After early third-down struggles, defense shuts down Gophers

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By Liz Vukelich, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 7, 2013

Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner calls it the “money down,” and sophomore linebacker James Ross III reiterated that point in Monday’s press conference.

But for all the talk about how important it is for the Michigan football team to stop its opponents on third downs, something still got lost in translation Saturday against Minnesota.

Early in the first quarter, the Golden Gophers took possession of the ball for their second drive of the game.

The Wolverines had already forced a turnover on Minnesota’s previous possession and, with the Golden Gophers facing a 75-yard drive, it gave the Michigan defense confidence it could force the stop.

Minnesota wasn’t quite as willing to give up the ball a second time, though. On a drive that took almost 10 minutes, the Golden Gophers marched down the field. They converted five consecutive third downs — two of which came from Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, avoiding pressure by running the ball.

“There’s some issue when you don’t tackle well, when you’re reaching instead of running through,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke after the game. “Some guys do that just because they don’t want to make a mistake. I’d rather them be aggressive, run through and make a mistake.”

The Golden Gophers eventually extended their third-down streak to seven before Leidner’s incomplete pass at the beginning of the second quarter snapped it. Even though Minnesota converted only one more third down during the course of the game, it still raised questions about why the Wolverines’ defense had so much difficulty getting off the field.

After the game, sophomore cornerback Blake Countess said the Golden Gophers’ continued success on first and second downs made it difficult for defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to call the right play on third-and-1 or third-and-2 situations.

Hoke said it wasn’t necessarily Mattison’s calls that allowed Minnesota to convert so often, but rather Leidner’s athleticism, especially with his scrambling ability.

“He’d get out of the pocket and then we’d miss at tackle,” Hoke said. “I thought there were a couple interior runs, the four- or five- yarders that they bled you with a little bit. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing a better job in there.”

The first quarter time of possession was lopsided in Minnesota’s favor, 11:14 to 3:46. It evened out as the game progressed, and the Wolverines agreed that had everything to do with stopping the third downs.

“Well, I think we got bodies to the ball when (Leidner) did want to scramble or he did want to run it,” Hoke said. “I don’t think there was anything magical when you look at game-plan wise changing things a whole lot.”

Hoke said that he would have preferred to give younger offensive players, especially the running backs, some more reps. And as the game slipped further and further out of Minnesota’s fingers, Saturday could have been the perfect opportunity to balance out the Wolverines’ veterans with youth.

But due to the minimal amount of time that Michigan held onto the ball, Hoke’s hope for a more well-rounded offense never quite panned out.

“We’ve got to get better time of possession,” Ross said. “That’s on (the defense). We have to get off the field and set up our offense to score points.”