This wasn't a Mountain West bottom-feeder, nor a Mid-American little brother, and certainly no Colonial Athletic nobody. The Gophers finally tested themselves against BCS-level competition on Saturday, and the results were as thrilling as their 4-0 record.
Minnesota's defense held an offense -- a high-powered Big East point machine, at that -- without a touchdown until the final minute of the game Saturday, making the question of who quarterbacks the Gopher offense almost immaterial. Max Shortell did more than enough in his first start of the season, and Donnell Kirkwood ran for a pair of touchdowns, keeping Jerry Kill's second season perfect with a 17-10 victory over Syracuse. Big Ten play opens next Saturday at Iowa, and the Gophers enter their conference schedule with an unblemished record for the first time since 2008. It's also their first five-game winning streak (dating back to last season's finale against Illinois) since 2004-05.
Shortell, filling in for starter MarQueis Gray, completed 16 of 30 passes, rolled up 231 yards through the air, and avoided the mistakes that Syracuse made commonplace. Zero fumbles, zero interceptions, only two sacks, and, when the Gophers needed to kill the clock in the fourth quarter, a three consecutive completions to set up a 43-yard field goal. He started quickly, completing 5 of 6 passes in the first quarter, and survived a second-half lull, misfiring on 7 of 8 passes at one point. But he completed three passes on the Gophers' final drive, setting up a game-clinching 43-yard field goal.
"I thought he did a good job, because he had to call some plays at the line of scrimmage," said Gophers coach Jerry Kill. "He got blitzed probably 85 (or) 90 percent of the time tonight, but he handled it (well)."
The Gophers were hardly perfect -- they missed a couple of field goals and had a touchdown pass called back -- but with a defense like this, they had room for a couple of mistakes. Syracuse, which had averaged 39.3 points through their first three games, was held to just a field goal through the game's first 59 minutes. Their drive chart after that 33-yard kick? Punt, punt, fumble, interception, fumble, punt and punt.
Meanwhile, Shortell directed 58- and 87-yard touchdown drives, both of which ended the same way: Donnell Kirkwood, who finished with 99 yards on 28 carries, following fullback Mike Henry off-tackle left and into the end zone. One was a 2-yard carry, the other a 1-yard spin move, and together, they were all the Gophers needed.
The two interceptions and two fumbles (plus three sacks of Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib) doomed the Orange, now 1-3 on the season, and probably surprised both teams. The Gophers collected only nine takeaways during the 2011 season, but Saturday's four turnovers give them nine already this year.
Syracuse once reached Minnesota's 1-foot line, but on second down, tried a pitch play to the left that was chased out of bounds by safety Derrick Wells for a loss of three yards. On the next play, safety Brock Vereen arrived on a blitz to hit Nassib as he threw, and linebacker Aaron Hill plucked the deflected pass out of the air.
Orange receiver Marcus Sales, whose streak of four straight 100-yard games was snapped, caught a 14-yard touchdown pass with 46 seconds remaining to draw Syracuse within a touchdown. But the Gophers recovered the Orange's onside kick, ending the game.
Gophers safety Cedric Thompson intercepted a pass by Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib on the game's first play from scrimmage, and the near-capacity crowd erupted. But any expectation that the Gophers might have an easy time with a Big East team that had lost seven of its last eight games were quickly dashed.
Well, maybe not quickly. The Gophers did drive 39 yards on their first possession, but the drive stalled at the Syracuse 27. And when Jordan Wettstein's 44-yard field goal try sailed wide right, a pattern was set for much of the first half: Get in position to widen the lead, but have something go wrong at a crucial moment.
The Gophers' second drive, a 58-yard march to the end zone -- Donnell Kirkwood did the honors, following Mike Henry around the left side for a 2-yard touchdown, his second of the season -- was the exception to that pattern, and it allowed the Gophers to hold the lead at halftime.
But the Gophers' 7-3 advantage (after a Ross Krautman field goal for Syracuse) could have been so much bigger.
A 72-yard drive to open the second quarter, featuring a couple of impressive Shortell completions to A.J. Barker and Devin Crawford-Tufts, reached the Syracuse 9-yard line. But Wettstein's field-goal kick, a 26-yard chip shot, again missed to the right, the fifth miss in the senior kicker's eight attempts this season.
As if that wasn't painful enough, Shortell's best pass of the half was wasted, too. With just over a minute remaining in the half, the sophomore quarterback lofted a perfect spiral to Crawford-Tufts, who who caught the ball in stride, with a defender running alongside him, as he reached the end zone for an apparent 34-yard touchdown. But fill-in left guard Jon Christensen was flagged for a holding penalty, and the Gophers never got close enough to try another field goal before the half ended.
Still, it was a half that established that Shortell is comfortable leading the Gophers. With his parents watching nervously from the stands, Shortell completed 9 of 15 passes before halftime, for 128 yards.