BY PHIL MILLER
Max Shortell's first three possessions on Saturday finished in the end zone. But the Gophers didn't get there again after their first drive of the second half, a second-half near-shutout that gave Western Michigan a chance to rally. The Broncos had the ball with 92 seconds left, and trailing by 28-23, but a penalty, a sack and an incompletion helped the Gophers hang on to their lead.
So what changed? Did the Broncos suddenly start defending Shortell better?
Not at all, Gophers coach Jerry Kill said, with one exception: a great individual play by cornerback Lewis Toler, who got position on A.J. Barker and outjumped the Gopher receiver for an interception.
Otherwise, though, the only thing that changed, Kill said, was the Gophers' play-calling. "When we got to the fourth quarter, I wanted to use as much clock as we possibly could, and I thought we did a pretty good job of that," Kill said of Minnesota's final two possessions, which included 12 rushing plays, two passes, and a sack. One ended on downs, when Kill elected to run a passing play to Marcus Jones that fell incomplete. The other drive finished with a punt, setting up Western Michigan's final, and futile, drive.
"It wasn't that we said, 'Hey, we're not going to throw the ball, but it was one of those things where we're clicking off seven, eight yards a pop running the ball," primarily by Donnell Kirkwood, Kill said. Kirkwood collected 45 of his 110 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
"With our defense, and them no-huddling, if we can keep them on the boundary -- it's about winning the game," Kill said. "We felt we were in a position to win the game with what we were doing."
He wishes the drives had ended with scores, but Kill said he had only one regret about the strategy. In the final two minutes, with third and one at the Broncos' 43, Western Michigan's defenders were waiting for another Kirkwood handoff. The play lost three yards, forcing the Gophers to punt.
"I wish we'd have thrown the play-action (pass) there," Kill said.