Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' win over New Hampshire
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Two weeks into the season, Jerry Kill's Gophers are already one victory from matching their 2011 win total (three). Rarely in the last five seasons have the Gophers been the aggressor in a one-sided blowout, but Saturday brought an unfamiliar sight as Kill's squad overwhelmed New Hampshire in a 44-7 win. Despite the point discrepancy, it was not close to a polished and error-free outing. However, it has been easier to glean positives out of this season so far than at any point last year.
The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' second win, which ended a two-year losing streak against FCS-Division I teams, with input from a conversation Kill had with beat reporters on Sunday and interviews gathered after the game.
QB MarQueis Gray shouldered criticism all week for the nine overthrows he posted in the Gophers' season opening triple OT victory at UNLV (17-for-30 passing), even though he was a large reason for the offense's resolved push in the extra sessions. The anxiousness that caused many of those passing problems was absent Saturday as Gray's comfort and patience under center was noticeably upgraded. Keep in mind; Gray's passing attempts were cut by more than two-thirds. The Gophers opted to run the ball on 38 of the 46 plays Gray was in for. However, improved accuracy was there when he opted to throw. He completed six of his eight passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns -- all eight passes came on play action. Not only did Gray account for touchdowns through the air, but also reached the endzone off runs of 11 and a career-high 75-yards. "I was a lot more confident. I was trying not to do too much," Gray said afterward. "I felt like last week if I would have made those throws we wouldn't have gone into overtime. I was down but picked myself up and was able to keep going through this game." The 75-yard gallop through the middle of the unsuspecting UNH defense was a critical turning point in the first quarter as it destroyed the momentum the Wildcats had gained on a touchdown on its previous drive. Efficiency on the run was an issue for Gray. Take out the 75-yard gain and he totaled just 34 yards on 16 carries (2.1 ypc). As the game progressed, New Hampshire honed in on Gray. He had several times where he decided to keep the ball on the option read before realizing there was nowhere for him to go, finishing with 24 lost yards. Gray's accuracy wasn't a problem this week. Instead, holding on to the football became a rampant concern -- a development Kill expressed obvious displeasure in. Gray fumbled three snaps, though all three were recovered. Don't begin to think that there is any resemblance of a quarterback controversy, but sophomore back-up Max Shortell was pleasing during his first snaps of the season, which came on the "U's" final two possessions in the fourth quarter. Shortell, a better pure passer than Gray, missed only one of his six throws and went to four different receivers. Four of those completions were for 10 yards or more (10, 14, 19, 22,), including a 19-yard pass to Barker for the Gophers' sixth and final touchdown. He clearly doesn't have the mobility that Gray owns, though Shortell scrambled for 17 yards on three carries.
Donnell Kirkwood is the Gophers' No. 1 tailback. OC Matt Limegrover hasn't shied from spreading carries around, but Kirkwood is handling the bulk of them within the unit. The redshirt sophomore followed up his career-high 81-yard performance (13 carries) at UNLV with 70 yards on another career-high 17 attempts. While not flashy, Kirkwood is starting to hone his power style in a way that differs from the Gophers' other options. James Gillum, who many expected to emerge as the top TB choice, was vastly ineffective. The UNH defensive line rapidly closed in on him any time he handled the ball, holding him to five yards on four attempts. Gillum's day was made worse when he was stripped of the ball on the first play of a third quarter drive - the Gophers' only turnover. While it's not entirely justified, Kill took responsibility for Gillum's struggles. "James, I know is disappointed about the fumble," Kill admitted Sunday. "I don't think we got him into a good rhythm. We'll take blame for that." Speed backs Devon Wright and K.J. Maye were utilized more than were a week ago, opening up space on the edges. Maye recorded his first career carries as he and Wright combined for 23 yards (seven carries). Maye had a scare in the third quarter when the ball was jarred loose on a quick run through the middle. He was eventually ruled down prior to losing the ball. Blocking by Kirkwood and his backfield mates, which was a plus in Game 1, was lacking against the Wildcats. On numerous occasions, the four TBs missed assignments on runs to the sides and when Gray dropped back to throw. "As a running back group we probably played better in the first game than this game," Kill said. "We missed some cuts. We had some chances at big plays and we also had a turnover."
Passes were sparse Saturday, but the "U" receivers didn't struggle much to get open against the overmatched New Hampshire secondary when Gray and Shortell decided to go to the air. Of the eight catches made by six different receivers (Isaac Fruechte, A.J. Barker, Derrick Engel, Marcus Jones, Devin Crawford-Tufts and Logan Hutton), five were for gains of 14 yards or more (Fruechte - 26, 27; Engel - 22; Barker - 19, Jones - 14). On Fruechte's touchdown in the first quarter -- the first of his career - he easily ditched the New Hampshire CB, who bit hard on a play action by Gray. Fruechte was found wide open on the right side, where he hauled in the pass and ran it in for a 27-yard score. Later in the quarter, Fruechte dropped a potential first down pass that hit solidly in his hands. It was a play that in that situation has to be caught. The Gophers were forced to punt on the quick three-and-out, setting up New Hampshire's lone touchdown drive on a "U" defense that was tiring. Like at RB, Kill was unhappy with the blocking from his WRs. "We've got to block better at receiver," Kill said. "There's no question about that. I think we're catching the ball better. I don't think we're blocking very good." Jones was used in motion and took a handoff from Gray in the second quarter 12 yards for the first down, but on the next play he missed a block that added up to Kirkwood getting stopped for no gain. Freshman Andre McDonald, whose profile should increase in the wake of fellow freshman Jamel Harbison's season-ending ACL tear, was held out Saturday as a precaution after suffering a turf burn-induced infection in his leg. For the second straight week, senior Brandon Green did not make a catch. Green is two years removed from major knee surgery and has never fully regained his speed and finesse. Kill insisted Green's absence from the stat sheet isn't a reflection of the coaching staff game planning around him. "We're throwing to the open guy. I'm sure he'll have opportunities," Kill said. Malcolm Moulton, who played in all 12 games in 2011 with 174 total yards (14 rec.), has been inactive in both games this season.
When the Gophers make it to the redzone, it's likely John Rabe will be involved. The senior TE, responsible for the two "U" overtime touchdowns against UNLV, made it to the endzone for the third time this year on a short two-yard pass from Gray in the second quarter. That came two plays after he reeled off a 33-yard catch. He finished with three receptions for 38 yards. Dating back to last season, Rabe has scored touchdowns on five of his nine career receptions. Now that opponents are starting to realize Rabe is one of the Gophers' go-to scoring threats, it will be intriguing to watch how he and Limegrover scheme around the heightened attention. Drew Goodger and Alex Bisch, who also saw snaps at TE, were used mainly for blocking.
Communication along the O-line, which was periodically shaky at UNLV as the unit tried to find a cohesive rhythm, was notably improved. Though the line was inconsistent in both games, blocking assignments on Saturday were fulfilled at a higher frequency. On Gray's play action 33-yard pass to Rabe, the senior QB was given more than a five second cushion to sit in the pocket and wait for the opening. RT Josh Campion, in his second collegiate game, picked up critical block on the incoming SLB that created a large gap for Gray take off through for his 75-yard run. Campion has strengthened the right side of the line at a position that was in question entering fall camp. The line had plenty of miscues. LT Ed Olson, on second down during the Gophers' last possession of the second quarter, went to the right to help LG Tommy Olson as Gray appeared geared up to run. A New Hampshire DE and LB came around the open edge to pounce on Gray for a two-yard loss. On the next play, C Zach Mottla didn't zero in on the LB heading up the middle and Gray was sacked easily for a nine-yard loss. Mottla was at center for all three of Gray's fumbled snaps, but he was not at fault on any of them, though one snap was slightly low. The starting lineup remained the same - the Olson brothers, Mottla, Zac Epping and Campion, while Marek Lenkiewicz (LT), Joe Bjorklund (LG), Jon Christenson (C), Caleb Bak (RG) and Foster Bush (RT) were rotated in.
For the second consecutive week, the D-line was able maintain a fair amount of pressure on the opposition, while not relying solely on blitzing. There were letdowns as New Hampshire found gaps in the running game. They were limited though as the Gophers held the Wildcats to 68 total rushing yards on 32 attempts, despite originally gaining 124. "We had some guys not getting to their gap, getting where they needed to be," Kill said. "They got some plays in there that shouldn't have happened. We still have work to do, but when we needed to gear up and get pressure on the quarterback we did." New Hampshire's starting QB, Sean Goldrich, was knocked out of the game with a bruised right shoulder on his team's initial possession. The line wasn't thrown off much by the switch to sophomore Andy Vailas, keeping him off-balance and on the run for the majority of the game. Two games in and it has become a two-man race for the team sack lead. After combining for 3.5 sacks on Saturday, DT Ra'Shede Hageman and DE D.L. Wilhite sit No. 1 and No. 2 on the "U" stat sheet. Hageman has finally begun to match the hype that has followed him since his freshman season two years ago. New Hampshire was threatening at the start of the second quarter, within nine points at the time. The line and the rest of the defense was lagging after getting little rest following the Wildcats' eight play scoring drive due to Gray scoring on the first play of the "U" possession. On the 10th play of the drive, with New Hampshire 28-yards out, Hageman showed good recognition to drop off his blocker and quickly get to the fleeing Vailas for a five-yard loss. New Hampshire failed to convert on a 4th and 11 try, ending its last legitimate scoring chance. Though Hageman exited the game the Gophers' sacks leader, Wilhite arguably had the stronger game. In the second quarter, Wilhite got a fast jump off the line and rapidly made it to Vailas, jarring the ball from his hand on the sack. DE Michael Amaefula eventually recovered it. After assisting Amaefula for a sack on the next UNH drive, he just missed another by tripping up Vailas before Hageman followed behind to bring the QB down. Wilhite finished second on the team in tackles with five (four solo, one assisted), drawing praise from his coach. "DL is the ol' wily veteran and he's playing the best football he's played since he's been here," Kill said. Apart from Hageman, Wilhite and Amaefula, five other D-lineman contributed tackles -- Alex Keith (two solo), Roland Johnson (two solo), Harold Legania (one asst.), Ben Perry (one asst.) and Scott Ekpe (one asst.)
DC Tracy Claeys has kept the LB rotation in constant movement. With Mike Rallis at MLB and Keanon Cooper situated at WLB, Lamonte Edwards replaced Aaron Hill in the starting lineup at the other OLB spot. But starting roles have had minimal value as Hill and five other players were consistently switched in -- Brendan Beal, Spencer Reeves, James Manuel, Ryan Grant and Joey Balthazor. The unit combined for 19 of the Gophers' 62 total tackles, with Manuel and Rallis tied for the group lead with four. Similar to the mid-first half woes of the D-line, the LBs were looking weathered by New Hampshire's second long drive. Three plays before RB Chris Setian ran in the Wildcats' only touchdown, Manuel was within tackling distance of R.J. Harris as the WR sprinted off the line. Manuel recognized too late that Vailas was prepping to throw and Harris made it through the opening for an 18-yard gain. The LB unit hasn't been as resilient both against the pass and the run as it was first thought it could be entering the season. Western Michigan's pass heavy offense will be another needed test next weekend to gauge whether or not the group will hold up when Big Ten season begins.
Improved play on the corners was circled at the top of Kill's list of changes that needed to be made entering Saturday's game. And he got it. The CBs, headed up by starters Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter, stayed tight with New Hampshire's receivers in their no-huddle, spread formation. Stoudermire, who was bogged down by mental mistakes in Game 1 - a botched punt and pass interference call -- was whistled for a late hit in the first quarter. But he slowly made up for the mental lapse with four solo tackles and contributed to keeping New Hampshire receivers pegged near the sideline on several passing plays. Junior college transfer Martez Shabazz made his first collegiate interception, dropping back well with the intended receiver and leaping up without any resistance to catch Vailas' bad pass. New Hampshire did have success in the passing game at times, challenging the secondary with 36 attempts. Nineteen of those were converted for 163 yards -- 8.6 per completion. "We didn't leverage the ball a couple times on long runs and got caught up inside," Kill said. "We've still got to understand leverage on perimeter plays. We are breaking on the ball and getting where we are supposed to be. The first two games we haven't given up that easy throw. They had a shot on one but didn't read it." Reigning Bronko Nagurski Defensive Player of the Week Derrick Wells had a decent encore performance to his eight tackle, two interception output last week, finishing with a team-high eight tackles (four solo, four assisted) and a pass break-up. Wells continues to balance his speed with his upgraded physicality, capable of getting to the ball carrier quickly and forcefully. Cedric Thompson started again at the other safety spot, with Brock Vereen (four tackles) providing a solid second option.
The Gophers' punting "controversy" has been settled. Australian import Christian Eldred punted four times, including 52-yarder in the first quarter, for a respectable 42 yard net average, given that the majority of those were sent into the wind. Kill hadn't settled on a punter prior to the team's opener, but now appears to have found the right fit. Eldred has punted nine times since taking over for David Schwerman in the first half against UNLV. "I was tired of not being good in the punting game," Kill said. "I went with my gut, 'We're going to punt Christian. This is what we're going to do.' The Gophers' overall net average (35.1) still has them ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in ninth in front of Indiana (34.6), Nebraska (34.1) and Michigan (34). After being a perfect 6-for-6 in 2011, kicker Jordan Wettstein has missed two field goals in two games (3-for-5). His 52-yard attempt in the second quarter, which would have been a career-long, was off target from the start and veered far right of the goal post. Stoudermire, who fumbled a punt against UNLV, has been assigned solely to kick returns. Barker has risen as the Gophers' primary return man on punts. Void of problems on the catch, he brought back three on Saturday for 47 yards. "I don't want to drop punts. Barker has a done a good job of catching them and making decisions. I wanted to get that taken care of and we did," Kill said.
• The Gophers ran the ball on first down 85% of the time -- 23 out of 27 plays, 150 total rushing yards. It was nine point increase from their 75% mark at UNLV. Three of the team's six touchdowns came on first down. Of the Gophers' 125 first quarter yards, 115 of them came on first down (six plays, 85-run, 30-pass).