Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' loss to Northwestern
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So much for a bye week boost.
Even after a week off, the Gophers couldn't find continuity at crucial junctures on Saturday, as they were defeated 21-13 by a lackluster Northwestern squad.
It was only the Gophers' second loss of the season, but a bevy of missed chances against an equally flawed team has put the 'U' on the brink of a long-term losing skid. Coach Jerry Kill's team dropped to 0-2 in the Big Ten, with a road trip to Wisconsin awaiting them next weekend.
The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' second loss, with input from a conversation defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys had with beat reporters on Sunday.
Though injuries forced their hand, the Gophers' two-QB system did not work they way they had expected. With senior MarQueis Gray's longevity in question after being out four weeks with a leg injury, the Gophers chose to give sophomore Max Shortell his third start of the season. Meanwhile, OC Matt Limegrover intended to slowly faze Gray into the game plan by using him first at receiver. That plan was altered when Shortell exited the game briefly in the first quarter and Gray was later lost for the game after reinjuring his left ankle in third quarter. Shortell, like the entire offense, was shrouded in inconsistency. He was in on 36 of the offense's 74 plays (9-of-19, 103 yards), attempting passes on 19 of those. Of his 10 incompletions, five were badly overthrown, two were passed behind his receiver and two were dropped by his intended target. Shortell attempted five passes to the endzone. All of five were incomplete, with four of those attempts the result of poor throws. Shortell had helped bring the Gophers within six yards of a potential game-saving touchdown late in the fourth quarter. But he threw a third down pass behind the right shoulder of wide-open receiver Isaac Fruechte in the right corner of the corner of endzone. On the next play, he sailed a throw high over WR Andre McDonald's head, ending the Gophers' last legitimate scoring chance. His up and down outing began on the team's opening series, but he was able to get significant forward progress out of the offense early on. Shortell passed on six of the drive's 13 plays, making missed timed throws on three of those attempts. His early mistakes were offset by steady production on the ground and three completions, including a 16-yard pass to Gray near the right sideline. Though the Gophers had to settle for a field goal, which cut Northwestern's lead to 7-3, it was the first time this season the "U" offense has scored on its opening drive.
Gray had to be brought in at QB earlier than the Gophers' had game planned after Shortell took a rattling shot to the helmet two plays into the offense's next drive. Initially, the Gophers didn't see a drop in momentum. Gray didn't show any notable decrease in his mobility, moving in and out of the pocket with relatively no issues. Gray completed three of his first four passes (29 yards) and capped the efficient 10-play drive by tearing through an unsuspecting Northwestern front line, which had bit heavily on the Gophers' play action fake, for a smooth 25-yard touchdown run. Considering Gray had a four-week hiatus, the senior quarterback looked strong in his brief, seven drive stint (36 plays), totaling team-high 86 yards rushing on only nine carries and passing for another 66 (7-of-11). He wasn't without his glaring miscues. On the first play of the Gophers' third drive, Gray underthrew a pass to McDonald. The throw was tipped by DE Quentin Williams, who had dropped back with the LBs just before the snap, and intercepted by David Nwabuisi. Two plays later, Northwestern scored its third and eventually final touchdown of the game. By the third quarter, though Shortell was available, the Gophers appeared set to stay with Gray. That was until S Ibraheim Campbell caught Gray on a 15-yard run, bringing him down awkwardly on his tender left ankle. Gray did not return. The Gophers may head into another week with their quarterback situation in question. As of Sunday morning, Gray's status had yet to be determined. If Gray is healthy enough, the Gophers seem likely to give him the majority of the snaps next Saturday. But if his injured left leg sidelines him again, Shortell will have to get his timing in check, especially on long out routes, for the Gophers to have any chance against Wisconsin.
Two weeks ago against Iowa, the Gophers' TBs were a relative non-factor, combining for only 56 yards. The unit's ineffectiveness contributed to numerous stalled drives. But lack of production on the ground wasn't a major issue for the Gophers Saturday. Starting TB Donnell Kirkwood rebounded from his 35-yard performance in Iowa City, with a grinding and physical showing. Kirkwood had just two runs longer than six yards (8, 11), but was able to compile 73 yards on 18 carries (4.1 ypc). Gray's return gave the Gophers' rushing attack a dimension it was sorely missing against Iowa. During a mid-game stretch that spanned six drives, the Gophers ran the ball 63 percent of the time (23 out of 36 offensive plays). Gray and Kirkwood were the main reason why. In that stretch, the pair combined for 107 yards on 22 carries (Kirkwood - 13 carries, 52 yds; Gray - 9 carries, 66 yds).
In a puzzling move, true freshman TB Rodrick Williams Jr. made his collegiate debut, shedding his redshirt six games into the season. It was a surprising decision this late in the season -- one that Kill said post-game was made in effort to increase the returning experience of next year's team. Junior TB James Gillum, once projected as the Gophers' top TB this season, appears to be no longer be part of the coaching staff's plans. But even without Gillum, the Gophers have three other TBs, apart from Kirkwood and Gillum, they have already played that could have been used to salvage Williams' redshirt. Regardless, Williams did have a respectable game. The 5-foot-11, 228-pound back had three carries for 20 yards, including a 16-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. Kirkwood and Williams were the only TBs used, though the Gophers had six total players combine for 158 rushing yards. The 'U' run game stalled in the fourth quarter. Despite eight attempts, the Gophers ended with zero net rushing yards in the final 15 minutes.
Freshman Andre McDonald, in his first game since the Gophers' opener at UNLV, was brought back into the mix at receiver much faster than expected. He was the Gophers' most common target in the passing game Saturday. Used several times on slant routes out to the sidelines, he reeled in a team-high four of the seven passes intended for him, picking up 33 yards. RS junior A.J. Barker led the Gophers' in receiving for the fourth time this season, with 49 yards on three receptions. Dropped passes were less of a problem than they had been in the last two games -- McDonald and Barker were responsible for the group's only two. On 1st and goal in the fourth quarter, Barker let a pass fall out of his hands that should been caught in the endzone, despite tight coverage by Northwestern.
Shortell and the receiving corps have struggled in the last two games to establish an ongoing rhythm. Against Northwestern, the inconsistencies were more a result of Shortell not being able to put the ball on target than they were because of miscues by the receivers. Along with McDonald and Barker, the Gophers had two other WRs log catches -- sophomores Devin Crawford-Tufts (3 rec., 49 yds.) and Isaac Fruechte (2 rec., 27 yds.).
Like Williams, the Gophers took the redshirt off true freshman Lincoln Plsek. Plsek was the third TE used by the Gophers, who have 10 TEs on their roster. Plsek rotated in occasionally with senior John Rabe and sophomore Drew Goodger. His first and only reception came in the first quarter on a nine-yard pass from Gray. The Gophers didn't utilize their TEs in the passing game as much as they had been doing, but Plsek and Goodger totaled 32 yards on three quick, short routes. It was the first game this season in which Rabe did not record a catch.
Continuity, or the lack thereof, has been a weekly topic for the Gophers' O-line. Injuries forced the Gophers to use their third different starting lineup on the O-line. The unit has responded adequately to the required adjustments, but consistency and communication throughout the group has fluctuated at times.
The biggest problem area on the line Saturday was at C. The Gophers had seven fumbles, two of which were recovered by Northwestern. Five of those were caused by bad snaps from RS sophomore Zac Epping and RS junior Zach Mottla. The rainy conditions were likely a key factor, but Northwestern had no issue snapping the ball.
RS freshman Jon Christenson started again in place of LG Tommy Olson. Limegrover had mentioned Wednesday that he expected Olson, who was recovering from a tweaked ankle, to split time with Christenson. Olson participated in pre-game warm-ups, but did not play. The line suffered another injury when LT Ed Olson had his right ankle folded up awkwardly during the Gophers' first drive of the third quarter. Redshirt sophomore Marek Lenkiewicz came on to replace Olson. Lenkiewicz had a rough closing stretch, failing to stay with several blocks in the fourth quarter. On the Gophers' last play of the game, D-lineman Tyler Scott easily ran past Lenkiewicz and brought Shortell down for Northwestern's third sack.
Failure to stop the run in the first half has doomed the Gophers in back-to-back games. In those two games, the "U" defense has played deceptively well, apart from a small but costly grouping of plays. On Saturday, it came down to four plays. Northwestern TB Venric Mark tallied 146 of his 182 rushing and two touchdowns on four carries in a 17-minute opening stretch. The D-line was trying to collapse in on Mark early on, but the speedy back was able to use solid blocking to get through into the Gophers' second and third layers of defense. By the second half, Mark had slowed considerably, as had the rest of the Northwestern offense. The Gophers held the Wildcats to 77 yards in the final 30 minutes. It was the second straight week the defense has prevented its opponent from scoring offensive touchdown.
"I do think we're playing well enough now that we can hold most teams in the 20s now, on a bad day," Claeys said. "We are a lot better defensively than we were a year ago. No question and we'll continue to do so. We're giving ourselves chances to win ball games."
In the last two games, the D-line has been less noteworthy than it had been in the first four games of the season, as Iowa and Northwestern both relied primarily on the run. Northwestern ran the ball on 34 of its 51 plays (66 %). The line has not recorded a sack since Week 4 against Syracuse.
"We haven't gotten people in as many long yardage go-get em (situations)," Claeys said. "We're playing more catch-up with people."
In the second half, the D-line, with additional help from the occasional blitzing linebacker, was finally able to getting inside to Mark behind the line of scrimmage. Senior DE D.L. Wilhite (four tackles) and sophomore Michael Amaefula (two tackles) both had a tackle for a two-yard loss.
Saturday's game got off to a terrible start for the LBs and the Gophers defense. After LB Lamonte Edwards fumbled the opening kickoff, Northwestern scored on the very next play -- a 26-yard slash up the middle. Seniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper and RS junior Aaron Hill were in the box. S Derrick Wells was brought down with the LBs to provide support. However, miscommunication at LB caused all four to be out of position, allowing Mark to get past the front line and out into the open field. "The ball came out to the linebacker side and (Hill) thought the safety was rolled down to his side, where the safety was rolled down away from him," Claeys said. "I've got to do a better job during the week, obviously. We just missed that communication." Mark had the LBs reeling for the much of the first half, getting out to where he could easily dodge tackles. While Northwestern was hurting itself with penalties, the "U" defense eventually began to strengthen late in the second quarter. Cooper, who turned out his best game of the season, showed good recognition on a first down play with 2:50 remaining, sped by the LT and dropped Mark for a seven yard loss on a pitch play. He did the same to QB Kain Colter in the third quarter, bringing him down five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Cooper led the Gophers with 10 tackles (six solo, four assisted). Northwestern had 11 rushing attempts in the second half that went for three yards or less.
The secondary took a large bulk of the criticism from the Gophers' coaching staff following the loss to Iowa. It was the first time this season that the unit looked shoddy and disoriented. For a brief stretch Saturday, the secondary appeared as if it would be worn down again. Mark found his way into the secondary on his four big gains in the first half. Wells, who had played poorly at Iowa, was commonly brought down into the box as an extra tackler to stop the run. Wells was caught twice out of position or had the wrong angle on Mark, letting him getting by en route to gains of 47 and 25 yards. A pass interference call on CB Troy Stoudermire on third down from Minnesota's six-yard line prolonged the Wildcats' second drive and allowed them to score two plays later. But the letdowns the Gophers were having early on against Northwestern were more because of assignment issues at LB and on the D-line. Northwestern didn't challenge the "U" much in the passing game. They attempted 17 throws, which were mostly quick outlet passes. The Wildcats' longest completion was a pass for 12 yards. Junior S Brock Vereen started in place of Cedric Thompson for the first time this year. He finished second in tackles to Cooper with seven (four solo, three assisted).
K Jordan Wettstein had missed four of his last five field goal attempts before he converted two on Saturday from 31 and 38 yards out. First-year P Christian Eldred was only needed a season-low three times. He averaged a mediocre 38 yards per punt, with his longest attempt going for 44 yards.