If the Gophers came into Saturday's game against Northwestern hoping to put their worries about stopping the run behind them, it took all of 11 seconds for those concerns to resurface.
When the Gophers' Lamonte Edwards fumbled the opening kickoff, Northwestern gained control, and on the first play it handed the ball to Venric Mark. He easily ran 26 yards for a touchdown, the first score of an eventual 21-13 Northwestern victory.
Said Mark: "I just saw a big hole."
Ah. Well. The "big hole" is exactly what the Gophers were worried about during their week off after sporting a few too many of those in the previous two games.
The Gophers were able to clamp down some defensively in the second half, forcing Northwestern to punt on each of its five possessions in the half, and the Wildcats managed only 73 yards of total offense in that span.
But the mysterious disappearing run defense in the first half bore a frighteningly similar resemblance to the Gophers defense two weeks earlier at Iowa, when Minnesota allowed the Hawkeyes to rush for 182 yards at the clip of 7.3 yards per carry, the defense often looking befuddled against the run.
"It's just been a couple plays that weren't in our favor," linebacker Keanon Cooper said of the past two games. "And that's what it comes down to. Even with all the turnovers, we still could have won these last two games."
Instead, a handful of big plays once again put the Gophers in a hole that proved too deep for the offense to dig out of, even with improved defense later in the game.
The opening score was one of two touchdowns for Mark, who finished with 182 yards on 20 carries and was barely touched by the Gophers throughout a dominant first half. He took off on four runs of 25 yards or more in the first 30 minutes, including a 47-yarder that set up Kain Colter for a TD four plays later, and a 48-yard sprint for Mark's second score.
"We did some things early in the game where they hit some big plays where we just didn't get somebody fitted or got somebody in the wrong gap," coach Jerry Kill said.
Two games doesn't make a trend, but with better competition ahead, the Gophers know they need to find a way to make adjustments before the "big hole" also refers to the score.
"It's very frustrating. The worst loss is the one that's because of yourself, not because of the other team," Cooper said. "We've just got to go back to the drawing board."