Gophers' pass defense on top of its game
MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time since 2008, the University of Minnesota football team is 3-0. The latest victory was a 28-23 win Saturday over visiting Western Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium.
Running offense: B
Redshirt sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood had his first career 100-yard rushing game, as he gained 110 yards on 23 carries for an average of 4.8 yards per carry. Quarterback MarQueis Gray picked up 62 yards on 23 carries before leaving the game with a high ankle sprain. He didn't return after the injury, and backup quarterback Max Shortell didn't offer much in the rushing game (three carries for 14 yards). Without Gray, Minnesota's rushing attack became one-dimensional. Still, Kirkwood came up with big yards when he needed them. His game-long 26-yard run late in the fourth quarter helped extend a drive and keep the clock running as Minnesota held on for a win. Kirkwood didn't find the end zone Saturday, but he was effective enough throughout the game to keep Western Michigan's defense in check.
Passing offense: B+
Before Gray left with an injury, he was just 3-for-6 for 29 yards and a touchdown. Shortell, meanwhile, stepped in and took over a struggling Gophers offense by leading Minnesota to three touchdown drives. Shortell's first pass of the game went for a 32-yard gain as he hit a wide-open Derrick Engel downfield. Shortell later had a 24-yard pass to A.J. Barker on that drive and capped everything with a 9-yard score to Barker. Shortell finished 10-for-17 for 188 yards and three scores, while Barker caught three of Minnesota's four touchdowns. He had five catches for a team-high 101 yards, his second 100-yard receiving game this season.
Running defense: B-
Western Michigan is known as a pass-first offense — the Broncos attempted 44 passes Saturday — but WMU's rushing game was still effective enough to do some damage. Minnesota allowed 165 total rushing yards, including 144 yards to running back Dareyon Chance. Chance carried the ball 29 times, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. He also had one of the Broncos' three touchdowns on a 6-yard run in the second quarter. Western Michigan's Antoin Scriven also ran in a 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
Passing defense: A-
Broncos quarterback Alex Carder threw for 364 yards and five touchdowns last weekend against Eastern Illinois, so the Gophers' secondary knew it would be in for a long day. Carder wound up attempting 44 passes but completed just 24 of those for 209 yards and one touchdown. Minnesota defensive back Michael Carter intercepted Carder to give the Gophers the ball in the red zone. Carder was also sacked twice by Minnesota's defense. Other than receiver Jaime Wilson — who had 10 catches for 117 yards and a score — none of the Broncos receivers posed much of a threat.
Special teams: B-
Special teams ended up being a bit of a non-factor Saturday. Gophers kicker Jordan Wettstein missed his only field goal attempt of the night, hooking a 38-yarder wide left in the first quarter. Punter Christian Eldred didn't have his best game, averaging just 29.5 yards per punt on four total punts. The Gophers didn't have much to speak of in the kick return game, either, as their only punt return yielded no yards. Marcus Jones returned three kickoffs for a total of 57 yards.
This was easily Minnesota's toughest test through three non-conference games this season. The Gophers held on to win without their starting quarterback and improved to 3-0. While Minnesota did well in certain areas, particularly on defense, there are still areas where coach Jerry Kill will be addressing this week as his team prepares for Syracuse next Saturday. Of course, the big question will be how Gray recovers from his ankle sprain. But aside from that, Minnesota knows it has some work to do before its final non-conference game.