and I'm sure they're going to get Wells back. Pryor, you see him develop every week and the package expand for him every week."

Minnesota will be a heavy underdog in Columbus, but Brock doesn't sound too afraid of the big, bad Buckeyes.

"They're just regular to me," he said. "No. 2 [Pryor], he's regular, too. He's nothing special to me. The only person we will be worried about is 28 [Chris Wells], and I don't know if he's playing or not. But everybody else, they're just regular receivers and tight ends.

"We're going to go out there and play our defense, play team ball. If the offense can get some scores on the board, we're going to come out with a W. We're not worried."

Brewster is a bit more guarded, noting that the Gophers still might be the youngest team in the country. Saturday's game should provide some important clues for the rest of the season.

"It's a helluva challenge, but an exciting one," Brewster said. "It's a great opportunity, coming out of the gate, going into the Big Ten schedule, to see where we're at."