Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' lopsided loss at Iowa
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
The Gophers' undefeated start to the season was brought to an abrupt close on Saturday when Iowa handed them a stinging 31-13 defeat at Kinnick Stadium.
It was only the first in an eight-game Big Ten slate, but the loss delivered a blow to Gophers' rising confidence as they tripped into their bye week. The Gophers (4-1) could not make up for their despairingly poor first half, despite a stronger showing in the final 30 minutes. Iowa rumbled to a 24-0 lead by halftime, putting its opponent in a position it was unable to fully recover from.
The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' first loss, with input from a conversation Kill had with beat reporters on Sunday.
Sophomore Max Shortell couldn't get a break. After his third and final interception, which was returned 68-yards for a touchdown by Christian Kirksey in the fourth quarter, Shortell knelt on the sidelines momentarily, with his head slumped towards the ground. It properly summed up his day. Shortell and the offense, with their run game halted by Iowa's physical defensive front, imploded in the first half. The Gophers had only one of their first six drives last more than four plays -- a five-play series that ended in a punt. Shortell tried to make up for the Gophers' run deficiencies and by doing so overcompensated. The young quarterback's raw passing numbers in his second start of the year were acceptable - 60 % completion rate, 20-of-33 for 197 yards and two touchdowns. But those stats are tarnished when you throw in his three interceptions and note that both touchdowns came with the Gophers' already plunged into a large deficit. Shortell's sporadic blips in his composure didn't hurt him last week against Syracuse, but Iowa took advantage. His accuracy came and went. On the Gophers' opening drive, following an Iowa field goal, Shortell patiently delivered a precise 17-yard pass to WR Derrick Engel for a key third down conversion. But momentum was squashed on the next play. With Iowa cheating in, expecting a run, the Gophers decided to go back to the air. Shortell sent a pass deep to WR A.J. Barker. The pass was on line, though under thrown enough to force Barker to turn around to make the catch, allowing Iowa's Tanner Miller to strip the ball away. It took Shortell a lengthy time to recover as he completed three of his next 11 passes, including a badly overthrown ball to open WR Devin Crawford-Tufts that would have been a 40-plus yard gain. Shortell started calming down in the second half, using a slew of short passes to build a rhythm. The Gophers ran screen passes or had Shortell make a quick throw near the line of scrimmage six times in the second half. Shortell did a good spreading his passes around, connecting with 10 different receivers (4 WR, 3 TE/FB and 3 TB). A successful screen pass on the second play of the third quarter started Shortell on a 10-of-11 passing stretch. The Gophers had an opportunity to get back into the game after a 10-play touchdown drive cut Iowa's lead to 24-7 in the third quarter. That was until Shortell made a bad read, not seeing RB David Cobb on a short slant route free of a defender, and went for deep pass. It was under thrown as it wobbled out of his hand and was easily intercepted by cornerback Greg Castillo. The pick ended the Gophers' last real threat of the game. However, despite his shortcomings, Shortell can't be blamed for all the offense's woes. The "U" defense was doing nothing to help him out, compounding matters until the game shifted in Iowa's favor. "We didn't run the ball very well, Kill said. "You don't want to put your young quarterback, on the road, where he's having to throw the ball to catch up in the second half." Twenty-two of Shortell's 33 passes came in the second half. Viable options at QB have become a big concern. Shortell has assumed starting duties with senior MarQueis Gray still recovering from an ankle and knee sprain. Freshman Philip Nelson is the Gophers current backup QB, but they are trying to keep a redshirt on him, as well as fellow freshman Mitch Leidner. It can't make Kill feel good when he sees Shortell getting hit in the manner he did at Iowa. Shortell took multiple knocks as he tallied a team-high 16 rushing attempts for 46 yards, though several of those were induced when the play fell apart in front of him. It is unclear when Gray will be healthy enough to return. He has yet to do anything more than light jogging on his injured left knee. "We need MarQueis. Badly," Kill said. That makes the bye week critical. Kill has refused to speculate how he will use Shortell when Gray is able play again.
The Gophers' inability to get production on the ground was the start of their problems offensively. TBs Donnell Kirkwood, freshman K.J. Maye and sophomore David Cobb combined for only 56 of the Gophers' season-low 102 total rushing yards, with Shortell contributing the rest. Kirkwood had his worst game since emerging as the team's top option at TB in fall camp. Faced with a stout, aggressive Iowa defense, Kirkwood found his running lanes clogged and practically impassable. Eight of Kirkwood's 12 attempts went for three yards or less. His only run longer than five yards was his game-high seven-yard dash in the second quarter. Maye filled his usual role as the Gophers' speed option on motion plays and quick runs to the edge. He handled three carries for 15 yards, but made a crucial error when he fumbled the ball at the 45-yard line on the Gophers' first possession of the second half, ruining a promising 'U' drive. Needing points quickly, the ineffective run game had to be set aside for most of the second half. The TBs accounted for only six of the team's 18 runs in the last two quarters. In his first appearance this season, Cobb put together a nifty eight-yard run in the fourth quarter on his lone carry of the game. Cobb, who played in four games in 2011, has been stuck near the bottom of the Gophers' depth chart. He may be gaining favor among the coaching staff, enough to move ahead of junior James Gillum. Gillum did not play, making it his second straight game without a carry. He has been a major disappointment, with just nine yards on nine attempts since his 51-yard outburst in the Gophers' season opener at UNLV. RB Devon Wright did not return to the game after he tweaked his shoulder during a second quarter punt return.
Like Shortell, the WRs had their obvious ups and downs, taking until the second half to get in-tune with their QB. Shortell targeted six different WRs, four of which registered catches (Barker 5-of-7, 74 yards; Engel 2-of-4, 25; RS sophomore Isaac Fruechte 2-of-3, 26; Crawford-Tufts 1-of-3, 4; senior Brandon Green 0-for-2; sophomore Marcus Jones 0-for-1). Barker had his second career five-reception game, with catches of six, 15, 18 and 24 yards. Crawford-Tufts had a look at two potentially big gain receptions, but an overthrow by Shortell spoiled the first one, while he was unable to complete the second in bounds. Fruechte got solid separation from his defender on both of his receptions, including his wide-open touchdown catch in the third quarter. Dropped passes, which were an issue against Syracuse, came up again on Saturday, albeit at lower frequency - three total. The most blatant example came in the fourth quarter with the Gophers trying to make one final push to gain momentum, down 24-7. On third down from Iowa's 37-yard line, an open Marcus Jones botched a pass, which hit him squarely in the hands, that would have been a sure first down. Shortell threw a pick-six on the next play. It was a bit of a surprise to see Green have a chance at two catches in the second half. Green, who has a lost sizable amount of range and speed in the two years since undergoing reconstructive knee surgery, has been rarely used this season and is without a reception.
RS junior FB Mike Henry has slowly become more involved with the Gophers' offense in the last two weeks, despite playing with a broken bone in his right hand. Henry was used often in two-back sets against Syracuse to give the TBs and Shortell additional blocking support. On Saturday, the Gophers opted to use him more in the passing game as he made his first two career completions. Three plays prior to the Gophers' third quarter touchdown, Shortell rolled out on play action and found Henry by himself on the edge. Iowa was not expecting Henry to go downfield and the FB was able to gain 27 yards. TE Drew Goodger has been a favorite target of Shortell's. Goodger, who reeled in the Gophers' second touchdown, has six catches in the last two games (3 rec., 27 yds vs Syracuse; 3 rec. 14 yds vs Iowa).
As a result of injuries, depth and continuity across the O-line has been fragile for the last three weeks. Backup LG Joe Bjorklund (concussion) and C Zach Mottla were both back in the rotation after missing the last two games. But as they returned two others went out. Starting LG Tommy Olson was sidelined with an ankle injury suffered last Saturday against Syracuse. RS freshman Jon Christenson, fresh off his switch from C, made his first career start. No. 2 LT Foster Bush missed the game with an undisclosed injury, leaving RS freshman Ernie Heifort to make his collegiate debut. The O-line has not been markedly hampered by the recent turnover, but there have been lapses. Shortell was getting decent time in the pocket to make passes, though Iowa broke through for two sacks. Iowa made the line look flimsy in the run game, several times breaking in for the tackle before the unit had time to set up a blocking path. RS sophomore Zac Epping remained the Gophers' starting C, despite Mottla's return. That is likely to remain the case unless another injury forces OC Matt Limegrover to make a switch.
The Gophers' running stopping flaws came to the forefront on Saturday. Iowa fullback Mark Heisman tormented the 'U' defense for 177 yards (21 carries) -- 155 of which came in the first half. Iowa's O-line used a distinct physical edge early on to push past the Gophers' defensive line and get back into the secondary. Saturday was the first time this season that the D-line has looked out-of-sync for extended periods. The unit entered with 11 sacks in its last four games. They were never able to bring Iowa QB James Vandenberg down, though they were close on a few occasions. Vandenberg attempted 31 passes, 18 of which were completed for 192 yards, doing so without facing high pressure from the line. The offense's early struggles made it worse for the D-line and the rest of the defense, keeping them on the field for 19 minutes in the first half. The defense wore down in the second quarter and Iowa responded with three consecutive touchdowns. However, Iowa did not register a point offensively after Vandenberg's 1-yard, second quarter touchdown run. "You watch the second half of the film you go, 'God dang, all we needed to do was play like this, because we really dominated the second half,'" Kill said. The D-line combined for a season-low 10 tackles. DT Cameron Botticelli dislocated his elbow during the game, but stayed in and posted four tackles (two solo, two assisted).
Saturday was a huge test for the Gophers' linebackers. Needless to say, they didn't pass. The unit had gotten away with some scheme breakdowns and missed assignments in the nonconference schedule. Those mistakes persisted against Iowa, and Weisman and the Hawkeyes capitalized. While the D-line wasn't helping much, the LBs were continually tangled up by Iowa's O-line, creating large gaps for Weisman to run through. Missed tackles were frequent in the first half. RS junior Brendan Beal and RS junior Aaron Hill each made a bid to bring Weisman down on his 44-yard run - his longest of the day -- at the end of the first quarter, but both LBs botched their chance, requiring CB Michael Carter to make the tackle. Weisman had five other runs of 15 yards or more (15, 17, 24, 27, 32). The LB corps was better in the second half, as was the entire defense. A 17 yard run by Weisman, which senior Mike Rallis missed a tackle on, created a scoring opportunity for Iowa midway through the third quarter. But Rallis soundly recovered as he shut Weisman down at the line of scrimmage three plays later on a crucial third down, forcing Iowa to punt. Rallis finished tied with CB Troy Stoudermire for the team-high in tackles with six (four solo, two assisted). Junior James Manuel has had a steady output as the No. 2 option at WLB behind starter Keanon Cooper. Manuel had his third straight five-tackle game, moving him to fourth on the team in tackles. Hill accounted for one of the Gophers' two tackles for a loss.
The secondary was nearly overwhelmed in the first half with trying to keep up with Weisman after he broke through the front lines, while also attempting to keep Vandenberg in-check. The group was in on 10 of the team's 15 tackles of Weisman in the first half. Missed tackles extended out to the secondary. Carter, S Cedric Thompson, S Damarius Travis, S Derrick Wells and S Brock Vereen each had at least one botched attempt on Weisman's long runs. The Gophers adjusted at halftime, occasionally bringing their corners down to blitz in on Vandenberg. It helped immensely as it not only allowed them to inflict more pressure inside, but also put them in better position to cut off quick passes. Kill said he wasn't expecting Iowa to throw as much as they did in the second half - 12 of their 18 plays were passes (66%) - but the Hawkeyes were still held to only 27 yards passing (5-of-12) in the final two quarters. Stoudermire was a bright spot in the secondary, showing quick reaction time to get in on tackles and providing solid backup in the run game. He was right on top of receiver Jordan Cotton to pick up a tackle for a loss when Vandenberg tossed it out on a screen pass on 3rd and 6 on Iowa's third possession of the game. Vereen, who has recently been a key contributor, was used primarily as a nickel back. Kill mentioned he did not want to risk bringing Vereen into the box after the junior tweaked his knee midweek in practice. The Gophers had their first game this season without a takeaway.
A sputtering offense meant P Christian Eldred had plenty of opportunities. Eldred had his best game of the year, airing out a career-high six punts for 44.5 yard average (38.7 net). He had three punts go for 47 yards or more (47, 47, 51). Aided by strong snaps from LS Jared Hartman, Eldred was getting punts off at a steadily quick rate. K Jordan Wettstein converted his only attempt of the day - an extra point after the Gophers' first touchdown.