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Minnesota Football vs Michigan State: The Elite, The Bad, and The Ugly

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The Gophers came up short in the end, but an offensive explosion late in the game offers hope for the future

Michigan State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers came up short against the Michigan State Spartans in a 30-27 defeat on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, dropping their conference record to 0-3 as head coach P.J. Fleck continues to search for his first Big Ten win at Minnesota. The Spartans controlled the game through the first three quarters, before some late game heroics nearly saw the Gophers pull off an unthinkable comeback in the fourth quarter. It was ultimately for naught, but there was a surprising amount of positive takeaways from yet another winnable game that slipped through the Gophers’ grasp.

The Elite

Demry Croft. Well, I did not see that coming. Just as I was preparing to spend the remainder of the season with Conor Rhoda under center — which, I’ll admit, was not inspiring a lot of optimism, especially since the start of conference play — Croft was inserted in the second quarter... and proceeded to throw an interception on a badly underthrown pass.

So much for that, right?

But then something strange happened. Croft led three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, each culminating with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Johnson. He took an offense that hadn’t scored a touchdown since the second quarter against Purdue and breathed new life into it. His stat line from those three drives: 8-for-13, 131 passing yards, and 3 touchdowns, to go along with 39 rushing yards on 4 carries. It wasn’t a flawless performance — he was sacked twice and had at least one more pass that should have been intercepted — but it was impressive (and unexpected) nonetheless, and certainly adds some drama to a quarterback battle that appeared all but over when Rhoda was named starter and Croft suspended.

Emmit Carpenter. Before Croft flummoxed the Spartans’ defense late, the reigning Big Ten Kicker of the Year seemed to be the Gophers’ only offensive weapon. Carpenter was 2-for-2 on the night, with 24- and 42-yard field goals in the first quarter.

Tyler Johnson. The sophomore wide receiver has a bright future at Minnesota. Johnson hauled in 8 receptions for 106 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns against Michigan State. Could his late game connection with Croft be a sign of things to come? I certainly hope so. On the season, Johnson now has 25 receptions, 472 receiving yards, and 6 touchdowns.

The defense. There were issues that I’ll get into below, but I want to commend the outstanding effort from this group. The Gopher defense notched two turnovers, held Michigan State to 4-for-12 on third down, and forced the Spartans to settle for four field goal attempts, effectively keeping Minnesota within striking distance for most of the game. That fourth quarter comeback attempt would not have been possible if not for a gutsy performance from this defense.

Thomas Barber. For the second consecutive game, the sophomore linebacker led the Gopher defense in tackles. He left the field on Saturday with a total of 16 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery. Barber also tallied double-digit tackles for the third time this season. Coupled with another excellent performance from sophomore Carter Coughlin, it’s hard not be excited about this group of young linebackers.

The Bad

Miscommunication on defense. I counted at least two occasions where Minnesota was forced to burn a timeout because the defense was out of position and the Spartans were primed to take advantage. At one point, Michigan State had a wide receiver left uncovered on the goal line and should have had an easy touchdown if not for a false start penalty. The return (at some point) of field general Antoine Winfield, Jr. should (hopefully) alleviate some of the issues, but it is something that needs to cleaned up sooner rather than later, with or without Winfield.

Red zone offense. Minnesota caught a break early in the first quarter when the Spartans’ punter fumbled the long snap and the Gophers recovered the ball at the Michigan State three-yard line. But the Gophers ended up losing four yards on the ensuing drive and settled for a field goal. To not be able to punch the ball in from the three-yard line is killer. That was a win for the Spartan defense. On the season, Minnesota has scored 15 touchdowns on 24 trips to the red zone. That’s not terrible, but the red zone offense has to improve moving forward.

The run offense. I can’t help but feel like we’re going to look back on the careers of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and shake our heads at the wasted opportunity. Both deserve better than the patchwork offensive line they’ve been stuck with. Against Michigan State, the pair combined for 51 rushing yards on 17 carries. That comes out to 3 yards per carry. Granted, the Spartans’ rushing defense is one of the best in the country, but when you have two elite running backs in the backfield, you expect more.

The Ugly

The run defense. Through three games against Big Ten opponents, the Gophers are allowing an average of 213 rushing yards per game. That’s a problem. Spartans running back L.J. Scott even had a career night against Minnesota, rushing for 194 yards on 25 carries with 2 touchdowns. The toss play, in particular, will be giving Gopher fans nightmares this week. Missed tackles are certainly part of it — and credit where credit is due, Scott is a heck of a running back — but the Gophers’ defensive front is struggling to shed blocks. Opposing running backs are reaching the second level on almost every play. Gopher defensive backs also struggled in run support, particularly on that toss play. The return of safety Duke McGhee from suspension helped, but being able to pair him with Winfield would be ideal.