After 4-0 start, Gophers ready for Big Ten play

While the Gophers still have work to do, they are showing that they've made strides.

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team is two wins from being bowl eligible -- with eight games remaining in the season. The Gophers topped Syracuse 17-10 on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium to improve to a perfect 4-0 to close out non-conference play. Now, Minnesota will take that undefeated record on the road to open Big Ten action next Saturday against Iowa. Here are the grades for the Gophers in their victory over visiting Syracuse.

Running offense: B

Minnesota's running game was certainly impacted without the threat of speedy quarterback MarQueis Gray, who was out with a high ankle sprain. His backup, Max Shortell, certainly didn't pose the same threat to run that Gray does. That meant sophomore tailback Donnell Kirkwood had to carry the load, and he did just that. Kirkwood gained 99 rushing yards and had Minnesota's only two touchdowns on the ground. He didn't break off a big run -- his longest was just 13 yards -- but he picked up tough yardage when needed and helped provide a balance to the Gophers' offense. Freshman K.J. Maye also had a career-high six carries for 17 yards.

Passing offense: B-minus

Shortell made his second career start against Syracuse, and it went much better than his first start against Michigan last year. In that game, Shortell and the Gophers were routed 58-0 by the Wolverines. On Saturday, Shortell earned his first win as a starter, throwing for 231 yards on 16-of-30 passing. But he also admittedly left a lot of yards -- and points -- on the field, missing open receivers several times. Still, he did enough to manage the game and lead the Gophers to three scoring drives. And perhaps most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over, a big thing for a young quarterback without much college football experience.

Running defense: A-minus

Syracuse used a tandem of running backs in Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley to try and gain yardage against the Gophers defense. Neither was particularly effective -- Smith gained 52 yards on nine carries, while Gulley racked up 48 yards on 10 carries. Smith broke off a 26-yard run, but was otherwise ineffective. The 122 rushing yards for Syracuse was the second-fewest the Gophers have allowed this year; New Hampshire only ran for 68 yards two weeks earlier.

Passing defense: A

Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib came into Saturday's contest having thrown for 320 yards or more in each of his first three games this season. That didn't seem to phase Minnesota's defense, who set the tone for the night by intercepting Nasisb's first pass of the game. Nassib was intercepted once more inside the red zone to stall an Orange drive, and he was sacked three times. Nassib finished the game 21-for-31 for 228 yards and finally connected for a touchdown in the final minute of the game. For the second week in a row, Minnesota's secondary stood tall against a pass-happy offense, and it started with the defensive linemen. They were pressuring Nassib all game, making him uncomfortable in the pocket.

Special teams: C

The kicking woes continue for Gophers kicker Jordan Wettstein. The senior missed two of three field goal attempts from 44 and 26 yards in the first half of Saturday's win. He is now 4-for-9 in field goals this season. Meanwhile, punter Christian Eldred averaged just 37.6 yards per punt, which was boosted by a 51-yard punt. Minnesota had just one punt return and it went for -3 yards. The Gophers also only returned two kickoffs for a total of 31 yards, so the return game was a non-factor Saturday.

Overall: B

Minnesota has done what it needed to do through four non-conference games. Not all of the Gophers' four wins were pretty, but they all counted just the same. The defense has shown that it is much-improved from last year, and Saturday's game was a testament to that. The offense continues to make strides, too, but still has some work to do. Now the Gophers will truly see what they're made of as they begin Big Ten play next weekend, starting with a road game against reeling Iowa.

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