MINNEAPOLIS — For a moment, it looked as if Minnesota might have a chance to upset the visiting Michigan Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium. But backup quarterback Devin Gardner, filling in for the injured Denard Robinson, gained momentum as the game went on and led Michigan to a 35-13 win over the Gophers to help the Wolverines maintain possession of the Little Brown Jug. Here are five things we learned in the Gophers’ fourth Big Ten loss of the year.
1. Missed opportunities killed the Gophers and any potential momentum. With Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson out, Minnesota’s chances for a win increased. And after the Gophers took an early 7-0 lead, it appeared as if Minnesota was gaining some momentum. The Gophers defense forced Michigan to go three-and-out twice in its first three possessions. The other was an interception by safety Cedric Thompson.
But the Gophers failed to capitalize on several opportunities, and it hurt them in the end. Of the first nine times Minnesota had the ball, the Gophers drove into Michigan territory on eight of those possessions. Too often, though, Minnesota couldn’t add touchdowns while in the red zone.
A fake field goal on fourth-and-16 from the Michigan 19 failed to get the first down. Minnesota later settled for a field goal after having the ball 1st-and-goal from the Wolverines 3-yard line. The same was the case on the Gophers’ next possession, as a 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard line resulted in another field goal that cut the Michigan lead to 28-13 with 5:17 remaining in the game.
“Down in the red zone, we wish we scored touchdowns. That’s what we were trying to do,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “We weren’t going to beat them kicking field goals. We had to get touchdowns. They did a good job.”
2. Minnesota stands by the decision to try the fake field goal. Trying to conjure up some sort of momentum early in the third quarter, Minnesota faked a field goal on 4th-and-16 from the Michigan 19-yard line. Holder and backup punter Peter Mortell rolled out to throw and connected with quarterback Philip Nelson. The pass went for just five yards, though, as the Gophers wound up well short of the first down.
Minnesota was trailing 14-7 at the time of the fake field goal. After the Gophers failed to convert, Michigan marched down the field and scored its third touchdown of the game for a 21-7 lead. Minnesota fans were surely left scratching their heads when the Gophers attempted the trick play, but Kill stood by the call after the game.
“You’ve got to go make a play. It’s 14-7. We ran the same situation 10 years ago in my career and we scored and I was a hero,” Kill said. “In this situation, it’s 14-7. A field goal there gets it to 14-10, but they’re moving the ball and we know they’re a pretty good football team. Nobody covered him, and we just threw it behind him. Otherwise, we’ve got a great opportunity to walk in the end zone.”
Michigan’s defense closed quickly on Nelson, who wound up well short of the first down marker on what was his first career catch as a Gopher.
“Coach Kill went with the call and we’ve been working on this for a long time,” Nelson said. “They just had a great pursuit and we just came up short.”
3. Quarterback Philip Nelson got his toughest test of his young college career. Nelson, a true freshman from Mankato West High School, has been given the keys to the Gophers offense for the rest of the season. He got his first start in a loss at Wisconsin and picked up the win in a blowout over Purdue last weekend.
But Nelson had yet to face a defense like Michigan’s. The Wolverines entered Saturday’s game as the top-ranked pass defense in the country, allowing only 145.2 yards per game. Nelson didn’t quite reach that mark, totaling 142 passing yards on 13-of-29. He did avoid throwing an interception despite throwing dangerously into coverage several times. Nelson connected with tight end John Rabe for a 10-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
But as Michigan took a double-digit lead in the second half, Nelson was unable to bring the Gophers back. He found out the hard way just how tough Michigan’s pass defense can be. The Wolverines haven’t allowed a 200-yard passer all season, and that streak continued Saturday.
“We had opportunities to win the game, and we just came up short,” Nelson said. “Just like any other week, we’ve got to be able to play four quarters and not just have spurts. That’s something we’re working on every week.”
4. There’s now a sense of urgency for the 5-4 Gophers as they look to become bowl eligible. After starting the season with a perfect 4-0 mark in non-conference play, Minnesota needed just two wins to become bowl eligible. Now, with a 1-4 start to Big Ten play, that sixth win may be tougher to get than it originally appeared.
The Gophers have three games remaining, including two on the road. Minnesota will travel to Illinois next Saturday, followed by a road game against Nebraska before hosting Michigan State to close out the season. It’s never easy to win on the road in the Big Ten. If Minnesota loses both road games, it will need a win in its regular-season finale against the Spartans to go bowling.
“All we need is one more win,” said senior wide receiver MarQueis Gray. “Myself personally, I want to get another win and more wins so we get a chance to go to a better bowl game. We’ve just got to take it one game at a time and get ready to prepare for Illinois.”
5. The Little Brown Jug will stay in Ann Arbor. Saturday’s game against Michigan was the third trophy game this season for the Gophers. Minnesota previously lost to Iowa to hand over Floyd of Rosedale and fell to Wisconsin in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Gophers and Wolverines have played for the Little Brown Jug since 1903.
The Jug hasn’t stayed in Minneapolis for long over the past decade. In fact, Minnesota’s only win in the series in the last 25 years was in 2005. The Gophers also won in 1986, but haven’t won at home against the Wolverines since 1977. Michigan is 31-2 in that span.
“It’s a trophy game, one of those trophies we haven’t had in here for a long time,” said Gray. “Any time you have the opportunity like we had in the first half, we were just so close to bringing it home. But they started making more plays than we did and they came out victorious. At the end of the day, they’re leaving with the Jug for another year.”