MINNEAPOLIS -- Four interceptions by the vastly improved Minnesota defense, including a 50-yard return for a touchdown by Simoni Lawrence, helped the Gophers top Florida Atlantic 37-3 on Saturday and take an unbeaten record into the Big Ten season.
Rusty Smith was picked off once in each quarter after dismantling Minnesota last year for 463 yards and five touchdowns. After giving the ball away seven times in last season's loss to Florida Atlantic, the Gophers (4-0) have a 13-2 advantage in turnovers this year.
The turnaround under new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and a couple of key junior-college transfers has been remarkable, even against lesser nonconference competition. Last season, while going 1-11, they couldn't even handle that. The last time Minnesota held an opponent to so few points was two years ago in a 62-0 victory over Temple.
Adam Weber threw his first interception of the season, in the end zone in the second quarter, but finished 19-for-24 for 235 yards and a 31-yard touchdown to Eric Decker -- who caught seven passes for 122 yards. DeLeon Eskridge rushed for 78 yards and two scores and Shady Salamon also had a short TD run for the Gophers, who play at Ohio State next week.
The Gophers are in their final season at the Metrodome, months from moving to their under-construction on-campus stadium in 2009. The Owls (1-3) were glad to be playing inside after losing 17-0 in monsoon-like weather at Michigan State last week.
Smith lost a fumble and completed only eight of his 34 passes for 143 yards in that game, but improved conditions didn't give him or his receivers much of a lift.
Lester Jean dropped a long one late in the first quarter, and Chris Bonner let a touchdown slip out of his fingers in the second after he beat Kyle Theret to the end zone.
After setting the Florida Atlantic career record with 32 scoring passes last season, Smith has struggled in three losses to BCS teams. He finished 17-for-34 for 153 yards, and was picked off by Traye Simmons, Lee Campbell, Theret and then Lawrence -- who also had a sack. In 28 previous starts, Smith threw only 18 interceptions and no more than two in one game.