Sandell: Same mistakes once again cripple Gophers in loss to Michigan
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The refrain from coach Jerry Kill remained constant in his postgame news conference.
No matter the question, his answer continually came back to the same answer.
"We just didn't make plays," Kill said.
It was a numbingly simple way to sum up a 35-13 loss to Michigan on Saturday in which the Gophers failed multiple times to produce when given the chance. The Wolverines were riddled with their own set of issues, but 21 unanswered points and several crucial defensive stops made those problems seem minor.
A week ago, seven consecutive scoring drives bolstered the Gophers en route to a trouncing of Purdue in arguably the best all-around win in Kill's short tenure. The offensive consistency and momentum built up in that victory was non-existent Saturday.
Not only did the Gophers have a chance to clinch bowl eligibility and end a 35-year winless drought against Michigan at home, but it was also their opening to do something they have been helpless to do in Big Ten play for two years -- sustain success in back-to-back games.
Those hopes dissipated in a frenzy of miscues.
While Michigan proved it indeed is still a class above the Gophers, the Wolverines squad that showed up Saturday left themselves vulnerable at times in potential game-changing moments. But the difference for Michigan was its ability to mask though faults when most needed -- an attribute the Gophers have not grasped.
"We had some opportunities," Kill said. "It goes down to making a play. We were behind some people at times and didn't throw and catch it. We had some opportunities to score. We just didn't do it."
It didn't matter that Michigan's dynamic starting quarterback Denard Robinson spent the afternoon on the sidelines at TCF Bank Stadium, with his injured right elbow bundled up in a jacket.
On late notice, backup quarterback Devin Gardner filled in with relative ease. Though the Gophers defense had an array of strong stops, Michigan found its spots to do damage. Gardner was startling efficient in his first appearance at quarterback since last season. He turned his 12 completions into 234 yards and a pair of touchdowns (12-of-18), marking the most passing yards the "U" defense has surrendered this year.
Close, but not quite was a running theme. Gardner showed shades of Robinson, albeit with a better throwing arm, when he scrambled in the backfield for nearly 10 seconds on 3rd and 17 in second quarter, dodging two incoming defenders to unfurl a 45-yard pass to a wide-open Drew Dileo for Michigan's first of five touchdowns.
"We get a good pass rush and he starts to go outside," Kill said. "I think there's no question that the guy was going to run. We didn't contain the backside. It's hard to hold coverage that long ... That's just way too much time. You can't ask the secondary for nine seconds to hold it in there."
Even without Robinson, Michigan relied on its run game to wear down the Gophers' front lines and force the linebackers and secondary to make stops. Their success in doing so waned throughout the game as the Wolverines had four players combine for 155 yards on the ground. It was the fewest yards the Gophers had allowed on the ground during the Big Ten season, but Michigan's run attack was enough to open up the passing game.
Like in all four losses this season, the defense was given little to no offensive support. For the fourth time in five games, the Gophers managed to scrounge up only 13 points. Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson was shaky in his third career start. Sixteen of his 29 passes fell incomplete -- a result of ongoing miscommunication with his receivers.
Seven trips into Michigan territory produced just one touchdown, despite the Gophers making it within 10 yards of the endzone three times
Coaching mistakes are an easy scapegoat and weren't at the root of Saturday's loss, but a spattering of suspect play calls left Kill subject to extended questioning. Twice offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called draw plays out of the shotgun formation on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1, similar to what they did at Wisconsin. Both were stopped short by Michigan. When Nelson was given the go-ahead to throw on 4th and 1 later on, it resulted in a first down.
But those nitpicky instances may have gone by without much scrutiny if not for a botched fake field goal on bizarre 4th and 17 call. Down 14-7 in the third quarter, sitting at the 19-yard line, snapper Peter Mortell rolled out left on the fake and tossed a short pass to Nelson. Michigan didn't bite, swarming in quickly for the stop five yards later.
Kill didn't back down when confronted about the call after the game.
"We ran that same situation 10 years ago in my career and we scored and I was a hero," Kill remarked. "In this situation, it was 14-7.A field goal there gets it to 14-10, but they were moving the ball ... Nobody covered him. We just threw it behind him, otherwise we've got a great opportunity to walk into the endzone."
The Gophers were unable to grasp a hint of momentum from that point forward. Michigan padded its lead with two fourth quarter touchdowns that made the game look more lopsided than it was.
The loss wasn't the season-defining 58-0 debacle the Gophers suffered through last year in Ann Arbor, but junior safety Brock Vereen refused to take solace in the fact his team had a win in reach.
"To lose in that fashion is going to hurt bad, so there is no sense of satisfaction," Vereen said. "Is there an embarrassment level? No, but at the same time there's nothing to be happy about out there."
This isn't the same naïve "U" squad that walked out of the "Big House" stunned and without answers a year ago. The Gophers have since progressed on both sides of the ball, but those steps forward will continue to be negated until Kill can get his team to maintain positive bursts of consistency in key games.
Bowl eligibility could become a fleeting goal if the Gophers can't find some way to stave off the momentary lapses that have crippled them this season. Three games remain to get there. A road trip to Illinois next week is their best opportunity to do so, though Kill has yet to win a Big Ten game away from home.