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How the Gophers defense has improved: Does Joe Rossi really matter that much?

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Yes, but we need more words than that.

Thomas Barber, when not chained to the corpse of Robb Smith.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

On October 20th, the Gopher defense got torched by Nebraska for 659 yards at a rate of 9.03 per play. The Huskers scored 3 TDs of over 40 yards as a part of 53 points on the day, and I sat in the 3rd-to-last row of Memorial Stadium and sighed frequently. T

wo weeks later, fucking Illinois decided that it looked fun and they wanted to try that too. Running a similar scheme involving motion, misdirection, and QB runs, the Illini racked up 646 yards (at the steady rate of 10.77 per pop!), 55 points, and 3 TD of over 65 yards in the first half.

After defending his defensive coordinator Robb Smith after the game, P.J. Fleck fired him the next day.

It was warranted. It was overdue. It saved the season.

During the first 9 games of the season the defense gave up 6.33 yards per play, and that included games against New Mexico State and Miami Hydroxide, as well as the presence of Antoine Winfield Jr. for the first 3 games. Additionally, the team gave up 32 points per game.

After Smith was tossed out of an airplane somewhere between Chambana International and MSP, things made a startling turnaround. In the final four games against Purdue, Northwestern, wisconsin, and Georgia Tech, the defense allowed 4.96 yards per play and only gave up 14 points per game. So...yeah. In the toughest stretch of the year, the defense cut a yard per play and 2 TDs and a FG out of what they were giving up. And all this was just due to a coaching change?

Yes.

If you go back and watch the Nebraska and Illinois games, the LBs have two things they do very well: get caught up in the wash or end up on skates. Play after play after play they were either paralyzed or out of position, and the results were very noticeable. When Rossi came in, he just simplified everything. Here’s what the opponent is going to do, here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s what your job is. Do your job, and you’ll succeed.

And hooboy did it ever work. Blake Cashman, Thomas Barber, and Kamal Martin aren’t crap, even if they looked like it for big stretches of the season. When Rossi took over, they suddenly became the strength of the defense some people thought they could be from the start of the season and the results were eye-popping.

So as we approach the 2019 season, this is what you need to watch from last year to understand what the Gophers will do. And to help the process, Barber and Martin are back to lead the LBs. If Rossi is able to continue to run the defense for an entire season like he did over the course of the last 4 games in 2018, I won’t need to walk around with a confounded and pained look on my face like I did a couple times last fall.

And even if it’s not quite as good, it should be enough to keep the offense in all of our games.

Good luck, B1G West.