Wolfson: Mental mistakes concerning for Gophers team that had improved
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Ever since the horrendous four-game stretch from North Dakota State to Nebraska, this Gophers season became all about 2012, and beyond.
Among the chief concerns that needed clarity was whether this coaching staff was BCS-worthy. We heard, and rightfully so, that Jerry Kill and his assistants, many of whom have been with him for many years, had won at every previous stop.
There were positive signs in the win over Iowa. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover trimmed the playbook by 40-something plays two weeks prior and the result was 371 total yards and two fourth-down conversions. Kill smartly called for an onside kick. In a blowout, Kill and his guys won the coaching battle.
The next week, at Michigan State, coaches devised a good enough game plan that the Gophers scored nearly as many points in the first quarter (14) as they had in the previous eight games combined (17), and it was against the No. 2 defense in the FBS. The call by Limegrover to go play-action on the fourth-and-10 was questionable, but every game involves a few plays that can be nitpicked. The bigger decision to go for it was fine with just one timeout remaining and quarterback MarQueis Gray and wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight playing at a high level.
Then, last week against Wisconsin, the offense went three-and-out three times and a blitz probably should've been called on Wisconsin's first third-down conversion. But that game was more about physical domination. Kill is well aware his players need to get bigger, stronger and faster. The best takeaway was the fake field goal that turned into a touchdown. That gave us additional proof this staff knows what it's doing. It was a play that had been practiced for weeks, and Kill chose the right time to implement it.
Saturday's 28-13 loss vs. Northwestern had its good moments, but some disturbing ones too.
Following an incomplete pass on the Wildcats' second possession, the Gophers had only 10 men on the field for a third-and-12 play. After a 5-yard completion, the Wildcats took the play clock to 9 seconds before snapping the ball on fourth-and-7 -- and shockingly, the Gophers again had just 10 men on the field.
They had more 20 seconds to make a substitution, but failed to do so. The result was cornerback Kyle Henderson getting burned for a touchdown, mostly because he expected over-the-top help. Well, that's hard to pull off when a man down.
Then, on at least one play in the second half, the Gophers had just 10 men on the field. Once is understandable. Twice is borderline forgivable. Three times is inexcusable. I can only imagine the backlash and grief former coach Tim Brewster would've received if such infractions occurred under his watch.
It could be worse. Maryland's Randy Edsall, whom the "U" had on its wish list way above Kill, has lost six consecutive games by double-digits.
By no means does Saturday impact how I've always felt about Kill and his staff: they will get the program back to a Glen Mason-like level of respectability.
That's why those three glaring mistakes were so galling. Sure, mental mistakes have occurred every game, but not to this extent. And not three times.
• The Gophers had 269 rushing yards with three redshirt offensive linemen leading the way: left tackle Marek Lenkiewicz, left guard Caleb Bak and right guard Zac Epping.
• Ed Olson Jr., whose ordinary play makes you wonder if he's the long-term answer at left tackle, now has legitimate competition. For a second consecutive game, Lenkiewicz looked the part of capable blindside protector.
• Facing third-and-6 on the Gophers' first possession, Gray made a phenomenal throw to McKnight on a fade route for a 29-yard gain. Then, on 3-and-8 on the fourth series, Gray made another big-time throw. With perfect touch, he found wide receiver Brandon Green for 18 yards.
• Wide receiver Malcolm Moulton dropped a would-be touchdown on the Gophers' third possession. Immediately after returning to the sideline, Gray comforted him. That was great leadership.
• The Gophers, last out of 120 FBS teams in takeaways with seven, got their first interception since the third week. Sixth-year senior Kim Royston, who also had a team-leading 17 tackles, helped prevent the Wildcats from scoring on their first four possessions.
• Junior defensive end D.L. Wilhite was noticeable, sacking quarterback Dan Persa once and pressuring him and backup Kain Colter a couple other times.
• Even though he lost a fumble, fifth-year senior running back Duane Bennett ran hard, covering 127 yards. Couple that with Gray's 147 yards rushing, and it was the first time since 2003 against Michigan the Gophers had a quarterback and running back go for over 100 yards in the same game.
• Admittedly wind-aided, kicker Jordan Wettstein effortlessly nailed a 48-yard field goal. Even when Chris Hawthorne is healthy, it has become obvious he needs to be the backup.
• Against the second-best offense in the Big Ten, the Gophers' defense didn't allow points on five consecutive possessions.
• Linebacker Mike Rallis, one of just a few reliable regulars returning, finished with a sack and 13 total tackles.
• With the wind at his back, Dan Orseske's first punt traveled only 9 yards. Just when I thought last week -- a 5-yard that he downed -- was rock-bottom, Saturday happened. Orseske was immediately benched, but in the same quarter, backup David Schwerman delivered a 22-yard punt.
• Special teams was also an issue on kickoff coverage. Entering the game No. 1 in the Big Ten, the Gophers allowed kickoffs of 44 and 42 yards.
• Gray's numbers would've looked spectacular if not for four drops in the first half. McKnight had two of them -- one on a fade route that could've been caught for a touchdown. Northwestern's Jordan Mabin did get his hand in McKnight's face to distract him enough, but it's a catch he's made before. Moulton was responsible for the other two. The second was a sure touchdown. The ball went right through his hands.
• It's rare, even for the Gophers, to rush for 269 yards and lose. So, the positive is also a negative. The last time they ran for that many yards and didn't win was 2005 against Wisconsin. In the 38-34 loss, the Gophers had 411 rushing yards.
• Gray's red zone interception in the second half was his one hiccup. It was a bad throw behind Green on third down. An incomplete pass or failed run, and a field goal would've made it a one-score game -- 21-13.
• It was another game where the Gophers had more penalties -- five, to Northwestern's zero -- than the opposition. Among the five was a facemask on linebacker Gary Tinsley and back-to-back mishaps while in the punt formation.
• On a third-and-15 in the fourth quarter while down 18 points, center Ryan Wynn snapped the ball to Gray when he wasn't ready for it. He had to make sure he maintained control, so the aftermath was fourth-and-long. Kill had no choice but to kick the field goal.
• The drops exaggerated the one-sidedness of the first half -- 21-10. But in the seven first halves of the Big Ten games, the Gophers have been outscored 180-40.
On the decision to kick it deep
There seemed to be some debate on Twitter about attempting an onside kick after Wettstein's 48-yard field goal. There was 7:28 left, and the Gophers had all three timeouts remaining. The defense had stops on five of the previous six series and was well-rested after being on the sidelines for over four minutes of game time.
The correct call was made to kick it deep. It's unfortunate for the Gophers they gave up a 14-play drive. Any chance of overcoming the 13-point deficit was gone.