Greetings Gopher Faithful! Week eleven is in the books! The Gophers fell short this past weekend in Lincoln of retaining their beloved chair. Let’s get to it...
#82 Drew Wolitarsky (Senior - WR)
Wolitarsky made himself available in the spaces of Nebraska’s zone scheme and had a lot of yards after the catch as well. 8 receptions for 90 yards while continuing to be a threat on the outside on short routes to keep the defense modest. It worked well during the first half and unfortunately petered out in the second half.
#18 Ryan Santoso (RS Junior - P)
5 punts with an average of 44.2 and a long of 54 yards. It wasn’t the greatest day in the history of Big Ten special teams or anything but at least he didn’t have a punt for -2 yards like his Cornhusker counterpart. He kept Nebraska deep in their own territory and the field position battle was even or shading in the Gophers’ favor because of Santoso’s consistency on Saturday night.
#36 Blake Cashman (Sophomore - LB)
The defense as a whole wasn’t very good but a bright spot can be found in Brian Cashman, who had another sack in the game against the Cornhuskers to bring his season total to 4 after hardly playing a majority of the season.
Cashman has four sacks this season and three in the last two games.— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) November 13, 2016
Minnesota started the game with a touchdown drive that was spear-headed by quick passes and Nebraska penalties on 3rd and 4th downs. It was a 7 minute 33 second drive consisting of 10 plays and covering 75 yards. It was everything we could ever want out of an opening drive in a tough road environment.
Unfortunately, the defense was not equally up to the task and allowed a field goal drive on Nebraska’s first possession. After the Gophers went three-and-out, Tommy Armstrong ended the quarter with a 21 yard run that portended the eventual doom of the Gophers and ended the quarter.
The second play of the second quarter is one that I’ll look back on and say, “what if?” What if Jalen Myrick squeezes the ball in his hands a little tighter and takes the interception that seemed almost certainly to be had and took it 70 yards for a touchdown? It was not to be. Armstrong throw off his back foot into good coverage but Myrick was only able to break up the pass. The Huskers proceeded to go for it on 4th and 2 from the Minnesota 35 and scored a touchdown. 10-7 Nebraska. While the game was by no means over, imagine a world where Minnesota has a 14-3 lead and Armstrong’s confidence is shaken. That’s what would have happened if Myrick and held on.
The teams exchanged punts and Minnesota pieced together another touchdown drive led by the Leidner - Wolitarsky connection, Rodney Smith’s best run of the game, and a gutsy call to go for it on 4th and goal from the 1 yard line. Leidner pounded it in the endzone and the Gophers had retained the lead, 14-10. Then came the -2 yard punt from poor Caleb Lightbourn. The defense held Nebraska to one first down on the ensuing drive and on came Nebraska’s special teams unit. Lightbourn shanked a kick that would have gone for a paltry 15 yards or so but, as so often happens when you play a sport with a pointed ball, the pigskin bounced backwards and proceed to go behind the line of scrimmage. It was both a sad and glorious thing to see.
The Gophers played the remaining 1:40 in the second quarter conservatively, being satisfied to allow Emmit Carpenter to connect for a 42 yard field goal to end the half with a 17-10 lead.
The second half started with Nebraska methodically driving down the Gophers’ throats, converting three third downs and using a mixture of pass, run, and QB mobility to put the Minnesota defense on skates. 17-17. After one Gopher punt and one Husker punt, Minnesota began a promising looking drive that ended the third quarter tied but with a 1st and 10 from the Minnesota 47 yard line.
Mitch opened the final quarter of play by throwing a 9 yard completion to Rashad Still. The offensive line proceeded to get no push the next two plays, both runs, which netted -2 yards total. This seemingly small failure would quickly become a massive one. While Santoso pinned the Huskers back to their own 9 yard line, Tommy Armstrong took over after returning from an injury picked up on the previous drive. He proceeded to construct a 13 play, 5 minute 40 second drive that spanned 91 yards and contained a 3rd and 11 conversion from the Nebraska 49 yard line and a 4th and 1 conversion from the Minnesota 16 yard line. He capped this masterpiece with a 13 yard touchdown run, though he pulled up limp on the play. Nebraska had retaken the lead late, 24-17.
Minnesota went three-and-out on their possession. Nebraska then punted after gaining a first down on their first play of the drive. And the situation was set for the dramatic.
Gopher ball on their own 27 yard line. 2:58 left to play in the game. Trailing by 7 points in an intimidating away environment. The Gophers went purely pass because the run-blocking had been atrocious up to this point in the proceedings and time was of the essence. Leidner had to throw as he was being dragged down on one occasion to convert a 3rd down. But through good timing and a pass interference call, the Gophers were in Cornhusker territory. Then, Mitch connected with freshman Tyler Johnson for a huge 25 yard gain. There was 1:37 left on the clock and the Gophers had the ball at the Nebraska 17 yard line. Then...
Mitch made an incredibly poor decision. He rushed it without considering there was plenty of time on the clock and three more downs to be had. He forced into double coverage across the middle when Smith was wide open for the drop off pass to get a few yards (possibly a touchdown) and continue the drive. And just like that, the game was over. Interception Nebraska. Game. Set. Chair.
This one hurt a lot. The Gophers had a 7-point halftime lead. They had neutralized a raucous Memorial Stadium crowd. They had generally controlled the pace of the game. But the defense didn’t do it’s job in the second half and the leader on offense made a costly turnover in a game where there was only one turnover. Typically when that happens, the team that makes that one turnover loses. Such is life.
Offensive line run blocking was rather atrocious. 2.5 yards per carry on 34 attempts isn’t going to get it done on the road when you’re a team that wants to burn clock. Strangely, the pass blocking was pretty decent as they didn’t allow a sack on 27 attempts. Though Leidner bailed them out on a few occasions.
Not sure why Minnesota insisted on trying to run up the middle when it was obvious there was no push from the line and that’s not what worked on the first drive of the game that was so successful. Quick-hitting passes and finding the bubbles in the zone was the most effective strategy against the Nebraska defense. Getting the ball out of Leidner’s hand quickly and getting it to the sidelines was effective. The attempts to run up the middle continued to be futile throughout the game so I put a lot of the blame on the loss on Jay Johnson.
The defense missed a lot of tackles and didn’t generate any game changing plays. Myrick’s missed interception really, really hurt the prospects of the game. If you’re going to beat a team that’s better than you on paper in their stadium, you have to go out and take the game. A way to do that would have been to house that ball that was in Jalen’s hands and go up 14-3 in the second quarter. But the Gophers have been missing that step-on-your-throat mentality all season and it reared its ugly head again Saturday night.
The “blame” for the loss should be spread evenly among the responsible parties. Leidner threw a back-breaking pick. Jay Johnson continued a strategy that was obviously flawed. The defense missed tackles and allowed too many big plays. Myrick dropped a pick-six. Claeys was too conservative at the end of the first half. All those things added up to not being able to upset a top 25 team in their home stadium. In a vacuum, I’m sure everyone wouldn’t be frustrated considering the circumstances. But taken in context with the Penn State and Iowa games, this one has folks a little more antsy than usual.
Most of us had big dreams for this season. The staff here had optimistic predictions ranging from 8-12 wins (yes, the 12-win predictions were mostly in jest). I myself had us pegged for 9-3, with Floyd in hand and road losses to Penn State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. I can’t say I’m not angry about the Iowa game because I still am, but other than that, the season has gone as expected.
Personally, I don’t want to start all over again. I’ve seen enough to know that Coach Claeys and his staff (with possibly a few tweaks) can get us where we want to go. Everyone was patient for Jerry Kill to get us from tire fire to mediocre. And he did. In three seasons. But it takes just as much time, if not more, to get from mediocre to long term divisional competitor, which is the next step I believe our fanbase wants to see the team take.
While the close games have been disappointing to lose, especially when the Gophers have held leads in all of them, they are part of the process of jumping from mediocre to divisional contender. I think Claeys has the team going in the right direction. We’ve been in every game this season, for better or worse. I don’t see that changing with Northwestern coming to town this Saturday. I don’t see that changing with us going to Madison in two weeks. I think both games will be close. I just hope that the coaching staff continues to adapt and put the team in a position to win.
The Gophers return to the Bank to try to get back on the winning track against the Northwestern Wildcats. There is still much to play for, including bowl positioning and the slimmest of hopes to claim the Big Ten West title...