Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' loss against Michigan
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
One week after a convincing win against Purdue, the Gophers reverted to their inconsistent form on Saturday in a 35-13 loss to Michigan. The defeat put the Gophers at 1-4 in the Big Ten (5-4 overall) and left them with only three games to clinch bowl eligibility.
Lost in the final score was the bounty of missed chances the Gophers had at drawing even with or surpassing the susceptible Wolverines. Down 14-7 at the half, they drove into Michigan's redzone three times in the final 30 minutes, twice getting to the 3-yard line or closer. None of those three drives ended in a touchdown. Michigan, with its offense in backup quarterback Devin Gardner's control, went on to outscore the Gophers 21-6 in the second half.
After a day to contemplate on what happened, coach Jerry Kill was open about his disappointment on Sunday. While maintaining a level take on the situation, he placed much of the blame for the loss on himself and his coaching staff.
"We were able to hang in there from the physical standpoint. From an athletic standpoint, we didn't make a play and part of that has to do with, I'm the head coach. I'm responsible," Kill said. "I have to do a better job of making sure we get in those positions and do a better job of coaching."
The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' fourth loss in five games, with input from a conversation Kill had with beat reporters Sunday.
True freshman Philip Nelson had an erratic day, as did the entire offense. Saturday was a reminder, one game after Nelson's 246 yard, three-touchdown performance against Purdue, that he is a still a raw quarterback only three starts into his collegiate career. He posted 142 yards and a 44 % completion rate, with 16 of his 29 passes falling incomplete -- four more than in his debut at Wisconsin (13-of-24, 149 yards). Up against the nation's top rated pass defense, Nelson fell into rough stretches in which it took him several plays to recover from. The Gophers kept the ball on the ground for the majority of the first quarter, running on 16 of their first 21 plays. When Nelson did throw, the results were varied. Michigan's defensive line was getting in on him early, causing him to hurry his decision-making. He was sacked hard by Jordan Kovacs to end the Gophers' promising initial drive.
"I think as a young quarterback, you start to take hits and things like that you start to rush the ball out a little bit more," Kill said. "He got hit early, two or three times, and I think he just had a tendency to get rid of it."
It wasn't until the end of the first quarter that he and the offense briefly found a rhythm. A 13-yard pass to WR Derrick Engel, who worked his way open up the middle after being run in motion, put the Gophers in position for the game's first touchdown. Nelson capped the early second quarter scoring drive when he rolled out to his right before throwing across his body to the opposite corner, where he located TE John Rabe open in the endzone. The play stood as one of the Gophers' only offensive highlights. As Michigan's lead gradually grew, Nelson began forcing throws into thick coverage. Apart from his touchdown throw to Rabe, he had four other passes to receivers in or near the endzone. All four were ruled incomplete, including a wobbly pass to WR K.J. Maye on 3rd and 16 from Michigan's 19-yard line that hit the ground several feet in front and to the side of the receiver. Nelson was given the go-ahead to pass deep, but suffered from breaks in timing with his receivers as well as the lack of a reliable go-to target. Three passes to WR MarQueis Gray came in high and ended up out of the senior receiver's reach. Nelson had most of his success on passes to the middle of the field. Six of his 13 completions came on inside passing routes, including a pass that WR Derrick Engel turned into a 37-yard play. Nelson targeted nine different receivers, with seven of them coming down with catches. He held on to the ball for 12 carries for 37 yards, interspersing runs of six, eight and two for nine yards with seven carries that went for three yards or less.
Unlike in losses to Iowa and Wisconsin, lack of production from the Gophers' rushing attack wasn't a derailing factor in the offense's struggles, though inconsistencies were still present. TBs Donnell Kirkwood (58 yds) and Rodrick Williams Jr. (38 yds) accounted for 96 of the Gophers' passable 128 total rushing yards. The Gophers' reliance on their ground game came and went. After a run-heavy first quarter (16 of 21 plays), they rushed on just two plays in the second quarter before finishing with 20 run plays in the second half. Kirkwood sprung three 12-yard runs, patiently using his blockers to power into the defense's second layer. Williams was again used to complement Kirkwood. Though he struggled in the middle of the game to get positive yardage, the true freshman had carries of 11 and 10 yards -- both of which came on drives that the Gophers made it into the redzone. "I'm glad we pulled the redshirt off him, because we need his experience going into next year," Kill said. "I think him and Kirkwood are playing pretty good right now. That's a positive. Those two kids have stepped it up and run physical." However, the Gophers had issues converting in short yardage situations. Kirkwood was stopped twice on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1, plus he was halted for no gain on a 1st down attempt three yards from the endzone on the Gophers' last drive of the third quarter.
WR A.J. Barker's absence notably hurt the Gophers in the passing game. Without Barker, who sat out with a sprained right ankle, the Gophers didn't have a receiver that could consistently make a difficult catch on deep passes or throws near the sidelines. Recently rebranded WR MarQueis Gray is arguably the team's best outside option, but he continues to be hampered by the lingering effects of a sprained left ankle he suffered in the third game of the season. Gray was in on 44 of the Gophers' 72 offensive plays - his highest total since moving back to receiver three weeks ago. He was targeted a team-high seven times, but came down with only three of those passes for 27 yards. Gray's explosiveness off the line and vertical jump have been slow to return, preventing him from bringing in a few passes from Nelson that were slightly off the mark.
"He's not playing a 100 percent right now," Kill said. "You throw the jump ball up to him 90 percent of the time in one-on-one coverage he is going to make those plays. He's trying his guts out."
WR Isaac Fruechte was used in some of the deep situations that Barker had normally been targeted in. Fruechte was having issues getting on the same wavelength as Nelson and putting himself in the right positions. Nelson went to him six times, completing only two for 19 yards. Nelson threw deep to Fruechte on the second play of the game, but he didn't break early enough on a slant and go route to the right sideline and the ball fell in behind him when he finally looked. He also dropped a short pass on 3rd and 3 in the fourth quarter. Derrick Engel ended up being a reliable option for Nelson and the most productive one. The Gophers had Engel in motion on a pair of plays, which helped him to work to get open up the middle. The first resulted in a 13-yard gain on Nelson's first completion of the game, while on the second Engel went to the right before coming back around to break into the middle to catch a short pass he turned into a 32-yard play. Engel finished with a team-high 45 yards. K.J. Maye has moved full-time to WR from his previous role as a third option at TB. Maye is being inserted primarily as an inside receiver and in the backfield when the Gophers use a three-back formation. Maye was in on 38 plays on Saturday. He didn't do much damage in terms of stats. He had two catches for six yards, and was stopped five yards behind the line of scrimmage on his only carry. Freshman Andre McDonald and senior Brandon Green were both targeted once by Nelson, by neither was able to make a catch. Kill is optimistic that Barker will able to return next week at Illinois. The Gophers were considering playing him Saturday, but he came out gingerly in warm-ups and ended up slightly retweaking the injured ankle. He underwent another set of precautionary X-rays after the game, which came out negative.
All three of the Gophers' TEs -- senior John Rabe, sophomore Drew Goodger and freshman Lincoln Plsek -- were involved frequently against the Wolverines. Along with being used in several three TE sets and other blocking schemes, the trio was a key element in the Gophers' game plan passing-wise. Michigan was putting a lot of its resources in passing situations towards clogging the routes of the Gophers' outside receivers, leaving open lanes inside and on short passes. Rabe, Goodger, Plsek and FB Mike Henry combined for 45 yards. On the Gophers' lone touchdown, Maye was sent in motion to the right and Rabe found himself open on the left side of the field as the defense followed Nelson, who had also rolled out to the right. Nelson gathered himself to make the throw, right on-line to Rabe in the endzone. "If he would have motioned and (the defender) hadn't went with him, we would have called a timeout," Kill said. "He went in motion and the guy went with him. We knew we had them. We knew were in good shape."
With injuries finally becoming less of an issue up front, the offensive line has been able to stick with a combination that has, for the most part, been working out well. The Gophers kept their starting five intact from a week ago -- LT Marek Lenkiewicz, LG Zac Epping, C Jon Christenson, RG Caleb Bak and RT Josh Campion. Of those five, only Epping and Campion were in the Gophers' Game 1 starting lineup, with Epping at RG instead of on the left side. The O-line wasn't nearly as solid as it was against Purdue, but earned passable grades while dealing with Michigan bullying defensive front. The line was overwhelmed at times in non-goal line situations when the Wolverines brought all three LBs down with the D-lineman. The LBs were able to get around the O-line and quickly put a hit on either Nelson or one of his TBs. On third down on the Gophers' first possession, Michigan shifted its LBs down, as well as a safety. When Nelson dropped back to pass, the front line flooded in and the O-line couldn't stop them, allowing Michigan the first sack against the Gophers in three games. Mental errors also bogged the line down. Bak was called for a chop block in the first quarter, pushing the Gophers out of Michigan territory. That drive fell flat three plays later. Epping was pegged for a false start on 2nd and goal in the fourth quarter, with the Gophers sitting on Michigan's three-yard line. It led to another failed drive in which the Gophers ended up with only field goal. A touchdown in that sport would have put them within seven points of Michigan with around 14 minutes to go in the game. The O-line is likely to see the return of a familiar face next week. Starting LT Ed Olson has been sidelined for three games with a injured ankle. Kill said he had hoped Olson, who returned to practice on Thursday, would be able to split snaps at LT with Lenkiweicz. But by Saturday he was still not back to full strength, leaving the Gophers to hold him out.
Even without Michigan's Denard Robinson under center, the Gophers had to contend with a mobile threat at QB. Backup Devin Gardner made his first appearance at QB this season, with Robinson out with a tweaked nerve in his throwing arm. Gardner kept the D-line on-guard as he willingly moved in and out of the pocket. The Gophers weren't stingy in bringing pressure in on Gardner, especially early on. The "U" defense had an impressive start to the game, forcing Michigan to go three-and-out twice and ending a third drive with an interception two plays in. Those stops were aided by the line, which was regularly collapsing in on Gardner enough to fluster him, though slowly he settled in. On Michigan's first drive, NT Ra'Shede Hageman battled through Michigan's center to slam into Gardner for his fifth sack of the season and a big defensive stop on 3rd and 2. Two drives later, DT Roland Johnson rolled off the LG and sacked Gardner to bring up 3rd and 17 from the Minnesota 45-yard line, which seemed to put Michigan on the fast-track to another punt. But on the next play, Gardner scrambled from side to side in the backfield for nine seconds, while the line frantically tried to bring him down. Hageman and DE D.L. Wilhite both had prime chances to do so, but Gardner escaped them and let go of a 45-yard pass to wide-open receiver Drew Dileo for the touchdown. It was one of several plays that the line missed on critical near-tackles. As in all three of the Gophers' previous losses, the offense failed to capitalize when given openings provided by the defense. Eventually the defense falters, with no offensive support to back them up. That happened Saturday when the defense followed its first three stops with back-to-back 90-yard Michigan drives that lasted 12 and 13 plays, and both ended in touchdowns. At the start of the third quarter, DT Cameron Botticelli combined with LB James Manuel to sack Gardner, stamping Michigan with its fourth drive of three plays or less. But the offense again could not reciprocate with points. Michigan scored its third touchdown on its next possession. For the first time this season, the Gophers' rush defense wasn't their fatal flaw. The Gophers give up 155 rushing yards - the lowest total they have held an opponent to in Big Ten play. That's noteworthy when you factor in that Michigan ran the ball 71% of the time (41 of 59 plays). But the Gophers continue to be unable to avoid allowing the periodic big gain on the ground. The Wolverines totaled 84 of their total rushing yards on four plays, including a 41-yard touchdown run by Fitzgerald Toussaint. All three of Michigan's touchdowns came on runs.
Like with the entire defense, the LB corps was strong in stretches, but had temporary letdowns that compounded to help increase Michigan's lead. The LBs were combining with the D-line early on to inflict solid pressure on Gardner. That slowly went away in the second quarter when Michigan started to throw more. Near misses hurt the LBs as they did with the D-line. On the Wolverines' second scoring drive, with the score tied at 7-7, the Gophers had brought up 3rd and 6 on their own 37-yard line. Junior LB James Manuel blitzed and sped through the line untouched. He eased his way into the backfield with a beat on Gardener. But Gardner juked ever so slightly and Manuel breezed by, missing the open tackle. Gardner took the added time to gather himself for a 17-yard pass for the first down. It was one of Michigan's seven third down conversions. All seven came on a Michigan scoring drive and two of those conversions went in for a touchdown - 100 total yards surrendered on third down.
"That's what I mean about making a play," Kill said. "We're not going to sit here and blame the kid. We need to spend more time when we're in those situations in practice, making sure he settles his hips. Those are the fundamentals that you have to teach."
Backup MLB Brendan Beal almost sacked Gardner in the second quarter for a safety, but can't bring him down, despite having his hands on him. Senior Mike Rallis was back as the Gophers' primary MLB after being limited last week with an ankle sprain. He ended the afternoon tied with SLB Aaron Hill for a unit-most five tackles. The Gophers went with their normal LB rotation, with Rallis, Hill and WLB Keanon Cooper in to start, and Manuel, Beal and Lamonte Edwards/Spencer Reeves to back them up.
Michigan's 234 passing yards were the most the Gophers have allowed this season. The Wolverines were gashing the secondary by continually getting downfield and forcing the unit to come up with stops. The secondary accounted for 42 of the team's 71 total tackles, with CB Troy Stoudermire and S Brock Vereen each tallying a team-high nine tackles. The Gophers weren't getting burned by Michigan's receivers, but were giving just enough separation to allowed for key catches. S Derrick Wells went up in-step with WR Jeremy Gallon in the endzone on a play in the third quarter, but Gallon was able to get high enough to haul in the touchdown pass. With Michigan up 21-10, the Gophers were one play from getting a chance to cut the lead further. Gardner threw to Roy Roundtree near the goal line. Stoudermire jumped up first and the ball went through his hands close behind him. Roundtree made the 47-yard catch, despite having a defender all over him. It was impressive grab, but Stoudermire should have been able to make the interception or at the very least knocked the ball down. CB Michael Carter, who had minimal impact on the score sheet with one tackle, was whistled for pass interference on third quarter drive. The penalty kick-started Michigan's third scoring drive, which began at its own 14-yard line. Carter went down late in the second quarter when he hit his head in an incidental helmet-to-helmet collision with teammate Aaron Hill. Carter returned for the second half, but was replaced in interim by CB Martez Shabazz. Sophomore S Cedric Thompson picked off his second pass of the season, diving in front TE A.J. Williams to make the catch to end Michigan's second drive. Unfortunately for the Gophers, Thompson's highlight play was answered by a three-and-out. S Derrick Wells was limited again in similar fashion as last week. Wells, slowed by a laceration in his right leg, yielded his starting spot to Vereen. Wells didn't enter the game until the second quarter on the last play of Michigan's first touchdown drive. Wells was in on 32 of the Gophers' 59 defensive plays. Shabazz, sophomore CB Briean Boddy, freshman Antonio Johnson and freshman Damarius Travis were put in for Michigan's last possession, with the game already out of reach
Kill's decision to fake a field goal on 4th and 16, trailing 14-7 in the third quarter, was a head-scratcher. Kill insisted he felt at that point in the game his team had to get into the endzone to inject his squad with needed momentum. Regardless of his motives, the play fizzled out. Michigan didn't bite. The Wolverines likely sensed something was up when Nelson lined up out to the left, while Jordan Wettstein prepared to kick. Holder Peter Mortell took the snap and rolled to his left. He floated a short pass to Nelson that came in a step behind him. DB Taylor Raymon was there soon after the catch to make the tackle, with two other defenders there to back him up. It was a bizarre play at that juncture, and a situation that ended being costly for the Gophers to not settle for three points.
"I chose to do it," Kill said. "We've worked on that for a month ... We just didn't execute it and that goes back to me. We work on that stuff all the time."
The Gophers were trying to make their way into scoring positon in 45 second period at the end of the first half. They landed at Michigan's 37-yard line with enough time for either a long field goal or another shot at the enedzone. Wettstein was called on for a 55-yard attempt -- four yards longer than his career-best. -- but he missed for the eighth time this season with a kick low and wide-left. He rebounded to convert on two shorter distance attempts in the second half (26, 19). P Christian Eldred didn't have a bad punt on any of his three attempts. He had one that went 52 yards and had another 10 yards tacked on to it after an illegal block call on Michigan. His other two punts that pegged Michigan at its own 8-yard line and 16-yard line.