For the first time this season the University of Minnesota football team was on the losing end of a game. And for the first time this year, the Gophers did not earn passing grades on their report card. Minnesota lost a one-sided game to rival Iowa on the road in the team’s Big Ten opener, falling by a 31-13 final. Here are the grades for the 4-1 Gophers after their first defeat of 2012.
Running offense: C-
Running back Donnell Kirkwood had emerged as the go-to rusher for the Gophers over the past two games, as he had one 100-yard game and nearly missed out on another 100-yard performance. But he had just 33 yards on 12 carries, an average of 2.8 yards per carry. Kirkwood’s longest run of the day went for just seven yards. Meanwhile, quarterback Max Shortell had a team-high 46 yards rushing on 16 carries. K.J. Maye had three carries for 15 yards but lost a fumble on one of his carries.
Passing offense: C
Shortell, making his second start of the year in place of the injured MarQueis Gray, fell to 0-2 in his career in Big Ten road games. He also earned the loss last year when the Gophers were routed 58-0 at Michigan. Against Iowa, Shortell was 20-for-33 for 197 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions — including one that was returned for a touchdown to seal the game in the fourth quarter. Receiver A.J. Barker had five catches for 74 yards, but the rest of Minnesota’s receiving corps didn’t do much in the passing game. One positive: Shortell hit 10 different receivers
Running defense: C-
Through four games, the Gophers had faced several pass-heavy offenses. On Saturday, though, Minnesota’s defense was up against a run-oriented offense. Iowa running back Mark Weisman, who ran for six total touchdowns in his last two games, picked up 177 yards on 21 carries — an average of 8.4 yards per carry. He had several big runs that kept the Gophers’ defense on its toes, including a game-long 44-yard run. Entering Saturday, Minnesota allowed 128.5 yards per carry. The Hawkeyes far surpassed that total, thanks in large part to Weisman.
Passing defense: B-
In four games, Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg had just one total touchdown. He matched that total Saturday, completing a deep pass on a flea flicker for a touchdown. Vandenberg finished the game 18-for-31 for 192 yards and a score. Minnesota entered Saturday’s game tied for the most interceptions in the Big Ten with seven, but couldn’t pick off Vandenberg. The Gophers also had 11 sacks, tied for second-most in the conference, prior to Saturday. But they couldn’t get into the backfield to get Vandenberg at all.
Special teams: B+
Minnesota kicker Jordan Wettstein didn’t attempt a field goal Saturday but made the only extra point of the day. Meanwhile, punter Christian Eldred had a busy day, punting the ball six times. The Australian punter averaged 44.5 yards per kick, pinning the Hawkeyes inside their own 20-yard line twice. Minnesota’s return game wasn’t much of a factor — Troy Stoudermire averaged 8.7 yards on three kick returns, while A.J. Barker averaged 7.5 yards per punt return.
Minnesota had plenty of confidence entering Saturday’s game. After a 4-0 start, the players seemed to believe in what second-year coach Jerry Kill was preaching. But from the opening drive, the Gophers just didn’t seem ready to play. It seems as if Minnesota’s non-conference schedule didn’t prepare it for the rigors of the Big Ten. Iowa was 2-2 with a pair of losses at home, but looked dominant from start to finish Saturday. Now, the Gophers have a bye week before hosting Northwestern. Saturday’s loss will sting for an extended period of time.