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Updated: September 24th, 2012 4:21am
Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' win over Syracuse

Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' win over Syracuse

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

Four games. Four wins.

It is still a bit startling to realize that the Gophers are set enter Big Ten play next Saturday at Iowa as one of the conference's three undefeated teams. That is an impressive accomplishment for a program that has been desperate for a tangible upside for several years.

Onlookers are beginning to take notice of coach Jerry Kill's rebuilding attempt, as the vocal, capacity crowd at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday night can attest

In what many expected to be an offensive bout, the Gophers notched victory No. 4 behind an aggressive showing defensively, bringing down Syracuse 17-10.

The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' fourth win, with input from a conversation Kill had with beat reporters on Sunday.

Quarterbacks

Though the Gophers didn't officially rule out starter MarQueis Gray until Saturday, it was obvious during the week that a knee and ankle sprain, suffered against Western Michigan, would prevent the senior QB from seeing the field in any capacity. This brought a prime opportunity for sophomore Max Shortell, who made his third career start. Signs of his inexperience were abundant, but Shortell didn't let those miscues cripple him as he kept the offense under control for most of the night. With the shift to Shortell's pocket passing tendencies, the Gophers' game plan favored the pass at a nearly 12 % increased from their average in the last two games. The Gophers passed the ball on 30 of their 72 offensive plays (40 %). Though his 53 % completion percentage was a season low for the team, Shortell completed 16 of his 30 attempts for a career-high 231 yards. Only three attempts came on play action as he did most of passing in the pocket, scrambling upfield just four times. He was given freedom to test his long ball. Shortell's precision showed as he didn't shy from putting the ball in a position that his receiver would have to go up above defenders to make the play. That also got him into trouble. He had several passes ricochet off his receivers and nearly become interceptions. His best pass was one that was eventually erased from the stat sheet. Late in the second quarter, he nailed WR Devin Crawford-Tufts 34 yards away in the endzone, leading him forward beyond the Syracuse CB just enough for a stand-up grab. But a holding call on LG Jon Christenson spoiled the play and the drive later stalled. Syracuse presented a defensive front that inflicted heavy pressure on Shortell throughout the game. Shortell, whose accuracy fluctuated, was forced to make a flurry of decisions on the spot, routinely having two plays set to go in the huddle. Sometimes he got flustered momentarily and either rushed a throw or blatantly misread the defense. Seven of his passes were either dropped by the intended receiver or the ball bounced out of the receiver's hands. But least four of those may have been prevented if the pass had been more on target. Shortell had four overthrows, including a short pass to wide-open receiver A.J. Barker near the left sideline late in the second quarter that would have put the Gophers in field goal position. Shortell wasn't spectacular, but he didn't need to be. "He called a lot of plays on the line of scrimmage, because he probably got blitzed 85, 95 percent of the time, which you're going to see on a young quarterback," Kill said. "I think he did a good job at managing the team and didn't turn the ball over. I think that was the biggest plus of what we were able to accomplish." Shortell will have at least another chance. As of Sunday morning, Kill wasn't anticipating that Gray would be healthy by Saturday, leaving Shortell to get the start.

Running backs

With Gray out and the less mobile Shortell under center, the Gophers put the focus on getting carries for TB Donnell Kirkwood, especially given that the sophomore back was powering his way through the Syracuse defensive line. Kirkwood was one yard shy of his second consecutive 100-yard plus game, handling a career-high 28 carries for 99 yards. Kirkwood's patience in allowing his blocking path to emerge has increased with every game this season. His efficiency on those runs ebbed and flowed, posting his lowest per carry average of the year (3.5 yards). He had 13 carries that went for two yards or less, though two of those were touchdown runs on the goalline. Kirkwood made up for the short gains with a batch of runs of seven yards or more. The Gophers ran a two-back set for a large chunk of the game, inserting speedy freshman TB K.J. Maye, as well as upping FB Mike Henry's playing time. "We felt we knew they would blitz the heck out of us and that was our best chance to have a little better protection and run game," Kill said. Henry was used primarily as a blocker and he was key on a number of runs by Kirkwood. When Gray went down in the second quarter against Western Michigan, the Gophers abandoned their plans to use Maye in the run game. OC Matt Limegrover said the reasoning was that Maye hadn't been factored into their schemes with Shortell at QB. That wasn't so on Saturday. Often set in motion, Maye totaled 17 yards on six carries. Junior TB James Gillum did log playing time, but did not record a carry.

Wide receivers

The WR corps accounted for 11 of the Gophers' 16 receptions, with seven producing 13 yards or more (Sophomore Isaac Fruechte - 34; Barker - 24, 14; Freshman Devin Crawford-Tufts - 18; RS junior Derrick Engel - 17; Sophomore Marcus Jones - 13). Dropped passes hadn't been problem until Saturday. While the glut of botched catches wasn't a huge hindrance, they did prevent the offense at times from getting into a rhythm. "We've been catching those balls, but we had some drops in critical times when we could have had big plays," Kill said. Barker, who in four games has developed into the Gophers' top receiver, was a favorite target of Shortell's on Saturday. After subjecting Western Michigan to 101 yards and three touchdowns, Syracuse was keying in on Barker more frequently, with an extra defender in the secondary sent into to shadow him. The redshirt sophomore was able to put up 52 yards on four catches, but only one of those catches came after the first quarter. It could and should have been more. He was the intended receiver seven other times. Shortell's passes were to blame on some those, but Barker dropped several catchable balls. Credit Barker for being willing to go up and get a pass, knowing that he is going to take a hit. He endured several heavy blows - none of which kept him out for more than a play or two. With the cramping issue that hampered him last week under control, Crawford-Tufts had his best game at the "U" -- three receptions, 67 yards. Fruechte had a critical opportunity to haul in a solid potential touchdown pass from Shortell in the endzone. However, Fruechte allowed the ball to bounce out of his hands. It wouldn't have matter as he was called for offensive pass interference. "We should have had 30 points, maybe more. We still don't execute at critical times," Kill said, discussing the offense as a whole.

Tight ends

Sophomore TE Drew Goodger is to Shortell as senior TE John Rabe is to Gray. Rabe is commonly Gray's go-to when he is looking for a short, quick pass. Goodger seems to have that type of relationship with Shortell. Goodger turned three catches into 27 yards and was the intended the receiver on three other passes. His receptions of eight and six yards on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter kicked started a drive that ended with a field goal that stretched the score to 17-3. Rabe was also sought after for short gains - two receptions, 10 yards. Kill and Limegrover weren't bluffing in the preseason when they declared their intention to get their tight ends more incorporated into the passing game. In four games, Rabe and Goodger have combined for 12 catches, 32 yards and four touchdowns -- more than half of the TEs' total receptions and yards gained in 2011 (20 rec., 163 yds.)


Offensive line

The continuity of the O-line has been rattled slightly by injuries. Starting C Zach Mottla has missed two games with a nagging ankle sprain. RG Zac Epping was shifted over to the middle to fill the spot and has played soundly in his new position. Backup LG Joe Bjorklund was also sidelined for the second straight week with a concussion. Knowing that Bjorklund, who was cleared to play but hadn't practiced, would likely sit out, the Gophers moved RS freshman Jon Christenson from C to LG late in the week as backup.
It proved to be a smart move as the Gophers added another injury to the list on Saturday when starting LG Tommy Olson tweaked his ankle midway through the game. Christenson came on in relief. The line still had good overall outing, giving Shortell a decent pocket to work with and propelling Kirkwood in the run game. There were plenty of breakdowns though. With Syracuse blitzing in on a regular basis, the line was heavily occupied. The Orange broke through four times to sack Shortell. The O-line is one of the deepest position groups the Gophers have, but further injuries could be overly taxing for the unit. "The miscommunication when we have a breakdown, it's usually because of that," Kill said of the line's recently fluid rotation. "We've had some things happened early injury-wise that we've been able to overcome somewhat, but I think that's why we're not completely cleaned yet. The good thing is that we've been able to win." Mottla was projected to be available Saturday, but reinjured his ankle in practice. His status for this week is unknown. Bjorklund should return to practice Tuesday and be available to provide backup at LG if Olson is unable to play. More on Olson's availability will be released later in the week.

Defensive line

Slowing Syracuse's offense down requires a defense to keep QB Ryan Nassib, one of the nation's most prolific passers, from establishing a flow with his receivers. With that in mind, the "U" defensive line rattled Nassib from the early goings. Syracuse's O-line was struggling to keep the Gophers away from Nassib. The senior QB rarely had time settle in the pocket. On Syracuse's second possession, after Nassib tossed an interception on the first play of the game, DE D.L. Wilhite powered his way past RT Lou Alexander, putting the blocker on the ground before running over to the QB for a full-body sack. Wilhite leads the Gophers with 4.5 sacks on the season. The line sacked Nassib two more times, credited to DE Michael Amaefula and DT Roland Johnson, with both coming on consecutive critical three-and-out drives by Syracuse in the fourth quarter. Along with their three sacks, the D-line put nine hits on the QB. Hageman's tackle of Nassib in the second quarter caused him to fumble the ball, allowing Amaefula to swoop in for the recovery. "The quarterback never got comfortable from the first play of the game when we got the pick to the end (of the game)," Kill said. He never really got into a comfort zone. He's a pretty good player. He has a rifle for an arm. We just kept him off-balance."

Linebackers

In no way could the Gophers describe their night defensively as mistake-free. However, DC Tracy Claeys' group overshadowed the missed leverage calls and times they were caught out of position by coming up with big plays when they were most needed. Case in point: LB Aaron Hill. On its first drive of the second half, Syracuse was becoming increasingly desperate to score after Minnesota had made it 14-3 on its previous possession. Eight plays in, the Gophers had the drive nearly stopped. Syracuse was facing 3rd and 12 on its own 47-yard line. Nassib threw an incompletion and it looked like the punt team would be called on until Hill was called for a late-hit. The 15-yard penalty kept the drive in motion. But Hill redeemed himself on the same drive in a game-changing way. Syracuse was four yards from the endzone when S Brock Vereen blitzed in straight through the middle of the O-line and hit Nassib as he was throwing, popping the ball into the air. Hill dove and made the interception, derailing what to that point was Syracuse's best scoring chance. Hill - the Gophers' starting SLB - ended up as the team leader in tackles (10 -- four solo, six assisted). WLB Keanon Cooper made a nice play near the end of the third quarter to get to RB Ashton Broyld and help force a fumble that allowed the Gophers to continue wearing down the clock. Starting MLB Mike Rallis, who had 10 tackles the week before, was held to only two on Saturday. Junior James Manuel, shifted from S to LB in the offseason, has been quietly consistent, with four or five tackles in all four games. He had five against Syracuse (four solo, one assisted). Western Michigan surprised the Gophers and the LB corps by running the ball more than expected. The Gophers were better prepared for Syracuse's tendencies. Syracuse still found gaps in the coverage as RBs Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley combined for 122 of the Oranges' 146 rushing yards. However, the Gophers were able to limit large gains on the ground.

Secondary

An interception on the game's first play is an easy way to set a tone for the secondary and defense. Nassib threw to his left in an attempt to find WR Jarrod West, who was being flanked by senior CB Troy Stoudermire. Just before the snap, sophomore S Cedric Thompson shifted down with the LBs. As soon as Nassib gave an indication where he was going to throw, Thompson cheated to his right. He was in the right place when West muffed the catch and Thompson was able dive out and intercept it. The Gophers capitalized on the boost provided by the pick. Entering the game, Syracuse's top receiver Marcus Sales was responsible for at least 104 yards in his team's first three games He was a relative non-factor Saturday, until his late touchdown catch, in large part due to the "U" secondary. Sales was rarely left alone as the Gophers usually had one or two defenders right on him. He caught only two passes for 32 yards. Syracuse was still having periodic success in throwing the ball. Alec Lemon went for 106 of the Orange's 228 total passing yards. But the secondary prevented Syracuse from gaining more than 24 yards on a catch -- a notable feat against the Orange's athletic offense. S Derrick Wells and Stoudermire finished second on the team in tackles with six. The absence of junior Martez Shabazz, out with a dislocated right toe, has hindered the Gophers' depth at CB. Junior Jeremy Baltazar has had to take on an increased role because of it and the response has been pleasing. The Gophers have to eliminate careless calls like the back-to-back pass interference penalties on CB Michael Carter in the endzone on Syracuse's early third quarter drive. Luckily for Carter and the Gophers, Hill's interception prevented the penalties from being costly.

Specialists

Senior K Jordan Wettstein is in a slump -- a slump that has cost the Gophers 15 points this season. Wettstein's fourth and fifth misses of the year came from 44 and 26 yards out. At the time his, season total plunged to 3-of-8. Both misses, which came off good snaps and holds, were well off-track from the minute the ball left his foot. Kill said he considered replacing Wettstein with junior Chris Hawthorne, walking over to Hawthorne at one point to tell him to be ready. Kill ultimately decided against the move. "You have to think about (harming his) confidence level," Kill said. "The best thing that could have happened happened. We had a critical kick that needed to be made and he stuck it through there." Wettstein's 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter padded the Gophers' lead at 17-3. Kill wouldn't say if he is thinking of making a change in kickers this week, though the coaching staff will look into the situation. P Christian Eldred has been mediocre since taking over the starting role. He punted five times for 37.6 yard net average, bolstered by a 51-yard boot. Eldred is getting the punt off at a steadily quick rate - 1.95 second average -- but he isn't getting the distance the Gophers want. Their 34.45 net average ranks 10th in the Big Ten and tied for 94th overall in the NCAA.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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