Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
Marcus Williams hit it big in his hometown.
The Hopkins graduate, a cornerback who landed at North Dakota State when Minnesota didn't recruit him, scored a pair of touchdowns in TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, leading the FCS-level Bison to their second straight victory over the Gophers, 37-24.
On the final play of the first half, Williams followed Bison safety Colton Heagle up the sideline after he intercepted a MarQueis Gray pass, then plucked Heagle's lateral out of the air and romped the final 52 yards into the end zone to give North Dakota State a 28-14 halftime lead.
As if that wasn't enough, Williams then snuffed the Gophers' desperate fourth-quarter rally by intercepting a Max Shortell pass and returning it 40 yards for the game-clinching score with 2:48 to play.
Another mistake-filled performance dropped the Gophers' record to 1-3 under coach Jerry Kill, with the Big Ten season dead ahead. Minnesota travels to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan in its league opener next Saturday night.
That gives the Gophers a week to sort out their quarterbacking situation, after using both Gray and Shortell to little effect on Saturday. Gray was 5-for-12 for 53 yards through the air, and gained 23 yards on 12 carries on the ground. Shortell, who took over in the second quarter and alternated with Gray for most of the rest of the game, completed 4 of 8 passes for 71 yards. Both threw an interception.
After giving up touchdowns on all three first-half Bison possessions, the Gophers headed to the locker room shocked by the first half's final play. With seven seconds remaining in the half, Gray threw a long pass toward receiver Marcus Jones, but the ball was intercepted by Heagle, who returned the ball 30 yards. When Jones reached him along the sidelines and pulled him down, Heagle tossed the ball backward, and Williams caught it in step and stormed untouched for 52 yards and into the end zone to give NDSU a two-score lead.
That, and the fact that North Dakota will receive the second-half kickoff, had to deflate the Gophers, who looked relatively steady offensively but way too beatable on defense.
Minnesota received 70 rushing yards and two touchdowns from stocky tailback Donnell Kirkwood, though 68 of them came in the first half. Senior Duane Bennett added 74 yards on 13 carries.
But North Dakota State carried out long touchdown drives all three times the Bison touched the ball.
North Dakota State scored on drives of 65, 83 and 71 yards. The Gophers mounted two impressive drives of their own, the first a 68-yard march on the game's first possession, capped by Kirkwood's 4-yard romp. In the second quarter, with freshman Shortell at the controls to give Gray a break, Minnesota ran 10 plays, all of them runs, to go 95 yards for another score. Kirkwood's 30-yard burst around left side was the scoring play.
Trailing 31-14 midway through the third quarter, the Gophers mounted a rally while using both of their quarterbacks. Shortell was largely at the controls of a 10-play march that reached the Bison 10, then stalled when Shortell was sacked on third down. Chris Hawthorne kicked a 36-yard field goal to cut NDSU's margin to 14.
The Gophers' defense then held for the first time in the game, forcing a three-and-out, and a short punt gave them the ball at the Bison 46. It took 10 plays, but Minnesota -- with Gray and Shortell each taking snaps, roughly diving them in half -- finally reached the end zone to make it a one-score game. A false start penalty forced the Gophers into a fourth-and-seven, but Shortell hit Eric Lair across the middle for a 20-yard score.
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