MINNEAPOLIS — It what was an ugly game on both sides, the Minnesota Golden Gophers came out on the losing end, falling to visiting Northwestern 21-13 on Homecoming. The Gophers shot themselves in the foot with a pair of costly penalties and struggled to find consistency on offense. As a result, the Wildcats are bowl eligible at 6-1, while Minnesota is now 4-2 after winning its first four games of the season. Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium.
1. The Gophers’ 4-0 start feels like ages ago.
Minnesota seemed to be riding high after escaping its non-conference schedule with a perfect 4-0 record. The Gophers were just two wins from being bowl eligible before even beginning the Big Ten portion of their schedule.
Then came a loss to Iowa two weeks ago, and questions arose as to whether it was a speed bump for Minnesota, or if the Gophers weren’t as good as their early 4-0 record indicated. After Saturday’s home loss, Minnesota has now lost two straight and needs a win next weekend at Wisconsin to stop the backward momentum.
“We’ve got to delete the mental mistakes and costly mistakes that hurt us,” said running back Donnell Kirkwood. “You don’t change what you’re doing except kind of tighten it up a little bit.”
Minnesota had a bye week after losing to Iowa two weekends ago, but the Gophers came out looking unprepared. As a result, they’ve dropped their first two Big Ten games and are 4-2 entering next weekend’s game against the rival Badgers.
“We’ve got to bounce back,” said sophomore quarterback Max Shortell. “The atmosphere in the locker room, I think last year we kind of accepted the fact that we weren’t good. But this year, we know we can make a difference. We’ve just got to get back on track and give ourselves confidence again because we are a good team. We have to trust in that.”
2. The rushing defense is still a problem for Minnesota.
In the Gophers’ Big Ten opener two weeks ago against Iowa, Minnesota allowed Hawkeyes running back Mark Weisman to gain 177 rushing yards on 21 carries. Saturday, it was Northwestern running back Venric Mark carving up the Gophers’ defense.
By halftime, Mark already had 151 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He broke off several big runs in the half, including four carries of 26 yards or more. His first run of the day came one play after Minnesota fumbled the opening kickoff, and Mark scored easily from 26 yards out. He later had a run of 47 yards that put Northwestern in the red zone.
Mark’s second touchdown of the day was a 48-yard run in which he ran untouched into the end zone. That carry put him at 134 yards on the day, and he wasn’t done. While Mark didn’t break off a big run in the second half, he still finished the game with 182 yards on 20 carries — an average of 9.1 yards per carry.
“It really came down to maybe four or five big plays, explosive plays,” said Gophers linebacker Keanon Cooper.”
Minnesota will face another tough rushing attack next weekend in Wisconsin when the Gophers face Badgers running back Montee Ball. Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist a year ago and had a career-high 247 yards rushing on Saturday against Purdue. Wisconsin as a whole ran for 467 yards, which should give the Gophers a test next Saturday.
3. The Gophers need to eliminate the costly turnovers.
Minnesota gave the ball away before its offense ever stepped on the field Saturday, as linebacker Lamonte Edwards fumbled the opening kickoff. Northwestern recovered the fumble, and scored a 26-yard touchdown one play later.
“Certainly it was not a good tone to set,” Kill said of the early fumble. “… The bottom line, as I’ve said all along, is we have no margin for error.”
In the second quarter, Minnesota’s defense forced a three-and-out and started their drive in Northwestern territory. But Wildcats linebacker David Nwabuisi intercepted Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray on the first play of Minnesota’s drive after the pass was tipped by Quentin Williams.
Northwestern converted that turnover into points as well, as Mark ran 48 yards untouched into the end zone on the second play of the ensuing drive. Two Minnesota turnovers resulted in 14 Wildcats points.
“That’s why we lost the game,” Kill said. “You give them credit for that. … At the end of the day, those are critical errors.”
4. Northwestern’s two-quarterback system didn’t do much to fool Minnesota’s defense.
The Wildcats have employed a two-quarterback system this year, alternating between dual-threat junior Kain Colter and redshirt sophomore Trevor Siemian. On Saturday, neither could do much to move the Wildcats offense through the air.
Colter finished 10-for-10 but racked up just 63 yards, while Siemian was 1-for-7 for four yards. Colter also had 33 rushing yards on 10 carries and lined up several times at wide receiver.
Prior to Saturday, the Wildcats were averaging 198.2 passing yards per game. Against Minnesota’s defense, they finished with just 67 yards through the air. Northwestern did gain 208 rushing yards, however, but the 275 total yards of offense was well below the Wildcats’ average of 430 yards per game.
“At the end of the day, we snapped it 72 times, they snapped it 51. They only had 275 yards of total offense,” Kill said. “… That’s a good offense to be able to hold to 275 yards. But we did some things early in the game where they hit some big plays.”
5. Andre McDonald emerged as another option for the Gophers at wide receiver.
McDonald, a true freshman from Hopkins, Minn., had played in just one game prior to Saturday and had only one catch for seven yards. Against Northwestern, McDonald led all Minnesota receivers with four catches for 33 yards, including a 14-yarder that gave the Gophers a first down.
McDonald missed a few games due to injury, but was often targeted by both Shortell and Gray.
“I said as soon as he got healthy and was able to go, we were going to play him,” Kill said of McDonald. “He did some good things. Our future’s very good. We’re playing some young kids.”
Shortell targeted McDonald on a fourth-and-goal play late in the fourth quarter, but his pass sailed over McDonald’s head. The Gophers trailed 21-13 at that point and needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion. But Shortell wasn’t able to connect with the freshman wideout in the end zone.
“I’ve got to give him at least a chance,” Shortell said of the pass to McDonald. “I can’t overthrow it like that. I’ve got to give him a chance to make a play. He’s a special athlete. That ball just went a lot further than I wanted it to, that’s for sure.”