Gophers report card: Big yardage but not big points against Spartans

For the second straight week, Minnesota faced one of the top defenses in the Big Ten. In fact, Michigan State’s defense is arguably one of the best in the country. The result was a 14-3 loss for the Gophers, who finish the regular season with an 8-4 record that most people wouldn’t have expected at the beginning of the year. Here are the grades for Saturday’s game in East Lansing.

Running offense: B-plus

Few teams have had success running the ball against Michigan State’s defense, which allowed just 59.4 rushing yards per game — the fewest in college football. Yet Minnesota decided to attack the Spartans’ defensive front anyway with junior running back David Cobb, and the plan worked. Cobb gained 101 yards on the ground to become just the second player this season to rush for 100 yards against Michigan State (Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah was the other). Cobb never broke off a big run — his longest went for just 12 yards — and averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, but he was physical against the Spartans’ defense and helped move the ball on the ground. Outside of Cobb, though, Minnesota had no rushing game to speak of as the rest of the team gained just 23 rushing yards. Running back Donnell Kirkwood had seven yards on seven carries, while quarterback Philip Nelson gained seven yards on four carries before leaving with an injury.

Passing offense: C-minus

Michigan State’s defense is not only tough against the run but is stingy against the pass, too. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s passing attack has struggled for most of the year. On Saturday, that was not a good combination for the Gophers, who finished with 125 total passing yards on 9-of-25 passing. Sophomore Philip Nelson started the game and went 6-for-18 for 77 yards but he threw a pair of interceptions before suffering an injury. Nelson was replaced by redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner, who moved the ball down the field on one Gophers drive by making several third down passes to true freshmen receivers Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky, both of whom finished the game with three catches. But Leidner was 3-for-7 for 48 yards in relief as Minnesota’s passing game just never could connect on a big scoring play. The performances of Wolitarsky and Jones were encouraging as the Gophers were without leading receiver Derrick Engel (knee). Still, Minnesota’s passing game struggled for the second straight week against a tough defense.

Running defense: B-minus

While Michigan State’s offense doesn’t have a ton of big-name playmakers, running back Jeremy Langford has been solid all season. The junior had six straight 100-yard rushing games entering Saturday’s contest, and he made it seven in a row with a 134-yard effort against the Gophers. Langford averaged 6.4 yards per carry on Saturday, aided by a big 44-yard run in the fourth quarter that helped ice the game for Michigan State. The Spartans also got a big gain on a double reverse, during which Aaron Burbridge took the ball up the left side of the field for a 35-yard run. Minnesota’s running defense did stand tall at times, perhaps none bigger than when defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman stuffed Langford on a 4th-and-short situation in the first quarter to give the Gophers’ offense the ball.

Passing defense: B

Michigan State’s passing offense ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten entering Saturday’s game, and the Gophers held the Spartans’ passing attack in check for most of the day. MSU quarterback Connor Cook finished 10-for-20 for 143 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was picked off by Gophers safety Derrick Wells at the end of the first half. Minnesota also had a few batted passes, including one by Hageman at the line of scrimmage on a 3rd-and-long play. Tony Lippett was the only Spartans receiver with more than two catches. He finished the game with four grabs for 71 yards. It was Josiah Price who had MSU’s lone touchdown catch as Cook found him open in the end zone for a 12-yard score in the third quarter.

Special teams: B

The one negative Saturday with Minnesota’s special teams was a 38-yard field goal try by senior Chris Hawthorne that went wide right. Otherwise, Hawthorne connected on his only other try from 21 yards out. Meanwhile, punter Peter Mortell had another strong day. He averaged 47.2 yards on his five punts, one of which was downed inside the Michigan State 20-yard line. The Spartans’ return game was a non-factor; in fact, they didn’t have a kick return all game and returned only one of Mortell’s five punts for 29 yards. Minnesota used some trickery on special teams to convert a fourth down play as the direct snap went to tight end Maxx Williams for a seven-yard gain and a first down.

Overall: B-minus

Give the Gophers credit for their ability to run the ball Saturday against a tough Michigan State team. However, that success on the ground never translated into touchdowns, as Minnesota has now gone more than 10 quarters with an offensive touchdown. The Gophers had the ball in the red zone three times in Saturday’s game but came away with just three total points thanks to a missed field goal and a fumble. Given that Minnesota held Michigan State’s offense in check, the game never got out of hand. But the Gophers simply couldn’t make that big play to get into the end zone. It resulted in a loss to a very good Spartans team that will now play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.

Meanwhile, Minnesota finishes the regular season with an 8-4 record — a two-win improvement over last year — and now awaits its bowl game fate.

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