P.J. Fleck’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Robb Smith two weeks ago, following a Nov. 3 loss at Illinois, wasn’t necessarily a move to save Minnesota’s season.
Sure, the Golden Gophers needed two wins over the season’s final three games against quality opponents in order to make a bowl game, and they couldn’t do so without improving a defense that had been gashed for more than 600 yards twice in three weeks.
But Minnesota’s head coach simply needed something to change after the Golden Gophers’ defense yet again gave up 30-plus points — the sixth time in as many Big Ten games it did so. This time marked a new low — surrendering a whopping 55 points to struggling Illini team that hadn’t scored that many in a game since 2011.
"As you continue to move forward, you either see that you want this to continue to happen and you believe in that, or you make that change,” Fleck said Nov. 6, two days after firing Smith. “… Very difficult to change so much schematics in three weeks. That's not what this is about. This is me moving forward into the future."
That Minnesota defense, however, made a sudden improvement under interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, slowing down an explosive Purdue offense in a 41-10 win before giving up 24 points to Northwestern — the Gophers’ two lowest point totals allowed during conference play this season.
They’ll look to continue that trend when traveling to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, where a win over the University of Wisconsin would make Minnesota bowl eligible and steal back Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003.
"I just watch them and I see guys playing really hard,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "I think they’ve wired in on guys that are busting their tail and they’re featuring those guys. You can see the on-the-field leadership. I like the way they’re playing."
One of those leaders, senior linebacker Blake Cashman, has taken off in those last two games.
He’s recorded 29 tackles the past two weeks, including a staggering 20 stops against the Wildcats last week. His 101 tackles on the season now rank in a tie for second among Big Ten players, and he’s a major reason why Minnesota held both Purdue and Northwestern under 100 yards rushing after Illinois posted a hardly believable 430 yards on 35 carries in Smith’s final game.
"I think you saw what he's able to do, especially at our Will linebacker position,” Fleck said of the former walk-on. "He's a perfect role for it. A lot of things we can do schematically to be able to give him the ability to make the plays, because he's our best player. We do that. Joe Rossi did a nice job the last two weeks to be able to have that happen, put him in the role to be able to make the plays."
While Rossi hasn’t appeared to make any wholesale changes, there are bound to be some tweaks when a new play-caller comes into the fold. Badgers coaches face the challenge this week of figuring out what those alterations are, whether the Gophers are leaning more on certain tendencies or straying away from others.
Minnesota’s defense appears to have gained some confidence the past two weeks. That alone can lead to improvements, and heading into Saturday’s game at UW, the Gophers hold more incentive than ever to continue their run of decent play on that side of the ball.
“Scheme-wise, they’re pretty similar with the new DC, but I think they’re playing with a ton of energy,” UW left guard Michael Deiter said. They’re physical and they’re athletic. They’re flying around. … They’re playing confident, and regardless, when you know you’re getting them in this game, they’re going to be at their best."
Nelson expected to play against Minnesota
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said he expects safety Scott Nelson to play against Minnesota.
The redshirt freshman returned from a hamstring injury against Penn State on Nov. 10 before unexpectedly sitting out in the Badgers’ triple-overtime victory at Purdue on Saturday. Nelson was not listed on UW’s injury report last week and traveled to West Lafayette before ultimately not playing.
“Coming off of Penn State, you could tell on tape he wasn’t 100 percent,” Leonhard said. "You knew he wasn’t 100 percent, but just wasn’t able to do some things that I thought he was going to be able to do and just wanted to give him a week.
"It’s one of those things where, sometimes if you push an injury like that, something would happen in a game like that and then you lose him for this one, you lose him for possibly the bowl game. So I wanted to give him a week just to get back healthy, and I feel like it’s helped because he’s been able to practice every day this week. … I expect him to be able to play this weekend for sure."