Gophers report card: Even at 3-0, Minnesota has room to improve

MINNEAPOLIS — In a game marred by the absence of their head coach in the second half, the Gophers topped visiting Western Illinois by a 29-12 final. At halftime, though, Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill suffered a seizure and left the game on a stretcher. His team led by a narrow 7-6 margin at the half before scoring three second-half touchdowns to pull away from the Leathernecks. Here’s a look at the report card from Minnesota’s victory.

Running offense: B-plus

As expected, sophomore Rodrick Williams got the start in the absence of starter Donnell Kirkwood, but Williams finished third on the team in rushing yards. Williams gained 56 yards on 10 carries but did find the end zone twice, including a 37-yarder in the fourth quarter that sealed the game.

Meanwhile, junior David Cobb led all players with 82 yards on 13 carries. Like Williams, he also found the end zone twice as part of Minnesota’s running back committee.

When starting quarterback Philip Nelson went down with a hamstring injury, backup Mitch Leidner took over — and took off running. He ran a total of 16 times for 64 yards. None of his 16 runs went for more than nine yards, but he was able to pick up a few first downs with his feet.

Passing offense: C

Minnesota’s offense came in averaging 113 yards per game through the air, and that number didn’t change much Saturday. Nelson and Leidner combined for 124 total passing yards in the win. Nelson was 3-for-4 for 19 yards, while Leidner finished 7-for-8 for 105 yards. Neither quarterback threw a touchdown, but they also both avoided interceptions.

Minnesota opted to run the ball 49 times while attempting just 12 passes, a balance that will likely have to change when the Gophers face stiffer competition in the Big Ten.

Redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams had a pair of big catches for Minnesota, including a 33-yard grab on Leidner’s first collegiate pass. Wide receiver Derrick Engel had a team-high three catches, but no other receiver had more than one catch. Minnesota’s passing game was efficient but not terribly impactful, save for a few plays.

Running defense: A

The Gophers held Western Illinois’ ground game to just 2.3 yards per carry, as the Leathernecks had 68 net yards on 30 carries. The only big run play Minnesota allowed came on a 29-yard run by J.C. Baker, but Gophers linebacker James Manuel made the tackle to save a potential touchdown. Western Illinois running back Nikko Watson was a non-factor, gaining just 26 yards on 13 carries. Minnesota also had seven tackles for loss, totaling 25 yards. The Leathernecks’ ineffective running game left them with plenty of 3rd-and-long situations Saturday.

Passing defense: B-plus

The only major hiccup for Minnesota’s passing defense came in the third quarter when Western Illinois quarterback Trenton Norvell connected with Kyle Hammonds for a 65-yard completion that brought the ball down to the Gophers 15-yard line. Two plays later, Norvell hit Lance Lenoir in the end zone as Lenoir made a great catch over a Minnesota defense. Take away the 65-yard catch, however, and the Gophers held Norvell and the Western Illinois passing attack in check.

Credit the defensive line, too, as it got to Norvell three times. Thieren Cockran had a pair of sacks, while Ra’Shede Hageman also sacked Norvell after Hageman’s helmet was ripped off.

Special teams: B

For the first time this season, the Gophers did not score a touchdown on special teams. Still, that unit was solid overall on Saturday. Kicker Chris Hawthorne connected on all three extra points and had two touchbacks on kickoffs. Minnesota also completed a 2-point conversion as Leidner found a wide-open Logan Hutton in the end zone.

Punter Peter Mortell finished the game with a 45.4-yard average on his five punts and had one punt downed inside the 20-yard line. Sophomore KJ Maye had a 26-yard punt return to give the Gophers good field position on their final touchdown drive. Defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman got his hand on an extra point attempt for his second blocked kick of the season.

Overall: B

It was yet another slow start for the Gophers’ offense, but Minnesota finally found a rhythm in the second half as it pulled away for its third straight win. But coach Jerry Kill suffered a seizure on the sideline at halftime and was taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons. The win was overshadowed by Kill’s seizure, and now there will surely be plenty of questions this week leading up to Minnesota’s game against San Jose State. At any rate, the Gophers are 3-0, but there’s still plenty to improve.

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