Sandell: 'U' offense hits almost rock bottom in loss to Michigan State
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MINNEAPOLIS -- More than 54 minutes of game time passed Saturday before the Gophers offense passed the 100-yard threshold.
That didn't last long.
Michigan State sacked quarterback Max Shortell on the next play, bringing the Gophers back under the century mark, where they would end the game, stuck at 96 offensive yards -- the team's lowest total since stumbling to 64 yards in a 54-0 loss to Nebraska in 1974.
Needless to say, with an offense that never emerged from a fog of bewilderment, the Gophers floundered in a 26-10 regular season-finale loss to Michigan State. It was a disconcerting defeat that hurt their standing in the Big Ten's bowl game picture, leaving them with a bitter aftertaste as they wait to learn of their postseason destination.
"We just couldn't move the ball. Plain and simple," senior receiver MarQueis Gray said bluntly. "We spent more time off the field than we did on the field."
The most telling number? The Gophers produced a shockingly low four rushing yards. Michigan State's star running back Le'Veon Bell racked up 66 times that total as he rumbled to a career-high 266 yards on 35 carries.
Displaying a game plan that seemed to anticipate a heavy emphasis from the Spartans on stopping the run, the Gophers tried to open up the field with several outlet passes and screen plays early on, as well as sporadically using Gray at quarterback to add an extra element of mobility.
It didn't matter what they attempted. The run game could never get going, which in turn crippled the offense.
"We knew that they were going to be jumping on runs, so tried to get some play action going, some token fakes," freshman starting quarterback Philip Nelson said. "They were still able to get in and stop the run though."
By the end of the cold, blustery November afternoon, it was easy to forget that the Gophers held the lead for much of the first half. The Spartans, who avoided an early offseason by clinching bowl eligibility, followed Bell's lead by continually going after the Gophers until a 7-3 first quarter deficit gradually turned into a lopsided final three quarters.
There was almost no offensive support to be found for the Gophers. Their lone touchdown came on defense when Aaron Hill ran back a first quarter interception 33 yards into the endzone.
Nelson and the offense could only get as far Michigan State's 32-yard line, spending much of the game locked in their own territory. The Gophers had eight drives that lasted three plays or less.
"I was just dazed by how we just kept having all those three and outs," Gray said.
Getting no help from its hapless offense, the "U" defense gradually folded in upon itself. At the onset of the fourth quarter, the Gophers were within a touchdown of retaking the lead, down only 16-10. However, six points proved to be insurmountable. Bell kept coming, and the Gophers struggled to wrangle the big-bodied back. Bell pushed to second among Michigan State's all-time single season rushing leaders, putting up 142 yards in the second half alone.
"The momentum kind of changed and we struggled to get him to the ground," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who took over the Gophers' head coaching responsibilities in the second half after coach Jerry Kill suffered a seizure at halftime.
"It wasn't like there weren't people there. He was pushing the pile. He's awfully good."
Nelson was besieged by struggles for the second straight week. After throwing for 59 yards last week in the Gophers' 38-14 loss at Nebraska (8-of-23, two interceptions), Nelson upped his numbers by only two, completing 10 of 23 passes for a 61 yards.
The Gophers' receivers were never able to get in-sync with the freshman quarterback, with numerous passes falling several yards away from their intended targets. Three of those throws ended in glaring interceptions.
"There was one that I thought our wide receiver would be able to get off the coverage," Nelson said. "I tried squeezing it in. It was way too tight and the ball shouldn't have went there. The other ones I was just trying to give our guy a shot, throwing it up ... We just couldn't get on the same page on a couple of them. That was just their cornerbacks doing a great job of disrupting us and throwing us off our timing."
Nelson was pulled in the fourth quarter for the second game in a row in favor of Shortell. Claeys claimed the reasoning was mainly scheme based and an attempt to create different looks. But it was clear by that point Nelson had been overwhelmed and was beyond his chances to be effective.
The Gophers' bowl fate will be decided next Sunday (Dec. 4). A trip to the Meineke Car Care Bowl or Heart of Dallas Bowl appears to be in their future. But in their allotted 15 practices between now and the end of December, the Gophers have to figure out how to wake up an offense that has scored 14 points or less in six games this season.
Defense is not the issue. The Gophers have had their problems stopping the run, but the stops have been plentiful enough to give their offense opportunities to change the outlook on the scoreboard. The reciprocation hasn't been there.
It has only made matters worse that they have 15 different offensive players miss at least one game this season -- tight end Drew Goodger and wide receiver Marcus Jones both sat out on Saturday.
Though offensive depth was already thin even before the injury barrage, injury woes can't be a crutch for the Gophers. Their issues extend beyond that -- miscommunication between quarterback and receivers, a vastly inconsistent run game and an offensive line grasping for stability.
"We've got to be able to execute. Bottom-line," Nelson said. "(Which bowl game) doesn't matter at this point. We want to be able to get in and get 15 practices, because we need that right now. This is basically a spring ball to us. Fifteen practices, we can benefit from that right now and in the future."