Three observations from the Gophers’ 30-27 loss to No. 21 Michigan State on Saturday night:

The first quarter set the tone for a long and eventful evening

Though the Gophers trailed only 10-6 after the game’s first 15 minutes, the mistakes they made haunted them the entire game and set the tone for a quarterback decision that could alter the rest of their season.

After Michigan State punter Jake Hartberger couldn’t handle a snap and the Gophers’ Jaylen Waters recovered the ball at the MSU 3-yard-line. On first down, Gophers quarterback Conor Rhoda dropped the shotgun snap and lost 4 yards. Two incompletions followed, and Minnesota had to settle for a field goal.

“First-and-goal at the 5-yard-lline, we need a touchdown,’’ Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “You can’t kick field goals against the No. 1 team in the country. We drop a snap and the whole playbook changes.’’

Later in the quarter, Rhoda tried to hand the ball off to running back Shannon Brooks, who fumbled. Michigan State recovered at the Minnesota 8 and scored a touchdown two plays later for a 10-3 lead. Fleck said the handoff should not have happened.

Those two miscues prompted Fleck to replace Rhoda with Demry Croft, who led a fourth-quarter rally by throwing three TD passes. Fleck wouldn’t say who will start against Illinois on Saturday, but one would figure that it will be Croft.

The run defense needs to improve

Michigan State scorched the Gophers for 245 rushing yards on 50 carries, led by LJ Scott’s 194 yards on 25 rushes. And if you throw out the 28-yard loss on Hartberger’s fumbled punt snap, the Spartans averaged 5.6 yards per carry.

“We didn’t hold the point very well and we didn’t contain,’’ Fleck said. “We’ve got to have guys in the secondary fly down and contain and sacrifice their bodies.’’

That run defense still has big tests remaining in Michigan, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten at 185 rushing yards per game, and Wisconsin, which leads the conference at 263.8.

The Gophers’ route to a bowl game is clear

At 3-3 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten, the Gophers certainly won’t be making any plans for playing in a big New Year’s Day bowl. But they still can gain eligibility with three wins in their final six games. The path to that starts Saturday against Illinois, which lost 35-24 to Rutgers in the battle of Big Ten cellar-dwellers. Beating the Illini (2-4, 0-3) is a must for the Gophers. After that, they’ll need two more wins. The most likely candidates are the Nov. 11 game against Nebraska (3-4, 2-2), which was pasted 56-14 by Ohio State in Lincoln on Saturday, and the Nov. 18 contest at Northwestern (3-3, 1-2). The tougher route for the Gophers would be upsetting one of their other three remaining opponents – at Iowa, at Michigan, vs. Wisconsin.

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