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Gophers Insider: Baugh was lynchpin behind U’s defensive dominance

As the final seconds ticked down at Huntington Bank Stadium, Gophers defensive tackle Kyler Baugh sacked Eastern Michigan quarterback Austin Smith for an 8-yard loss, putting an exclamation point on Minnesota's 25-6 victory Saturday night.

Although Baugh and his teammates on defense could celebrate a dominant second-half performance in which they allowed the Eagles only 4 total yards, they also know they received a big assist from the Gophers' offense, which possessed the ball for 21 minutes, 52 seconds in the second half. Eastern Michigan ran only 14 offensive plays after intermission and had to watch while the Gophers produced a touchdown, two field goals and a safety to salt away the victory.

Quite simply, the Gophers' offense didn't let Eastern Michigan's offense leave its sideline.

"It's good because I don't get as tired whenever they're on the field, so I get to play harder,'' Baugh said with a chuckle while looking as if he barely broke a sweat.

Baugh was the lynchpin of a defense that limited Eastern Michigan to two first-half field goals and 152 yards for the game. The first of his two sacks came on the Eagles' first possession, and he finished with three tackles and four quarterback pressures. He also had a third sack wiped out by a defensive holding call on Aidan Gousby. Baugh received a strong 80.9 grade from Pro Football Focus, the best among Gophers defensive players, and his 82.3 pass rush grade was a big improvement from the 58.6 he had against Nebraska.

"I love talking to NFL scouts about him because he's got that Mighty Mouse-type mentality,'' Fleck said of the 6-2, 305-pound transfer from Houston Baptist. "He'd kill me if he heard me say that.''

Led by Baugh, the Gophers collected four sacks Saturday, with linebacker Maverick Baranowski and cornerback Tre'Von Jones also taking down Smith. The Eagles quarterback completed only nine of 20 passes for 71 yards.

The Gophers' pass rush produced only 19 sacks in 2022 but already has seven through two games. Fleck prioritized improving that aspect of the defense, and the hiring of former Gophers defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere III as defensive line coach helped in that area.

"Our pass rush has definitely evolved compared to last year,'' Baugh said. "All winter, all summer, we've been working on the pass rush and just getting better at the fundamentals. And I feel like now we're getting to see our hard work pay off.''

Eastern Michigan made its only serious offensive push in the second quarter when it put together nine- and 12-play drives that ended with field goals. That kept the score close at 10-6 and had Fleck and his staff seeking to slow things down for the defense.

"We were a little scatterbrained as a team in the first half,'' he said. "We were like a squirrel — our eyes were in the wrong spot; our minds were cluttered. We were trying too hard.''

In the second half, though … "We were swarming to the ball, communicating, made great adjustments,'' Fleck said.

That swarming, of course, was made easier because the Gophers' defense was fresh from spending all that time on the sideline while Minnesota's offense delivered body blow after body blow to the Eagles. Eastern Michigan was forced to make 84 tackles against the Gophers, and Minnesota had to make only 38.

"It was almost 40 minutes to 20 minutes of time of possession, so we just didn't give them enough of a breather,'' Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton said.

Fleck couldn't help but be proud of how his team's offense and defense fed off each other.

"I mean, there were 14 plays [for Eastern Michigan] in the second half and 4 yards,'' he said. "And no first downs, nor did we punt.''