Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' loss to Michigan State
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It wasn't the way the Gophers wanted to enter their month-long lull before making their first appearance in a bowl game in three years.
Hopes of improving their bowl standing and knocking Michigan State out of postseason contention were extinguished in the wake of a dismal offensive showing on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. The "U" offense could muster only 96 total yards as the Spartans did just enough to keep the Gophers sputtering to a 26-10 loss and a 6-6 regular season record.
The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' sixth defeat, with input from post-game interviews with players and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys after the game.
Michigan State boasts the top ranked defense in the Big Ten (273.2 ypg), but the fact that the Gophers offense was stuck under the 100-yard threshold on Saturday (96 yards - the team's lowest total since 1974) was cringe-worthy. Much of that had to do with their troubles running the ball, though QB Philip Nelson and his receivers could do little to provide relief through the air. Nelson did not have a good day. His outing was bad enough that he ended up being pulling in the fourth quarter for the second game in a row. When it was clear the Gophers' run game was going nowhere, the freshman QB was asked to shoulder increased pressure to frequently throw deep downfield. The results were shaky at best. After a struggle-filled afternoon at Nebraska one week earlier, Nelson threw a career-high three interceptions on his way to completing only 10 of 23 passes for 59 yards. In his last two games, Nelson has combined for 120 passing yards, five interceptions and a 39 % completion rate. Anticipating a loaded defensive front, OC Matt Limegrover started this offense with a slew of short throws and screen passes to the edges - only two of Nelson's first nine attempts were thrown farther than five yards (both of which were incompletions). Nelson was 7-of-10 by the end of the opening frame, but the Gophers had only 32 yards, a turnover and two three-and-outs to show for it. He went on to complete only three of his last 13 passes. Nelson had moments where he exuded notable precision and decision-making, but those instances were fleeting. Of his three interceptions, it was the first that will stick with Nelson for a while. From the snap, he had his eye on WR Devin Crawford-Tufts, who was having trouble shedding his defender. As soon as Nelson released the pass, the CB dropped off Crawford-Tufts and squared up to easily pick off the underthrown ball. The Spartans were getting consistent pressure in on Nelson, which caused the freshman QB to revert to his tendency to throw off his back foot when facing incoming defenders. Nelson badly overthrew three passes, including back-to-back deep throws of around 15 yards to WRs Andre McDonald and Brandon Green. The Gophers seem to finally trust that WR MarQueis Gray's left ankle can handle elevated responsibilities back at QB. Gray took a snap out of the wildcat formation on the first play of the game, with Nelson lined up out wide. Gray was only able to pick up two yards on a run up the middle. Michigan State wasn't fooled by the Gophers' use of the senior WR/QB. Gray handled seven snaps, gaining four yards on five runs, throwing an incompletion on his only attempt and handing the ball off on another play. Shortell's fourth quarter appearance began promising. He unfurled a powerful, well-timed 17-yard pass to WR Derrick Engel. On his fourth attempt, he completed another to Engel, tossing the ball 10 yards on the run. But Shortell finished sourly, giving TE John Rabe no chance to make a play on a lousy pass up the middle that was picked off for the Gophers' fourth thrown interception. Shortell's three completions (3-of-6) went for 31 yards.
The Gophers didn't hand off the ball until their 11th play of the game - a hand-off to secondary TB Rodrick Williams, who scooted forward for just one yard. That would end up being Williams' only carry. As a follow-up to his 11-yard outing (seven carries) at Nebraska, RS sophomore TB Donnell Kirkwood netted 19 yards on 10 carries, with half of those runs going for one yard or less. Kirkwood is the Gophers' rushing leader with 849 yards. But Saturday marked the fourth time this season he has totaled 33 yards or less. The Gophers attempted four screen passes to either Kirkwood or inside/motion WR K.J Maye that went for a combined two yards. On the Gophers' second drive, they were facing 3rd and 1. With three WRs lined up wide right, Nelson tossed a quick shot to Kirkwood, who was hit immediately for a five-yard loss. It marked the first of seven drives that ended in three plays or less because of a three-and-out or an interception. Sacks to Nelson and Shortell brought the Gophers' rushing total down from an already sparse 24 net yards (Kirkwood - 19; Williams - 1; Gray - 4) to a grand total of four. The Gophers ran the ball on 30 of their 50 offensive plays.
With A.J. Barker gone, the Gophers no longer have a go-to receiver. In the last four games, no receiver has amassed more than 45 yards in a game. McDonald was targeted a game-high six times, hauling in three of those for a team-best 36 yards. The freshman WR has had a rocky debut season, but was solid in stretches Saturday. His one-handed 23-yard grab on a pass that came in a bit high from Nelson was the reason Gophers were in position to kick a third quarter field goal - their only offensive points of the game. Engel finished behind McDonald with 35 yards, but two of his three receptions came in the fourth quarter with the Gophers already trailing 26-10. He should have had another catch in the third quarter when he made a highlight worthy grab in coverage to seemingly rescue the Gophers from going three-and-out on their own 5-yard line. But the officiating crew made a questionable call in overturning the play. Michigan State responded by pushing its lead to 19-10 on its ensuing possession. In total, seven "U" WRs were targeted (25 attempts), along with throws to Kirkwood (2) and Rabe (three attempts). The Spartans' secondary didn't have many coverage breakdowns, keeping their CBs pretty much in-step with the "U" receivers all afternoon. Miscommunication between quarterback and receiver was a rampant issue. On several throws, Nelson appeared to think his receiver would either break off from the coverage or be able to cut out in a different direction. That happened twice to Green, who was often being run in motion. On the first pass, Green couldn't catch up with a deep throw from Nelson, while on the second he was unable to break from his defender on a crucial third down attempt in the third quarter. Nelson and WR Isaac Fruechte also had issues getting on the same page. Two of the three passes in Fruechte's direction were intercepted, including Nelson's final pick in which Fruechte hadn't even turned around when the ball finally got near him. Gray was only targeted once as a WR - a pass from Shortell that slipped out of his grasp.
"We've just got to be able to communicate as receivers and a quarterback group," Gray said. "That's one thing that is holding back from being more of an explosive offense, being on the same page."
The Gophers were without sophomore TE Drew Goodger, who sat out after dislocating his shoulder against Nebraska. Earlier in the week, Kill labeled Goodger's injury as "critical," as his absence has left them lacking one of their primary options at TE. Rabe and freshman Lincoln Plsek had to handle the bulk of the unit's blocking responsibilities. Rabe was the only TE targeted in the passing game, thrown to on three occasions. His lone catch was a 7-yard grab on a well-executed post route, which prolonged the Gophers' eventual scoring drive.
Under an onslaught of pressure up the middle by Michigan State's D-line and LB corps, the Gophers O-line struggled to get the blocks needed to open viable running lanes. Several times the Spartans brought one or two LBs and a S down on the line to front a six or seven-man blitz. It worked to further throw the Gophers' offense out of whack. Michigan State got through the O-line to stop 11 of the Gophers' 19 runs after one yard or less. Nelson was getting decent protection when he dropped back to pass, but he had moments when he had to scramble to stay upright. The line didn't yield a sack until the fourth quarter. LG Tommy Olson couldn't hold his block, letting DT Micajah Reynolds slip by to slam into Nelson and knock the ball away. Olson salvaged the play by jumping on the loose ball 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The missteps that occurred on the line can be partly credited to the inconsistent continuity that has hampered the injury-plagued unit all year. The combination of LT Ed Olson, T. Olson, C Zac Epping, RG Caleb Bak and RT Josh Campion has yet to fully gel back together after being reunited a week ago following a four-game layoff. Ed Olson had a brief scare at the end of the second quarter when his recovering right ankle, which had prevented him from playing in four games this season, was incidentally clipped by a D-lineman. Marek Lenkiewicz, who had been questionable throughout the week with a knee injury, came on in relief at LT. But Olson was able to return on the next drive and finished out the rest of the game. The line's other lingering injury concern, C Jon Christenson (ankle), did not play.
Le'Veon Bell took advantage of a multitude of gaping holes in the Gophers' defensive front lines to turn out 266 rushing yards on 35 carries. With the D-line caught up in the MSU blocking scheme, Bell patiently waited for his openings to get intoto the defense's second and third layers. He had nine runs of 11 yards or more, with four longer than 25 yards. But although Michigan State's star running back rolled to a career day, the "U" defense came up with stops in key situations. The Spartans were forced into a field goal attempt or a punt on seven of their nine trips into Gophers' territory. Thanks to a strong defense and an inconsistent Michigan State offense, the Gophers were able to keep themselves in the game. However, their offense's blatant shortcomings eventually doomed the tiring defense. Michigan State held possession more than 15 minutes longer than the Gophers (37:37-22:23). This proved to be their downfall in the fourth quarter. After the Spartans had taken a 19-10 lead, the Gophers followed with a two-play drive that ended in just over a minute as the result of an interception. Michigan State sent Bell on eight consecutive runs until the weathered unit gave up a touchdown 57 yards later. The D-line was most effective when the Spartans went to pass. QB Andrew Maxwell was kept uncomfortable for much of the game, with pressure coming from the edges. Close early on, DE D.L. Wilhite brought Maxwell down in the third quarter for a six-yard loss, which helped push the Spartans from the Gophers' six-yard line and eventually resulted in having them settle for a field goal. The sack was Wilhite's eighth of the year, putting him in a tie with Nebraska's Eric Martin (8.5) for second among the Big Ten's sack leaders. Freshman DE Alex Keith contributed the Gophers' second sack on Michigan State's next drive, collapsing in on a failed flea-flicker for an 11-yard loss. Wilhite took no solace in the Gophers' ability to contain the Spartans' passing attack.
"Even though I pride myself in getting to the pass, if we give up 270 yards rushing yard, to me I'm embarrassed as a D-lineman, because we're supposed to set the tone up front and be knocking those guys back," Wilhite said.
It was a day of drastic highs and lows for the "U" LBs, as it was for the entire defense. Once Bell got past the D-line, the Gophers LB were laboring to fit the gaps to corral him. On several runs, Michigan State was able to split its opponents LBs and create glaring holes at the heart of the defense that Bell weaved through to get out on the edge. The D-line and LBs looked at their worst on the Spartans' first drive of the third quarter. Bell had them reeling with runs on seven of his team's first eight plays of the half, propelling them from their own 25-yard line all way to Minnesota's 26. Michigan State, forced to kick a field goal, but the drive was part of a slow clinching of the victory. However, the LB unit contrasted its miscues with segments of commendably strong play. Junior Aaron Hill provided the key highlight. Tracking Maxwell as he dropped back for a pass near the end of the first quarter, Hill quickly stepped in front of the nearby receiver for an uncontested interception. Aided CB Troy Stoudermire's block near the endzone, Hill made it 33-yards for the Gophers' only touchdown of the game, putting them out to an early 7-3 lead. Senior LB Keanon Cooper finished third on the team in tackles (8 -- 6 solo, 2 assisted), with a game-high 2.5 tackles for losses. On Michigan State's second drive of the third quarter, Cooper knocked the ball from Bell's hands on 13-yard run. The Gophers had a chance to grab the fumble, but the Spartans hopped on it. A turnover in that position would have been crucial as it would have given the Gophers possession near Michigan's 30-yard line, trailing by only six points. With RS juniorBrendan Beal out for the season with a knee injury, senior Ryan Grant took over some of his responsibilities as the Gophers' No. 2 option at MLB behind Rallis.
S Derrick Wells was on the wrong side of Bell's best play of the game. On Michigan State's first play after Hill waltzed into the endzone, Bell patiently bounced out to the left of his main clump blockers, making his way to the left edge where Wells got his hands on him. But Wells couldn't get leverage underneath as he was dragged nearly 20 yards until DE Ben Perry came in to help stop Bell's 40-yard gain. Wells and the secondary were busy all day. Wells (12), Stoudermire (10), CB Michael Carter (8), S Brock Vereen (4) and S Cedric Thompson (4) contributed for 44% of the Gophers' total tackles (34 of 77), with 22 those coming off tackles on Bell. The unit excelled primarily in preventing Maxwell from finding much by way of the pass. Maxwell's completion rate (44% - 13-of-29) was actually only one percent better than Nelson's (43 % - 10-of-23) Coverage breakdowns were held to a minimum. The secondary was sticking close to receivers, keeping Michigan State to only three pass plays of longer than 10 yards. Michigan State's longest play was an unlucky one for the Gophers. A quick 6-yard pass to Tony Lippett, well-defended short of the first down, deflected off his hands and bounced almost 10 yards forward into WR Bernie Fowler's grasp. Seconds later Fowler had produced Michigan State's first touchdown to cut the Gophers' lead to 7-6 in the first quarter. Carter continues to provide proof why he is the Gophers' Defensive MVP this season. Carter rarely gave much breathing room to his receiver, and was locking in for tackles rapidly. Bell attempted to hurdle Carter on a second quarter run. The senior CB had time to square up and proceeded to flip Bell over. On a play one quarter later, Carter fiercely keyed in on his receiver to swat a pass away. A second late in his timing and the receiver would have had a glut of open field. Vereen added his second interception this season with a pick in the second quarter.
P Christian Eldred wasn't bothered by the freezing temperatures and 10 MPH wind. He nearly matched his career-best performance - Sept. 29 at Iowa (44.5 yds)- with six punts that went on average 44.3 yards. Eldred's one punt under 41 yards was a 34 yard pooch kick that pegged Michigan State at its own 12-yard line in the second quarter. Senior K Jordan Wettstein converted pointedly from a season-high 48 yards out on his first field goal attempt in two games. Wettstein has hit four straight field goals after starting the year 8-of-16.