Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' win over Western Michigan
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Regardless of one's thoughts on strength of schedule, Jerry Kill's Gophers have positioned themselves three weeks into the season as one of the three remaining undefeated teams in the Big Ten, along with Northwestern and Ohio State.
The Gophers matched their three-win total from a year ago by holding on against Western Michigan for a 28-23 victory on Saturday.
They did so without the capabilities of senior starting quarterback MarQueis Gray for much of the game after he went down with an ankle injury in the second quarter. But backup Max Shortell filled in with limited hiccups and Western Michigan couldn't bypass the "U" defense when it became a necessity.
The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' third win, which put the program out to is best start since 2008, with input from a conversation Kill had with beat reporters on Sunday.
Those in the "Shortell-for-starter" camp were given new ammo Saturday with the sophomore QB's fill-in performance. When Gray was lost for the game, and possibly longer, after suffering a high-ankle sprain in the latter half of the second quarter, Shortell stepped in and immediately mounted a 75-yard drive, capped by a touchdown to redshirt junior WR A.J. Barker that put the Gophers out to a 14-10 lead. Shortell, who was in on 41 of the team's 67 snaps, led the "U" to touchdowns on each of its next two drives, eventually finishing with a career-high 188 passing yards (10-of-17). Not without merit, Shortell's outing dominated the post-game talk. Credit Shortell for showing very little trepidation when he came off the bench cold. His command of the offense in the middle portion of the game kept the Gophers from derailing in the wake of Gray's potentially game-changing injury. Shortell attempted 15 passes in the first three drives he was in. Though two of those attempts were negated by penalties, he completed nine passes, six of which were for gains of 15-yards or more (15, 16, 18, 24, 32, 53). The Gophers backed off the pass gradually in the second half, but Shortell had his missteps once the initial rush of being thrust into the No. 1 spot had worn off. On the Gophers' second drive of the third quarter, Shortell overthrew a pass to WR Isaac Fruechte, who tied up with two defenders on a short route. On the ensuing play, a pass sailed out of reach of sophomore WR Marcus Jones, resulting in a three-and-out for the Gophers. Trying to force a pass into Barker near the sideline in the fourth quarter, Shortell was picked off by the closely flanking CB. Those may sound like nitpicks, but the question remains if he can consistently lead the offense, while shouldering elevated responsibilities? The Gophers won't have to wait long to find out. X-rays of Gray's left leg showed no knee damage, but the high ankle sprain could sideline him for the next two to four weeks. Kill said Sunday the team will proceed as if Shortell will start next Saturday against Syracuse. For one game, Shortell showed that the offense doesn't completely hinge on Gray's upper-tier athletic ability. "Well it wasn't the case yesterday, but it is a whole lot different being the starting quarterback, if that's the case," Kill said. "I have a lot of confidence in Max ... But it is still different. Whoever that guy is Saturday, that guy is going to have to play well." Talk of a "quarterback controversy" will continue to follow the Gophers in the next few weeks, but it is still premature a dramatic changing of the guard will occur. By all indications from the coaching staff, if and when healthy, Gray will remain the starting QB. Gray wasn't dynamic in the 25 plays he was in on, but was able to give the Gophers an advantage in the run game that they don't have with Shortell. He ran for 57 yards on 11 attempts, including a 16-yard scamper in the first quarter. Apart from a glaringly missed throw, partly due to a botched route by Jones, Gray's limited passing -- 3-of-6, 29 yards -- wasn't an issue. A 10-yard touchdown pass to Barker late in the first quarter gave the Gophers' an early 7-3 lead. Gray's recent fumble woes aren't doing anything to dissuade his critics. After a dropped handoff, which was eventually recovered by the Gophers, Gray turned the ball over on a 12-yard run, hounded by four Western Michigan defenders, for his fifth fumble in two games. These are mistakes Gray and the Gophers don't have the potency to afford.
Without Gray to add another layer to the run game, OC Matt Limegrover upped top RB Donnell Kirkwood's reps to a career-high 23. Fifteen of those came in the second half, along with 86 of his 110 rushing yards, as the Gophers looked to Kirkwood to help manage the clock and the lead. The redshirt sophomore complied with a number of hard, physical runs through the middle of the Western Michigan defense. Game by game, Kirkwood has gradually separated himself from the rest of the TBs. In first two games, Kikrwood accounted for 30.6 percent of the Gophers' 98 total carries (30 of 98) and 33 percent of their total yards (151 of 449). Those numbers spiked Saturday. Kirkwood handled half of the Gophers' carries for 61 percent of their 180 rushing yards. "Donnell ran hard," Kill said. "We controlled the fourth quarter by running the football and by running the clock out. It gave our defense some time to get their air underneath them, get their legs back underneath them. He had some critical runs in that situation." Junior James Gillum was the only other "U" RB to take a handoff and, as was the case against New Hampshire, was ineffective. Gillum ran four times for just eight yards, giving him nine yards in two games on nine carries. Kirkwood's success rate made the need for other options in the backfield not as necessary, but the Gophers would like to have Gillum, Devon Wright and K.J. Maye able to produce and offer a diversion from Kirkwood's power back style. Partly a result of Gray's absence, the Gophers' combined net rushing yards (180) was their lowest mark of the season, but was still a respectable number. Kill wants that number higher, noting that 200 net yards is his weekly goal.
Barker has gone from walk-on to the Gophers' go-to downfield threat -- an unlikely role reversal. Barker's strong start to the season took another positive leap as he passed the 100-yard threshold for the second time this year, with five catches for 101 yards and became the 10th player in program history to reel in three touchdowns in a game. Barker was getting a good deal of separation in the secondary all day. With 1:15 to go before halftime, the Gophers had to score quickly. Barker, who had connected with Shortell for a touchdown on the previous drive, zipped through the defense, made a catch in open space, beat his defender to the corner and took off for a 53-yard dash to the endzone. The receiving corps hasn't really seen a letdown yet this season. Receivers are getting out and behind defenders on a regular basis. The unit gelled well when Shortell came in, thriving on his passing tendencies. Four "U" WRs combined for 195 of the Gophers' 217 receiving yards -- Barker (five receptions, 101 yards), Isaac Fruechte (three receptions, 39 yards), Derrick Engel (two receptions, 39 yards) and Jones (one reception, nine yards). There were instances of miscommunications between the receivers and QBs. On third and four on the Gophers' first drive, Jones mistakenly ran a slant route, while Gray was looking for him in the far left corner of the endzone. The result was a bad throw, forcing the Gophers to attempt a 38-yard field goal. Senior Brandon Green, who hasn't recorded a catch this season, did not see the playing field. Kill had said earlier in the week Green's inactivity in the offense wasn't a matter of injury - he has a history of knee issues. Instead, Kill remarked that Green hadn't found himself in the right situation yet. However, now it's become clearer that the coaching staff likely doesn't see Green as a viable option to provide the speed and agility they are looking for from their receivers.
Senior John Rabe's redzone prowess in the first two weeks has made him a prime weapon in the Gophers' offense. But it was sophomore Drew Goodger who made an impression Saturday at TE. Goodger had been rarely used in the passing game in first two games, but was thrown out on downfield routes more often against Western Michigan. Goodger's first catch of the year and third in his career came on his team's first drive of the second half. Situated on the nine-yard line, Goodger made his way to the endzone and showing in-tune recognition, dove for a pass from Shortell for the Gophers' fourth and eventually clinching touchdown of the game. The Gophers' use of the tight ends in the passing game this season has caused match-up problems, especially in the redzone. Four of Rabe and Goodger's seven total receptions have gone for touchdowns.
Adjustments had to be made on the O-line after it was determined starting C Zach Mottla would be unable to play because of a high ankle sprain. Redshirt freshman Jon Christenson is listed as the No. 2 C on the depth chart, but it was redshirt sophomore Zac Epping that shifted to the middle from his starting spot at RG. Caleb Bak was then inserted at RG in place of Epping. As could be expected, the transition to a different center had its issues early on. Communication across the line has been up and down all season. After a fairly consistent game against New Hampshire, the line got itself into penalty trouble. Five of the Gophers' nine penalties (56 yards) were traced back to the O-line - four of which were false start calls by three different linemen (Epping, LT Ed Olson, RT Josh Campion). Epping was also nailed for a chop block late in the first half -- 15-yard personal foul - that nearly crippled the Gophers' scoring chance, putting them back to 1st and 25 to start the drive. But as the game progressed and Epping got comfortable, the line played increasingly consistent. It showed in Kirkwood's high number carries in the second half. The line combined with Kikrwood to wear down the clock and put pressure on Western Michigan to score quickly. Epping's performance drew praise from Kill a day later. "He's our best offensive lineman right now. Period," Kill said. "He's a hard-nosed, tough kid ... Not many kids can come in at guard, move to center. He's able to do that because he's a smart kid. Football's important to him. He's a good football player."
The Gophers knew they would be challenged up front by Western Michigan's pass-heavy tendencies. Pressure on Broncos senior QB Alex Carder came and went. Carder wasn't constantly bothered as UNLV and New Hampshire's QBs were in the first two games. Carder tried to mix it up between quick passes and waiting for his receivers to get in position for the deep throw. The results varied. Carder never fully got into a rhythm - more a credit to the secondary than the D-line. DE D.L. Wilhite overtook NT Ra'Shede Hageman for the team lead in sacks by chasing Carder and bringing him to the ground to end a 10-play drive in the second quarter. The Gophers' second sack of the game came in a big situation on Western Michigan's final drive of the game, when a touchdown would have likely won it. After WMU was called for an illegal formation, DE Michael Amaefula followed on the next play by sacking Carder and pushing the Broncos into a second and 20. Three plays later the game was over. Kill mentioned how the team was surprised by how much Western Michigan decided to run. The Broncos tallied 38 rushing attempts - most by any "U" opponent this season -- for 165 yards. The D-line was lagging in rush defense as the unit was beat to the corners numerous times. The line combined for its lowest number of tackles on the year (nine) -- they recorded 15 at UNLV and 16 against New Hampshire. Amaefula, Hageman and junior Roland Johnson led the unit with two apiece - all of which were solo tackles. Wilhite, freshman Scott Ekpe and redshirt Cameron Botticelli each had one.
Western Michigan's desire to run had more of an effect of the LBs. On multiple occasions, players were being caught out of position and off guard, allowing the Broncos to get to a seam. This has been a reoccurring problem, but so far the Gophers have been able to overshadow it. Following Gray's second quarter fumble, Broncos RB Dareyon Chance, who finished with 144 rushing yards, bolted through the middle of the defense into the endzone untouched, with the D-line and LBs locked in with their opposing blockers. The touchdown put the Gophers briefly behind, 10-7, for the second and final time. Senior Mike Rallis has become notably comfortable at MLB as he had the strongest outing of any player in the group, reacting quickly and squaring up well on incoming opponents. He tied with safety Derrick Wells with a team-high 10 tackles (six solo, four assisted). The Gophers' usual nine-man rotation at LB was down to eight on Saturday. Lamonte Edwards was out with an undisclosed injury. Redshirt junior Aaron Hill was back in the starting line at OLB, situated with Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Like all season, Brendan Beal, Spencer Reeves, James Manuel, Ryan Grant and Joey Balthazor were rotated in.
Western Michigan ran more than expected, but that doesn't mean Carder wasn't trying to rely on his arm to get yardage. Carder attempted 44 passes. The Gophers' secondary was a major reason why his completion percentage was held to 50 percent (24-of-44). Senior CB Michael Carter had the best game of his career. Carter was zeroed in on the Western Michigan receivers all day, breaking up three passes and intercepting a throw in the first quarter that set the Gophers up for their first touchdown. Western Michigan was desperate to score and forced to pass in the final minute of the game, trailing by five. On third down, Carder tried to get the ball to WR Jamie Wilson, but Carter was right there to draw the incomplete pass. Western Michigan had one last shot at first down to keep the game alive. Carder went back to Wilson. This time Wilson easily grabbed the pass and darted for an opening. Carter dove and caught the receiver by the ankles just short of the first down marker, promptly sealing the victory for the Gophers. The secondary did have to tend with the most prolific passing offense that it has encountered so far. For the most part, the Gophers kept the damage to a minimal level. Western Michigan compiled 209 yards for an average of 8.7 yds. per catch. -- an indication of the Gophers' ability to prevent many major gains through the air. Wells hasn't relinquished his role as the MVP of the "U" defense. Wells led the team again in tackles, tying with Rallis with 10 (seven solo, three assisted).
K Jordan Wettstein has hit a cold streak. The senior badly missed his second attempt in two games, shanking a 38-yarder left of the goal post -- a much easier distance to convert from than the 52-yard try he missed against New Hampshire. The botched kick spoiled the Gophers' 12-play opening drive and kept them without a score on any of their initial drives this season. Wettstein has been used for six field goal attempts, failing to convert on three of them (distances of 32, 38 and 52 yards). Wettstein was brought out to kick early in the fourth quarter, but Western Michigan was baited into calling a timeout as soon it realized the Gophers intended to drop Wettstein back to pass. The field goal was then called off. Sophomore P Christian Eldred was short on his four punts, sending them off for an average of 29.5 yards per punt. Kill seems content with Eldred, so expect the Australian transfer to be given some breathing room to continue adjusting to the American game.