Gophers report card: Minnesota’s offense falls short against Badgers

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s now been a decade since the Minnesota Golden Gophers have beaten the rival Wisconsin Badgers. Not since Rhys Lloyd’s game-winning field goal in 2003 have the Gophers gotten their hands on Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the trophy awarded annually to the winner of the longest-running FBS rivalry. While Minnesota’s defense held strong on Saturday against Wisconsin, the Gophers’ offense simply couldn’t do much to move the ball against the Badgers’ defense. The result was a 20-7 win for Wisconsin, their tenth in a row in this series. Minnesota falls to 8-3 on the year and snaps a four-game winning streak. Here are the Gophers’ grades from Saturday’s loss.

Running offense: C-minus

The Gophers talked about how underrated Wisconsin’s defense has been this year, and they got first-hand experience with it on Saturday. The Badgers held Minnesota to 102 rushing yards, the second-lowest total for the Gophers this season. Minnesota’s running game had been rolling during its four-game winning streak, gaining an average of 222.5 yards per game in those four victories. Running back David Cobb had rushed for more than 100 yards in each of those wins, but he was limited to 68 yards on 17 carries. The one silver lining for Cobb was that he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season, becoming the first Gopher to rush for 1,000 yards in a year since 2006. As Minnesota fell behind, it had to abandon the run a bit, one reason why the Gophers had just 32 carries — the second-fewest all year. Backup running back Donnell Kirkwood had just two carries for 12 yards, while wide receiver Donovahn Jones had a pair of rushes for nine yards. Quarterback Philip Nelson scrambled nine times for a net of eight yards.

Passing offense: D

Minnesota was without its top wide receiver in senior Derrick Engel, who was out with a knee injury. That left the Gophers’ already-thin wide receiver corps even thinner. Minnesota’s passing game struggled without Engel, as numerous receivers dropped passes in key situations. Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson was inaccurate at times, too; he missed a wide-open Maxx Williams across the middle on a fourth-down pass in the fourth quarter that essentially sealed the game, and couldn’t hit freshman wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky on the Gophers’ opening drive. Nelson finished 7-for-23 for 83 yards, with his longest completion coming on a 31-yarder to freshman wide receiver Donovahn Jones. No player had more than two catches, as Williams led the way with two grabs for 31 yards. As the Gophers fell behind by 13 early in the second half, they needed to establish a passing game to produce a rally. That never happened, as Nelson completed just four passes after halftime.

Running defense: B-plus

All week, there was discussion of how Minnesota’s defense was going to stop Wisconsin’s high-powered running attack. The Badgers entered the game with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and the second-most running yards per game in the Big Ten. While Wisconsin had a few big runs in Saturday’s win, the Gophers were able to neutralize the Badgers’ ground game. Tailback James White finished with 125 yards on 26 carries, while Melvin Gordon was held to 69 yards on 12 rushes. One week after running for 554 yards against Indiana, Wisconsin gained just 197 yards on the ground against Minnesota, the Badgers’ second-lowest total of the season. Take away a big 49-yard run by White on Wisconsin’s first play from scrimmage and the numbers look even less impressive for the Badgers. Give Minnesota’s defensive line credit for stopping Wisconsin’s running backs at the line of scrimmage. The Gophers finished with five tackles for loss, two each by linemen Ra’Shede Hageman and Roland Johnson.

Passing defense: B

Minnesota knew the Badgers were going to run early and often, as Wisconsin’s passing game hasn’t posed much of a threat this year. Yet UW quarterback Joel Stave did find success on the Badgers’ opening drive of the second half as he was 6-for-6 on the drive with a pair of 21-yard completions to lead Wisconsin to the end zone on a 2-yard touchdown pass to Jared Abbrederis. Outside of that drive, though, Stave was inaccurate for most of the game. While he finished 16-for-26, he threw for just 127 yards. One of Stave’s passes landed in the hands of Gophers linebacker Aaron Hill, who returned it 39 yards for a touchdown to give Minnesota an early 7-3 lead. Abbrederis entered the game as one of the top wide receivers in the Big Ten, but he was held to just 67 yards on seven catches. Minnesota had a pair of pass breakups by cornerback Eric Murray and linebacker James Manuel.

Special teams: B

Minnesota punter Peter Mortell was busy, punting six times in Saturday’s game for an average of 40.0 yards per punt. Only three of those punts were returned, and Abbrederis was able to break a 35-yard return to give Wisconsin good field position. Kicker Chris Hawthorne never attempted a field goal and had just two kickoffs, both of which were returned by Kenzel Doe for a total of just 31 yards. The Gophers’ special teams never really was much of a factor, good or bad, in Saturday’s loss.

Overall: C

The Gophers’ defense held its own Saturday, limiting Wisconsin’s offense to just 324 yards on the day. Yet Minnesota’s offense couldn’t make plays when it needed to. In fact, the Gophers’ only points of the game came via a defensive touchdown. Minnesota also lost three fumbles — one each by Nelson, Cobb and Williams — which was a big reason for the Gophers’ offensive woes. As a result, Minnesota watched as Wisconsin hoisted Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 10th straight year. Meanwhile, the Gophers’ four-game winning streak is over, but the players still believe things are moving in the right direction. Minnesota has one regular-season game remaining, although it’s another tough test: on the road against Michigan State.

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