Gophers’ porous defense receives poor grade

While the University of Minnesota football team has made strides since last year’s three-win season, Saturday’s loss at the hands of Nebraska was another sign that the Gophers and second-year coach Jerry Kill still have plenty of work to do. The Cornhuskers dominated the game from start to finish before capping a 38-14 win over the visiting Gophers. The game wasn’t as close as the final score, either — Minnesota scored two touchdowns in the final eight minutes to avoid a shutout. Here are the Gophers’ grades from Saturday’s loss, which dropped Minnesota to 6-5 on the season and 2-5 in the Big Ten.

Running offense: D+

Minnesota finished Saturday’s game with a season-low 87 rushing yards on 29 carries. The Gophers’ previous low in rushing yards was 96 at Wisconsin, the only other sub-100 yard performance of the season. After a career-high 152 yards rushing in a win against Illinois last weekend, redshirt sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood gained just 11 yards on seven carries, with his longest run going for only three yards. True freshman Rodrick Williams led the team with 26 yards on seven carries, but the Gophers’ running game was never a factor — especially once Minnesota fell behind big, and the Gophers tried to go to the air to get back into the game.

Passing offense: D-

Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson started the game off on the right foot, completing his first five passes of the day. From there, Nelson was just 3-for-18 before he gave way to backup Max Shortell in the fourth quarter. Nelson threw a pair of interceptions, including one that was returned 48 yards for a Nebraska touchdown. Nelson had gone three games in a row without an interception but had his second career two-interception game — both of which have come on the road. Devin Crawford-Tufts had a team-high three catches for 22 yards. Nelson’s longest pass of the game went for just 17 yards.

Running defense: B+

Nebraska boasted the best rushing offense in the Big Ten prior to Saturday, as the Huskers averaged over 250 rushing yards per game. With running back Rex Burkhead still sidelined with an injury, Ameer Abdullah has played a big part in Nebraska’s running game. But Abdullah — who topped 100 yards in each of the past four games — gained just 79 yards on 18 carries. Freshman Imani Cross had both of Nebraska’s running touchdowns on short runs of three yards and one yard in the second quarter. Minnesota certainly deserves credit for holding Nebraska to a season-low 133 yards, one of the few things that went right for the Gophers on Saturday.

Passing defense: D-

The Gophers’ pass defense was one of the best in the country earlier this month, but it hit a speed bump against Michigan when backup quarterback Devin Gardner threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Two games later, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez put up even bigger numbers against Minnesota’s secondary. Martinez, a dual-threat quarterback, did much more damage with his arm than his legs Saturday. He was 21-for-29 for 308 yards — the most surrendered by the Gophers this season — and also threw for a pair of touchdowns. Wide receiver Kenny Bell was Martinez’s main target, as he caught nine passes for 136 yards and both of Martinez’s touchdown passes.

Special teams: C

Gophers punter Christian Eldred certainly kept busy on Saturday. The Aussie had a career-high 11 punts as Minnesota struggled to move the chains almost all day. Still, despite punting 11 times, Eldred averaged just 35.0 yards per punt with his longest punt netting just 46 yards. Eldred had a punt that went for just seven yards, and another that went 20 yards. Even with all those punts, Nebraska’s return game was a non-factor; the Cornhuskers returned just three of Eldred’s 11 punts for a total of seven yards. Kicker Jordan Wettstein didn’t attempt a field goal all game but was 2-for-2 on extra point attempts in the fourth quarter. Minnesota had just one kick return all game, a 28-yard runback by freshman K.J. Maye.

Overall: D

One week after becoming bowl eligible with a win over Illinois, Minnesota was overmatched from start to finish against Nebraska. The Gophers couldn’t establish anything offensively until a few garbage time touchdowns. Minnesota finished 1-for-13 on third downs and punted 11 times. Now the Gophers must regroup and prepare for the final game of the regular season next Saturday versus a Michigan State team needing one more win to become bowl eligible.

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