The Gophers arrived in Champaign leading the Big Ten West, undefeated in Big Ten play and about to face an Illinois team that was pretty much the consensus worst team in the Big Ten. The script was simple and fairly obvious, Gophers beat Illinois because we are pretty good and they are terrible. We get next week off to prepare for Iowa where we free Floyd. But things did not go according to plan as Illinois jumped on the Gophers early then made the necessary plays to finish the game in the 4th quarter.
In lieu of a traditional game recap I think I'd rather take a look at some of things that happened or did not happen leading to a Gopher loss. (hat tip to Maize n Brew where I stole this themed post)
This is not a list of excuses, rather these are the reasons we lost as well as the things that must be cleaned up if the Gophers have any hope of winning another game as the schedule only gets more challenging.
Gopher Defense Spots Illinois 14 Quick Points
I really like the Gopher defense, they do an outstanding job of taking away big plays, they force a lot of turnovers and they are arguably the #1 reason this team is 6-2. But recently have been playing like a different unit between the first and second halves. I'm a big fan of the half-time adjustments but things need to be much better to start games.
Last week they gave up 31 first half points to Purdue before making changes and allowing only 7 in the second half. Yesterday Illinois started the game with a 75 yard touchdown drive, punt and a 74 yard touchdown drive to jump out to a 0-14 lead. After their first three drives the offense mustered one more touchdown and only 114 yards over essentially 10 possessions. Great adjustments at half are a good thing, but it works so much better when you have a lead. In Big Ten games the Gophers have dominated the third quarter to the tune of 54-14.
The way our offense is constructed, it is really difficult to overcome two-touchdown holes.
To be honest I think that this is less about scheme and making technical adjustments and more about the 11 guys on the field playing on the same page and doing what they are supposed to be doing. Following the Purdue game I heard Mike Sherels say that in the first quarter they were playing too much "popcorn" defense. Meaning, on one play there is one guy missing his assignment; on the next play it is another guy. Each play it is someone else not doing what they are supposed to be doing and the result is big plays allowed. When we play our next four opponents we'll need to be sharp and engaged on the first possession.
This is not an insult to Illinois, they came out and execute and sliced up the Gopher defense to start the game. Not an excuse, just a fact and a contributor to this loss.
Offense Needs to Execute All Phases, All Quarters
I am hearing a lot of complaints about the play-calling and lack of creativeness but I think yesterday's ineffectiveness was mostly due to a lack of execution. Every opponent has and will continue to stack the box and slow the Gopher ground game. Illinois did just that and it took a while before David Cobb broke loose. Mitch is capable of making defenses pay and it can happen earlier than the third quarter. But yesterday he started the game 0/6 and the incomplete pass after incomplete pass meant Illinois could continue to stack the box until we made them pay. Poor pass protection and dropped passes didn't do anybody any favors either.
Matt Limegrover can call the most creative game but if balls are not catchable, if receivers drop ones that do find them and if the line is not giving Leidner adequate protection it really doesn't matter what play is called. For whatever reason it takes the half-time break to really open up the offense. Pass completions of 52 and 46 yards in the third quarter went a long way towards getting us back into the game. Completions of 42, 45 and 37 all happened in the third quarter last week. We took some deep shots in the first half but the accuracy wasn't there and the defense was not forced to honor our passing game till it was kinda late.
I do not think that Limegrover was perfect but there were plays to be had out there that were just not executed.
Too Many Big Mistakes Really Hurt The Gophers
Three turnovers are too many on the road against any Big Ten opponent, especially when one is returned for a touchdown. To their credit Illinois did force the Cobb fumble and returned it for what was the game-winning touchdown. They made the big play when it mattered. But Mitch's inconsistency, Ryan Santoso's missed FG, dropped passes, popcorn defense and poor protection all add up to making a win over anybody rather difficult.
In spite of all the mistakes made. In spite of the poor start on both sides of the ball, this team was still in position to win the game late. The Gophers even took the lead late in the third quarter. I don't care how bad Illinois has been or how bad we all assumed them to be, we are just not good enough to overcome too many costly mistakes
The Curse of TDG
DarkKnight is never allowed to go on a Gopher road trip again. He was in Champaign Saturday afternoon and it was the worst loss this program has seen in a few years. A rule about what games he is allowed and not allowed to attend has been implemented.
One could also argue that this is GopherGuy's fault. He has been to every game except 2 this year. Care to guess which two? Well he wasn't in Texas in September and he was not in Illinois on Saturday.
None of this is meant to be an excuse. I'm not about to say that we gave this game away. Illinois outplayed the Gophers and deserved to win, they made the necessary plays to finish off a close game. We are an improved football team that is capable of playing with and beating most teams. But our margin for error is slim. We cannot afford mistakes, we cannot take a quarter or more to get in rhythm. Interesting that I put three keys to a win in the text of the Open Thread. They were to control the clock, limit big mistakes and come to play early. We failed all three and we won't beat anybody else on our schedule if we play like this.
The Gophers get a couple weeks to stew on this one before hosting Iowa after the (bourbon) bye week. Free Floyd and we can all forget about this one.