Loss to Northwestern exposes Gophers’ flaws

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team is now winless in the Big Ten this season after falling to Northwestern at home by a 21-13 final Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers committed an early turnover that led to an easy Wildcats touchdown, and Minnesota never recovered. Despite shutting out Northwestern in the second half, the Gophers couldn’t find enough of a rhythm on offense to complete the comeback. Here’s a look at the report card for Minnesota from Saturday’s game.

Running offense: B

Running back Donnell Kirkwood carried the ball a team-high 18 times for 73 yards. While he didn’t have any big runs — his longest went for just 11 yards — Kirkwood got the tough yards when the Gophers needed to keep drives alive. Quarterback MarQueis Gray led Minnesota with 86 rushing yards on just nine carries. Gray’s biggest run of the day was a 25-yard touchdown run in which he found an opening up the middle before scampering to the end zone. The Gophers also saw the college debut of Rodrick Williams, a freshman running back who got his first carries Saturday. Williams had just three carries for 18 yards, but had a key 16-yard run on 3rd-and-4 that brought the Gophers down to the Northwestern 24-yard line.

Passing offense: C-

Entering Saturday’s game, there were questions as to how much, if at all, Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray would play as he continued to recover from a high ankle sprain. Gray didn’t start, but he ended up attempting 11 passes Saturday after sophomore Max Shortell was dinged up in the first half. Gray completed sevem of those passes for 66 yards but couldn’t find the end zone. Shortell, meanwhile, was 9-for-19 for 103 yards and was sacked three times. Shortell missed several open receivers late in the game as Minnesota tried to come back from an 8-point deficit.

Running defense: D

Two weeks ago, Minnesota’s rushing defense was exposed against Iowa running back Mark Weisman. Saturday against Northwestern, it was running back Venric Mark chewing up the Gophers defense to the tune of 182 yards on 20 carries. He had four runs of 25 or more yards in the first half, including a 48-yard score that put Northwestern up 21-10 in the second quarter. Quarterback Kain Colter added 26 rushing yards for the Wildcats.

Passing defense: B+

Northwestern used a tandem of quarterbacks in Colter and Trevor Siemian, although neither did much in the passing game. While Colter was a perfect 10-for-10 through the air, he had just 63 passing yards with his longest pass going for 12 yards. Siemian, meanwhile, was just 1-for-7 for four yards. Northwestern averaged 198.2 passing yards per game in its first six games this year, but managed just 67 total yards Saturday.

Special teams: C+

The Gophers’ special teams unit cost them early, as linebacker Lamonte Edwards fumbled the opening kickoff. Northwestern recovered the fumble and took over on Minnesota’s 26-yard line. The Wildcats scored one play later. On the next Gophers kickoff, returner K.J. Maye tripped himself up and fell at his own 10-yard line. Minnesota was also flagged for a personal foul penalty on a long punt return, negating the big gain. One aspect of special teams that had the potential to be an advantage for Northwestern was the punting game but the Gophers held returner Venric Mark in check. He had just one return for zero yards on three Minnesota punts. Gophers kicker Jordan Wettstein was 2-for-2 on field goals, hitting from 31 and 38 yards.

Overall: C-

This was a game the Gophers could have — and probably should have — won. But Minnesota turned the ball over twice, and Northwestern turned both turnovers into touchdowns. As a result, the Gophers are now 0-2 in Big Ten play as they prepare to take on rival Wisconsin next weekend. Saturday’s game against Northwestern was sloppy in many aspects, so the Gophers will have plenty to work on this week.

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