Hats Off to D: Gopher Defense Steps Up

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Go Gophers! Mikayla Bailey
Go Gophers!
Many sportswriters and fans expected tonight's game between Minnesota and Syracuse to be an offensive shootout. But from the first play of the game, the defense stole the show.

Syracuse received the opening kickoff and ran a passing play to start its first drive. Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib targeted a receiver near the Gopher sideline. Troy Stoudermire was there when the pass arrived.  The ball deflected, and Cedric Thompson swooped in to catch it. After one snap, the Gophers took over possession.

"I think it was huge," defensive end Michael Amaefula said of the play. "When coach came out in his speech, he was like, 'Let's go get something big right now.' We came out with the interception. I think it just motivated us throughout the game."

Later in the quarter, a D.L. Wilhite sack on third down forced the Orange to punt. Minnesota scored to go up 7-0 on the ensuing drive. Wilhite entered the game with a Big Ten best 3.5 sacks. Now at 4.5 on the season, he has already surpassed last year's team-leading total of 4.0 by the late Gary Tinsley.

In the second quarter, Ra'Shede Hageman hit Nassib to force a fumble, which Michael Amaefula recovered. The Gophers did not scored off either of their first two turnovers, but both helped the Gophers limit Syracuse to three points in the first half.
Go Gophers! Aaron Hill
Go Gophers!
Aaron Hill, who wore No. 51 in Gary Tinsley's memory, came up with a big interception.
Go Gophers!

In the third quarter, with the Gophers ahead 14-3, Syracuse was close to cutting that lead. But on third and goal, the Minnesota defense came up with another big play. Nassib threw a pass, Brock Vereen delivered a hit, the ball popped into the air, and Aaron Hill made a diving catch to end the red zone threat.

The Gophers have had at least one interception in each game this season. They have seven overall. Minnesota increased its number of fumbles forced this season to three when Keanon Cooper forced one that Scott Ekpe recovered.

Minnesota also added two more sacks in the fourth quarter, by Roland Johnson and Amaefula. The Gophers have 11 sacks for 69 yards lost this season.

"We played physical, we played hard, and we ran to the football well," head coach Jerry Kill said. "When you put pressure on the quarterback and get him uncomfortable, you've got a chance."

Minnesota held Syracuse without a touchdown until late in the game and went on to win, 17-10. While the Gophers' sacks and forced turnovers excited the spectators in the stands, the Minnesota defensive players had no bigger fans tonight than their offensive counterparts.

"Our defense did a tremendous job creating turnovers and giving us great field position," quarterback Max Shortell said. "Hats off to the defense. They played amazing."

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