Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' loss at Wisconsin
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Three games into their Big Ten schedule, the Gophers are still searching for their first conference victory.
For the ninth straight time, Wisconsin denied the Gophers' bid to reclaim Paul Bunyan's Axe. The Badgers used a crushing rushing attack on Saturday afternoon in Madison to methodically put together a punishing 38-13 defeat, backloaded by 24 second half points. Wisconsin's late burst came after the Gophers (4-3) had kept themselves within a winnable distance at halftime.
Coach Jerry Kill understands the criticism he has been dealt lately. His team has lost three consecutive games, leaving the positives to be overshadowed amid the number of weaknesses that have been exposed in recent weeks.
But he came out of Saturday's loss with a forward-looking attitude that progress has been made, even with the Gophers caught in deflating downswing.
"There are some good things going on here. You just really have look hard at it," Kill said on Sunday.
The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' third loss, with input from a conversation Kill had with beat reporters Sunday.
Kill made a bold move Saturday. The Gophers chose to hand over the offense to true freshman QB Philip Nelson for the first time. By taking off Nelson's redshirt midseason, Kill is entrusting Nelson to be the team's top option under center for the remainder of the year. Nelson's debut was a mixed bag, dotted with promising signs. On first glance, his numbers were mediocre at best -- 13-of-24 for 149 yards, offsetting two touchdowns with a pair of interceptions. But given the circumstances surrounding the game, he showed an upside on Saturday that buoyed the Gophers' decision to start him. Even before the first snap, Nelson was at a disadvantage, starting his first game on the road at Camp Randall against a surging Wisconsin squad. Anxiousness seemed consume Nelson in the Gophers' first two offensive series as both sputtered to three-and-out conclusions. On the unit's third drive, Nelson finally had the offense surging forward. With the Gophers already trailing 7-0, he hit TE Drew Goodger on a crisp 18-yard pass up middle for his first career completion. Two plays later, he didn't hesitate to take off into the defense for a 17-yard scramble. The drive ended with a touchdown pass to WR Brandon Green.
Inconsistency crept in again as his next four passes fell incomplete, largely the result of miscommunication with his receivers. He had four passes that could be considered overthrows and another that was tossed behind his receiver, but they were mainly caused by a lapse in timing with his intended target. Nelson's best stretch of the game came on the Gophers' final drive of the first half in which he completed five of six passes. Nelson's composure, which was notably resilient, was exemplified when he eluded a tackle on 3rd and 1 play and got off a short three-yard throw to MarQueis Gray, preserving the drive. "He's a pretty intense kid. He's confident. He believes in what he is doing now ... There were some things in there that you can't coach," Kill said. Though he led a scoring drive in the third quarter, Nelson and the offense were markedly ineffective for much of the second half. The Gophers have scored only 13 points in each of their three Big Ten games. Nelson will be expected to help reverse that trend in the weeks ahead. Hampered by an ever-present ankle sprain, Gray is not an option quarterback right now. He has been moved out to WR, where Kill hopes his risk of further injury will be lowered. After three starts this season, sophomore Max Shortell has found himself back in a secondary role. Kill said he considered putting Shortell in for a series after Nelson had run the ball several times in a row in the second quarter, but didn't feel Nelson was overly winded. But Kill is not likely to hesitate to insert Shortell sporadically if needed. Though not on the same level as Gray's, Nelson owns deceptive speed and a level of mobility that Shortell does not have. Nelson ran the ball 16 times against Wisconsin for 67 yards, making him the Gophers' leading rusher.
Take away Nelson's numbers and the Gophers' run game was almost a non-factor. Tailbacks Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams Jr. and K.J. Maye combined for just 37 total yards. It was the lowest amount of production the Gophers have received out of their tailbacks this season. The trio's 12 carries were also a season-low for the position group, with four of those coming with the game already out of hand in the latter minutes of the fourth quarter. Headed by Nelson, the Gophers ran the ball on 30 of their 55 offensive plays. Kirkwood missed practice time at the end of last week because of an ankle injury. He was cleared to play, but his usual aggressive edge was not there. His five carries for a season-low 10 yards were scattered throughout the game. He handled two carries early in the first quarter, but didn't touch the ball again until midway through the third. Williams, in his second career game, was used six times, tallying 20 yards. Six of Williams and Kirkwood's carries went for three yards or less. Maye dashed for seven yards on a run to the edge on the Gophers' third possession, but OC Matt Limegrover did not call another run to the outside for the remainder of the afternoon. Failure to provide production on the ground heaped unneeded pressure on Nelson to produce through the air and on his own. Nelson either threw or ran the ball on 36 of the Gophers' 41 plays in a stretch that lasted from the 3:50 mark in the first quarter until their second to last possession of the game.
Gray's adjustment back to receiver, where he played for much of his first two seasons on campus, is a work in progress. With his health still lagging, Kill met with Gray early last week about keeping the senior dual-threat at WR at least for the foreseeable future. "I think we all know of his chances in the NFL," Kill said. "People have come in here and said he's going to be an inside tight end/wide receiver. I said, 'With the way you're injured up right now. We ain't helping anybody. We need to get you healthy and get you going.'" While some of his speed and agility has returned, Gray's explosiveness off the line and his ability to cut from side to are still lacking. He lined up out wide on 35 of the offense's 55 plays. Nelson and Gray had difficulties getting in-sync with each other. Nelson targeted Gray seven times, but the receiver reeled in only three of those attempts -- the only three that reached their mark. The Gophers were down two of their main receivers. Sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts did not make the trip due to a concussion. Fellow sophomore Isaac Fruechte was also dealing with a concussion. However, he was cleared to play until flu symptoms ultimately kept him sidelined. With the pair out of the lineup, it opened a spot for senior Brandon Green. Slowed all season by ongoing knee problems, Green recorded his first catches of the year with a 44-yard, one touchdown performance (three receptions - 16, 14, 9). An illegal formation penalty called on Gray, who had lined up offsides, eliminated Green's best catch of the game -- an acrobatic one-handed nine-yard grab in the second quarter. Redshirt junior A.J. Barker was responsible for the Gophers' other touchdown and finished second to Green in receiving yards (36). But he had a pass taken away from him when Wisconsin DB Devin Smith went up and over him for an interception on a ball that should have been caught. In his second game back in the lineup, freshman Andre McDonald made one catch for 19 yards, while dropping another that hit him directly in the chest. "He got upset about a drop, but he didn't lose his composure," Kill said. "Came back over. Got a catch the next time. I see some growth in him."
Senior John Rabe did not play for the first time this season. No reason for his absence was given. Last week against Iowa, Rabe went without a catch, ending a five-game streak of at least one reception. True freshman Lincoln Plsek's debut a week ago may be the primary reason for Rabe's lowered usage. The Gophers wouldn't have burned Plsek's redshirt six games in if they didn't intend to regularyly incorporate him into the offense. Besides his blocking duties, Plsek was used several times in the passing game. He dropped a pass in the second quarter after absorbing a heavy hit on a slant route to the middle of the field. His only reception came on a quick three-yard dump pass. Goodger, who started his second game in a row, was used similarly. The sophomore TE had two receptions for 27 yards.
Changes keep coming, but the O-line responded to them better on Saturday than it has in recent weeks. Junior LT Ed Olson's exclusion from the travel roster because of an ankle injury meant the unit witnessed its fourth different starting lineup of the season. RS sophomore Marek Lenkiewicz started in place of Olson. The Gophers had five snaps at C last week that ended up on the ground - four of which were credited to RS sophomore Zac Epping. Kill later blamed soreness in Epping's hands for some of his struggles. The Gophers decided to shift Epping back to guard. He filled in at LG, where starter Tommy Olson sat out his second game with an ankle sprain. Mottla, healthy after battling ankle problems as well, had a solid day at C, besides a low snap on the Gophers' first possession that Nelson couldn't hang on to. The unit as a whole responded well to lining up with its third different QB this season. Nelson was given decent time to get off passes and the line shifted fluidly when he chose to run. It was the first time in seven games the Gophers have not allowed a sack. Kill admitted that injuries across the line had made him considered taking the redshirt off of freshman Jonah Pirsig, who did travel with the team to Wisconsin. However, Kill now seems set to avoid using any true freshmen on the line as long as the Gophers' injury woes don't increase.
The problems the Gophers have had lately with stopping the run hit a new low on Saturday. Wisconsin TBs James White and Montee Ball ran for 175 and 166 yards respectively. The duo was responsible for all five Badger touchdowns. In losses to Iowa and Northwestern, it was only a limited selection of plays that derailed the defense. Entering Saturday's match-up, the Gophers had not given up an offensive touchdown in the second half during Big Ten play. But the Badgers spread their rushing yards out as they slowly grinded the Gophers down. After a sound first half, the game fell apart for the Gophers in the final 30 minutes, with their offense failing to provide much support. Wisconsin scored 24 of its 38 points in the second half, holding on to the ball almost 10 minutes longer than the Gophers. "Our defensive coaches and players are extremely disappointed," Kill said. "At the end of the day, they wore us out."
The D-line was getting ensnared with the Badgers' front lines, allowing Ball and White to get through into the second line of defense. Wisconsin pounded the Gophers with runs on 77 % of its offensive plays (55-of-71). The Gophers were getting good pressure in the middle and on the quarterback at times in the first half. With Wisconsin making a big push at the start of the second quarter, senior DE D.L. Wilhite gave the defense's its first sack in three games by rolling off the RT and collapsing in on QB Joel Stave. NT Ra'Shede Hageman followed two plays later by bringing Stave down 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage, taking the Badgers out of field goal range. Wisconsin had to punt four times in the first half. Like the entire defense, the D-line tired out in the second half after prolonged exposure. The Gophers ran only six plays in the fourth quarter. Trailing 24-13 at the start of the final quarter, the Gophers had Wisconsin sitting on its only 39-yard line staring at 3rd and 11, one play removed from a much-needed stop. Ball raced towards a gap on the edge of the line. Wilhite was there and had his arms around Ball, but the former Heisman candidate escaped and broke two more tackles en route to a crushing first down. "That was the game," Kill said. "That momentum right there shifted. We fought, but they physically (wore us down)." Hageman led the line in tackles with four (two solo, two assisted). Wilhite, freshman DE Alex Keith, junior DT Roland Johnson and sophomore DE Michael Amaefula each had a pair of tackles. For the second week, Johnson played with a high ankle sprain. RS sophomore Cameron Botticelli started at DT, though he was nursing a dislocated elbow and high ankle sprain.
Ball and White had very few issues getting past the D-line and the LB corps. The Gophers consistently loaded the box, keeping their LBs mainly bunched near the middle. The unit frequently followed up strong plays with periods of missed tackles and missed gaps. One example came in the second quarter when senior Mike Rallis sped into the backfield to bring down Ball for a four-yard loss. On the next play, White knifed through the defense for a 26-yard gain. The Badgers finished the five-play drive by stretching their lead to 14-6. The LBs have faced the brunt of the Gophers' run stopping responsibilities in the last three weeks and have continued to struggle to find consistency. OLB Aaron Hill was one tackle shy of matching his career-high as he led the Gophers with nine tackles (seven solo, two assisted). Senior Keanon Cooper, who had his best game season the week prior against Northwestern, finished with seven (four solo, three assisted).
While the Gophers were hard-pressed to slow down Ball and White, they did a decent job of taking away Wisconsin's passing lanes after two early breakdowns. Stave was 7-of-15, throwing for 106 yards. The Badgers went to the air at the onset of the game more often than expected. On Wisconsin's second possession, the Gophers had the box tightly loaded, expecting a run. Stave faked a double handoff before launching a 42-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis, who was able to keep one step in front of CB Troy Stoudermire from the break. Two drives later, Abbrederis again beat the Gophers in man coverage, getting by CB Michael Carter for a 26-yard catch. However, that was one slip-up in an otherwise an impressive game by Carter. The senior continues to have the best season of his career, but it has been clouded by the defense's inefficiencies elsewhere. He had a near interception late in the third quarter as a pass intended for Abbrederis bounced off his hands. S Derrick Wells was limited in practice during the week with a laceration on his right leg. He still played Saturday, despite having his leg stitched up and wrapped in a protective sleeve. Wells was again the main safety brought down with the LBs to add an extra layer of run support. He missed a spattering of tackles, but finished second on the team with eight (four solo, four assisted).
K Jordan Wettstein launched a 51-yard kick at the end of the second quarter that would have not only matched his career-high, but would have also cut Wisconsin's halftime lead to five points. The kick, after starting wide left, tailed in and appeared to be good from afar. But the referees ruled that it had missed clearing the top of the upright. It brought the Gophers' promising drive to a thudding conclusion. "We kicked a field goal, which I thought was good. I still think it was good," Kill said. The controversial miss was Wettstein's sixth of the year. He now has 50% conversion rate this season 6-of-12). It came after Wisconsin LB Chris Borland tipped an extra point attempt by Wettstein in the first quarter, pushing the ball wide-right. P Christian Eldred punted a career-high seven times. He was able to quickly bring down a high snap on his first punt and boot it 44 yards - his longest of the game. His only miscue was a 19-yard punt that came off the side his foot and took a bad bounce. Eldred finished with a 38-yard net average.