Gophers offense struggles mightily vs. MSU

MINNEAPOLIS — Already bowl eligible, the University of Minnesota football team had less on the line than the visiting Michigan State Spartans on Saturday. MSU came to TCF Bank Stadium with a 5-6 record, needing one more win to become bowl eligible. The Spartans took care of business, beating the Gophers 26-10. Minnesota’s loss was overshadowed by yet another seizure by head coach Jerry Kill, which kept him from being on the sideline during the second half. Without their coach out there in the second half, the Gophers were outscored 13-3 after halftime. Here are five things we learned from Minnesota’s loss to Michigan State.

1. Where was the Gophers offense?

Minnesota knew it was up against one of the toughest defenses in the Big Ten when it faced Michigan State. The offensive output from the game against the Spartans was probably not what the Gophers envisioned, though.

At the end of the game, Minnesota had just four rushing yards. The Gophers didn’t have much success through the air, either, as they had 92 passing yards on 13-of-30 passing. Starting quarterback Philip Nelson threw three interceptions, while backup Max Shortell also threw one. Nelson was 10-of-23 for 61 yards, his third consecutive game of less than 100 passing yards. Nelson threw for 59 yards last weekend against Nebraska and 78 yards the game before that against Illinois.

“We knew that they had a great D-line and they’d be able to get push and collapse the pocket,” Nelson said of the Spartans. “That’s where, as a quarterback, you’ve got to be able to on the run make plays and figure things out.”

2. Michigan State is going bowling.

The Spartans came into Saturday’s game needing a win to become bowl eligible. With their 26-10 victory, they did just that.

Michigan State certainly appeared better than a 5-6 team on Saturday against the Gophers. The Spartans were coming off back-to-back losses of a combined seven points — a four-point loss to No. 20 Nebraska and a 23-20 loss to Northwestern last Saturday. Of MSU’s five losses, four have been by four points or fewer.

Now, both Minnesota and Michigan State are 6-6. Given their win over the Gophers, the Spartans should get a spot in a better bowl game than Minnesota after Saturday’s must-win game.

“I felt like if we came to play, we’d win the football game,” said MSU coach Mark Dantonio. “As you can see, nothing’s easy. Nevertheless, we got through it.”

3. Spartans running back Le’Veon Bell is the real deal.

Bell trailed only Wisconsin running back Montee Ball in average yards per game. Through 11 games, Bell was averaging 125.6 yards per contest and added 10 touchdowns.

Against Minnesota’s porous rushing defense, Bell had a career day. He ran for 266 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries — an average of 7.6 yards per run. Bell’s longest run of the day was a 40-yard scamper in which he carried Gophers safety Derrick Wells for about 20 yards before Wells finally brought him down.

Minnesota’s run defense has struggled for much of its Big Ten schedule. Saturday was no exception.

“He was a heck of a player,” said Gophers defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite. “I think he is definitely one of the best backs we saw all year. The stats show that he had a great game with 270 yards. I can’t take anything away from him.”

4. While the rushing defense struggled, the passing defense rebounded from last weekend.

The Gophers surrendered 311 passing yards to Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez last Saturday. One week later, Minnesota’s secondary clamped down against Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell. The Spartans junior entered Saturday’s game averaging 221.4 passing yards per game, but the Gophers held him to 143 yards on 13-of-29 passing.

That also included a pair of interceptions by Minnesota’s defense — one of which was returned 33 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Aaron Hill. The pick-six gave Minnesota a 7-3 lead in the first quarter and seemed to give the Gophers momentum. Hill made an athletic play to intercept Maxwell and then tiptoed down the sideline for the score.

“It just so happened I was in the right place,” Hill said. “I was actually surprised that he threw it because I thought he saw me out there. I’d say the toughest art was seeing the ball and catching it, and then realizing that I had the ball.”

Safety Brock Vereen also intercepted Maxwell on the goal line and ran it back 30 yards. Vereen’s second-quarter interception was his second of the year.

Minnesota was also able to pressure Maxwell throughout the game. The Gophers had two sacks Saturday, including one by D.L Wilhite. That sack gave Wilhite 8.5 on the season, which ranks seventh all-time on Minnesota’s single-season list.

5. The Gophers now have 15 practices to get better.

While Minnesota was no doubt disappointed it didn’t end the regular season 7-5 instead of 6-6, several of the Gophers players took solace in the fact that the team now has 15 practices leading up to the bowl game in which to work out the kinks.

If Saturday was any indication, the Gophers have plenty to work on — and they didn’t seem to care which bowl game they play in.

“It doesn’t matter at this point. We want to be able to get in and get 15 practices because we need that right now,” Nelson said. “This is basically spring ball to us, the 15 practices. We can benefit from that for right now and the future and going into next spring.”

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