Wisconsin running back Garrett Groshek went untouched right through the middle of the Gophers defense for a 39-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of the 2020 regular-season finale.
It was the highlight of Groshek’s 154-yard performance in a 20-17 overtime victory last December, and it capped a season in which Minnesota gave up more than 200 yards per game on the ground to rank 102nd in the nation against the run.
The Gophers, however, got better as the season progressed, and defensive end Boye Mafe — despite the in-the-moment heartache of losing Paul Bunyan’s Axe — saw the unit’s progression continuing into 2021.
“We are going to be a very scary defense moving into next year,” Mafe proclaimed in a Zoom call from inside Camp Randall Stadium after that game.
Mafe was proven right. The Gophers put an exclamation point on a dominant defensive 2021 season with their 18-6 win over West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Tuesday. Minnesota gave up only 206 total yards (140 passing, 66 rushing) and zero explosive plays.
The Gophers wanted to become a defense that “knocks,” a decision made after re-watching the TV show “Breaking Bad” during the pandemic. It’s the AMC drama about a teacher who turns to selling meth to cover medical expenses.
During Season 4, wife Skyler White (Anna Gunn) pleaded for her husband Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to stop trying to justify him selling meth and just admit he was in danger.
“Who are you talking to right now?” Walt asked. “Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to not go into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up. Disappears. It ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to.
“So, let me clue you in. I’m not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? Naw. I am the one who knocks.”
Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck revealed the motto after the bowl game at Chase Field in Phoenix. He felt the need to offer an obvious disclaimer: They aren’t promoting any activities from the actual show. “We took one specific scene and it fit what we were doing,” he said.
The U program has used other TV shows within this year’s theme of TGIF — togetherness, gratitude, identity, focus — and they were more wholesome sitcoms like “Family Matters” and “Full House.” In previous years, the themes have been historical figures (Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Henry Ford) to movies (Indiana Jones and Batman) and music (Prince, Tupac and Jason Aldean).
The Gophers defense paired the “knocking” theme with the Rolling Stone’s song “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” which they played before their unit meetings.
“It was just kind of a theme that our guys rallied around,” Fleck said. “(Defensive coordinator Joe) Rossi and his defense deserve a lot of credit for that. The guys really embraced it.”
Mafe was one who knocked the loudest with a team-high seven sacks and 42 pressures this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“It makes perfect sense for our defense,” Mafe said of the motto, “because we are not the ones who are scared. We are not the ones that are running. We are the ones who do knock.”
Minnesota’s rushing defense made the biggest strides from 2020 to 2021, shaving off more than 100 yards from last year’s average to give up 97 yards per game and rank eighth in the nation as of Friday. They were also in the top 10 in total defense, scoring defense and passing yards allowed. (Bowl games continued to play out over the holiday weekend.)
The Gophers had solid run fits all season, with players fulfilling responsibilities in every gap. They benefitted from two veteran transfers — defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney and linebacker Jack Gibbens — being plug-and-play additions. Along with those two additions, the entire unit returned and improved after a 2020 season that did not have the benefit of spring practices or even a regular fall camp as it replaced seven starters, including four NFL draft picks, off the 2019 unit.
Fleck has credited not only Rossi, who also leads the linebackers, but defensive line coach Chad Wilt, safeties coach Joe Harasymiak and cornerbacks coach Paul Haynes. They were on the same page as a staff and with their respective players; it showed.
Breakdowns often are seen in “busts” where players don’t do their job. That and poor execution results in big plays like, say, Groshek’s run in the game against Wisconsin. But in the final three games of 2021, including the 23-13 win over the Badgers, Minnesota allowed only one explosive play; that came late in the Indiana win with back-ups in the game.
The U didn’t give up more than 300 yards in a game over the final seven of the season.
Minnesota’s defense has been labeled as a group that doesn’t throw a lot of different schemes at offenses. “They don’t do a ton defensively until you get in third down,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said before the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. “But fundamentally they’re really sound, and you can tell they put an emphasis on tackling.”
Brown said postgame the Gophers did a few different things on defense after a month of preparation for the bowl.
“They used their time well,” Brown said. “They had a beat on us.”
Hmm, “beat.” That word can considered synonym for “knock.”