Gophers acquit selves well in road win over Hoosiers

It was was expected to be a high-scoring game with plenty of offense, and Saturday’s contest between Minnesota and Indiana did not disappoint. However, it was the Gophers’ offense unexpectedly outplaying the Hoosiers’ high-octane offense, as Minnesota escaped Bloomington with a 42-39 win to improve to 7-2. It’s the first time since 2008 that the Gophers have won seven games — and they still have three more to play this season. Here are the grades for Minnesota in its entertaining road victory.

Running offense: A-

Junior running back David Cobb had a career day, racking up 188 yards on 29 carries to help Minnesota win the time of possession battle by a 37:48-21:58 margin. Cobb had a big run of 53 yards in the first half as he found plenty of running room. That big gain set up a second quarter touchdown. Cobb also scored from 27 yards out early in the second half to put the Gophers up 35-13. With Saturday’s big performance, Cobb has now rushed for 100 yards or more in each of his last three games. The only glaring issue with the running game was a first quarter fumble by running back Donnell Kirkwood. That turnover gave Indiana great field position, and the Hoosiers scored two plays later. Otherwise, Minnesota was able to take advantage of the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten by gaining 248 yards on the ground.

Passing offense: A

This is the first time this season that Minnesota’s passing attack has warranted such a high grade, and it’s thanks to a big day from quarterback Philip Nelson. The sophomore finished 16-for-23 for a career high 298 yards and four touchdowns (also a career high). Nelson and wide receiver Derrick Engel have developed a strong chemistry as they connected four times for 97 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a great throw in the first quarter for Minnesota’s first score from 10 yards out. Nelson and Engel also hooked up for a 33-yard touchdown late in the first half to take a 28-13 lead into the locker room. Minnesota’s tight ends also were heavily involved in the passing game Saturday. Maxx Williams had four catches for 78 yards, which included a 50-yard touchdown as Nelson found him wide open over the middle late in the fourth quarter to regain the lead. Tight end Drew Goodger caught a 10-yard pass on fourth down in the second quarter for his first touchdown catch of the season. While Indiana’s passing offense entered this meeting as the top aerial attack in the Big Ten, Nelson and Mitch Leidner wound out outperforming the Hoosiers’ quarterbacks by a difference of 325 yards to 269.

Running defense: B-

For most of the first half, the Gophers did a nice job containing the Hoosiers’ rushing attack. But Indiana had a pair of backs break loose for big gains in the second half, and Stephen Houston and Tevin Coleman both wound up rushing for more than 100 yards. Coleman had a 55-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter that shifted momentum in the game and brought Indiana to within one possession. Houston also had some nice runs in the second half, including an 18-yard carry that help set up Coleman’s big touchdown run. Houston later had back-to-back carries of 11 and 21 yards before taking it in from first-and-goal at the 4-yard line on the next play. Indiana’s running backs were able to get into the second level of Minnesota’s defense at times, which helped the Hoosiers’ quick-strike offense get back into the game.

Passing defense: B

As mentioned earlier, the Hoosiers entered Saturday’s game with the most effective passing game in the Big Ten, averaging 347.2 passing yards per game. Indiana fell well shy of that number against Minnesota, finishing with 269 passing yards and three touchdowns. The Hoosiers used quarterback Tre Roberson for the first half while Nate Sudfeld played most of the second half. Roberson was just 8-for-18 for 80 yards and was far from effective for Indiana. Sudfeld, meanwhile, came in and gave the Hoosiers a jolt after halftime as he was 13-for-20 for 189 yards and two touchdowns. While Indiana’s quarterbacks were inconsistent, Minnesota’s defense deserves credit for slowing down a passing attack that is rarely contained. The Gophers’ secondary had five pass breakups on the day. The Hoosiers did have three passes of over 30 yards, but the damage could have been much worse from this quick-strike offense.

Special teams: B

Kickoff coverage was an issue for the Gophers on Saturday as Indiana averaged 30.4 yards per kickoff return. That included a pair of 48-yard returns by Houston and Shane Wynn. Minnesota didn’t attempt a field goal in the win but kicker Chris Hawthorne was a perfect 6-for-6 on extra points. Meanwhile, punter Peter Mortell averaged 43.0 yards per punt on five punts. Two of those were downed in the end zone, and Indiana had zero punt return yards all game. Minnesota’s return game was nothing spectacular; Engel had a pair of punt returns for an average of 6.0 yards, while Marcus Jones ran five kickoffs back for 18.6 yards per return.

Overall: B+

The win was a big one for the Gophers, who now have seven wins with three games remaining, but Indiana nearly stole this one from Minnesota. A last-minute fumble by the Hoosiers helped seal the victory for the Gophers. This was perhaps the most impressive performance by Minnesota’s offense all season, including Nelson and Cobb, but the defense showed that it still has some holes. Even as Indiana made things interesting in the second half, the Gophers never seemed to panic — a sign that this program has turned a corner. Minnesota has a chance now to improve to 8-2 next week with a win against Penn State. After winning three straight games in which they were underdogs, the Gophers probably won’t have many people doubting them next weekend.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter