Gophers’ offense left searching for answers

MINNEAPOLIS — Turnovers and a lack of offense plagued the University of Minnesota football team in Saturday’s 26-10 loss to Michigan State in the regular-season finale. The Gophers held a brief one-point lead in the first half but were outscored 13-3 after halftime as they fell to 6-6 on the season. Here are the grades for Minnesota’s lackluster performance against the Spartans.

Running offense: F

This was hands down the worst game of the year for Minnesota’s rushing offense. The Gophers finished the game with 19 carries for a grand total of four — yes, four — yards rushing on Saturday. Running back Donnell Kirkwood had 19 yards on 10 carries while senior MarQueis Gray added four yards on five carries. But quarterback Philip Nelson lost 11 yards rushing, while backup quarterback Max Shortell lost nine yards. Last weekend’s game against Nebraska was Minnesota’s previous low rushing total this year when the Gophers ran for just 87 yards against the Huskers. That low was far surpassed on Saturday against MSU.

Passing offense: D-

While the running game was non-existent, the passing attack wasn’t much better. True freshman quarterback Philip Nelson was inaccurate from the first drive of the game — he was intercepted on a third-down pass to kill Minnesota’s opening possession. Nelson finished the game 10-for-23 for 61 yards, and the freshman threw three interceptions. Backup Max Shortell didn’t fare much better in a limited role late in the game. He was 3-for-6 for 31 yards but also threw an interception. Minnesota’s longest pass of the day went for 23 yards on a nice one-handed grab by freshman Andre McDonald. That was about the only highlight to write home about for the Gophers’ passing game, however. Derrick Engel appeared to have a 22-yard grab that would have moved Minnesota out from deep in its own territory, but video review determined that the ball hit the ground as Engel was coming down to make the catch. It was that kind of a day for the Gophers offense.

Running defense: D-

Minnesota had faced some tough running backs this year, including Northwestern’s Venric Mark and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball. But Spartans running back Le’Veon Bell had a bigger game against the Gophers than either of those two backs. The 6-foot-2, 244-pound Bell found plenty of running room all game and finished with an impressive 266 rushing yards on 35 carries — an average of 7.6 yards per carry. His longest run of the day was a 40-yard scamper in which he carried Gophers safety Derrick Wells on his back for the final 20 yards of the run. As a team, the Spartans finished with 278 rushing yards, the third-most Minnesota’s defense has allowed all season.

Passing defense: B

While Bell was carving up Minnesota’s defense, MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell didn’t have to do a ton of work through the air. He was 13-of-29 for 143 yards and a touchdown, but the Gophers also picked him off twice. One of those interceptions was returned for a touchdown when linebacker Aaron Hill went 33 yards for the score after making a nice play on a Maxwell pass. Safety Brock Vereen also picked off Maxwell and ran it back 30 yards. Wide receiver Bennie Fowler had a big game, as he topped the century mark (101 yards on seven catches) and had MSU’s only receiving touchdown.

Special teams: B

Punter Christian Eldred had one of his best games of the year, as he averaged 44.3 yards per punt — just shy of his season high of his 44.5-yard average in Minnesota’s game against Iowa. Eldred pinned three of his six punts inside the 20-yard line. The coverage team allowed Andre Sims to run back one of Eldred’s punts for 44 yards, setting up Michigan State with great field position. Gophers senior kicker Jordan Wettstein converted on his only field goal try, a 48-yarder in the third quarter. Kick returner Troy Stoudermire returned six kicks for 145 yards, including a 46-yard return that gave Minnesota the ball near midfield.

Overall: D+

While Minnesota’s defense held tough for most of the game, the Gophers offense could not get anything going. Minnesota was outgained 421 yards to 96 in the game. The 96 yards of offense was easily a season low for the Gophers. Minnesota’s only touchdown of the game came via the defense on Hill’s pick-six. Michigan State came to Minneapolis needing a win to become bowl eligible, and the Spartans certainly played like a team playing a must-win game.

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