Michigan capitalizes at home as Gophers defense falters on third downs
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For the second week in a row, the Minnesota Gophers' failure to come up with key defensive stops on third down ultimately proved to be crippling, held at bay on the road Saturday at Michigan in a 42-13 defeat.
Two quarters in, the Gophers, playing without coach Jerry Kill after he suffered a seizure in Minneapolis on Saturday morning, had disrupted quarterback Devin Gardner and the Wolverines offense enough to trail only 14-7 at the half.
But the opportunities were there for the Wolverines, and they capitalized in a big way in the game's stretch run.
Michigan converted on 10 of 13 third down attempts, with six of those conversions coming in the final 30 minutes. The second half scoring barrage was set in motion when Gardner turned a 3rd down and 11 situation on Minnesota's 23-yard line into a 21-yard pass to receiver Devin Funchess.
Instead of an impressive stop that would have likely held Michigan to a field goal, the Gophers yielded a touchdown one play later that initiated the Wolverines' gradual march to outscoring Minnesota 28-6 the rest of the way.
Of their six third down conversions in the second half, the Wolverines converted all of them into gains of 12 yards or more, or a touchdown, which came on a two-yard run by Gardner near the goal line.
With starting cornerback Derrick Wells limited due to an ailing shoulder, the Gophers' secondary was vulnerable. Backups Jeremy Baltazar and Martez Shabazz both logged increased snaps, but their outings turned into struggle-filled affairs.
Accuracy has been a major issue of concern for Gardner. He indeed had his moments of uneasiness, reeling off several passes behind his receivers. However, he made up for it by exploiting the Gophers' inconsistent play on the edges, most notably in third down situations. More than half of Gardner's 235 passing yards (134) came on third down off six plays.
It was a similar story for the Gophers a week ago in a 23-7 loss to Iowa. The Hawkeyes bested Minnesota on third down eight times, racking up 118 total yards and a touchdown, and keeping the Gophers' chances at answering back to a minimum.
The blame clearly does not rest solely on the defense, especially with the Gophers managing 14 points or less on offense for the 12th time in their last 18 Big Ten games. But given the highly questionable lack of production on offense, Minnesota doesn't have the margin of error for extended defensive lapses in critical situations.
• The Little Brown Jug stayed in Michigan's possession for the 22nd time in the last 23 meetings between the two rivals.
• The Gophers' upcoming bye week is desperately needed after they dropped to 0-2 in the Big Ten for the fourth straight season.
• Defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli, who has arguably been the Gophers' top D-lineman in the last two weeks, took down Gardner for a sack in the first half. But it stood as the Gophers' only sack of the game, and just their second in a three-game stretch.
• Redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner, getting the start in place of Philip Nelson, made it obvious who his receiving target of choice was. Of Leidner's 21 passes, he targeted redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams six times, completing five throws for 54 yards and a touchdown.
• Senior outside linebacker James Manuel got the start over junior De'Vondre Campbell. It was a carryover from last week against Iowa when Campbell was pulled from his starting spot after struggling mightily to read the gap fits in order to slow the Hawkeyes' rushing game down.
Manuel finished third on the Gophers' defensive stat sheet with six tackles.
• True freshman Jalen Myrick logged his first snaps at cornerback on Saturday, coming in the waning minutes of the loss. Myrick had his redshirt taken off three games into the season after the Gophers lost junior corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the season with an ACL and MCL tear.
Myrick had been used solely on special teams in the last three weeks, as the Gophers have slowly worked him into the secondary rotation.