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.
Without their coach and without anything resembling a Big Ten offense, the Gophers limped toward the postseason on Saturday, secure in the knowledge that Le'Veon Bell can't hurt them there.
Bell roared into the Big Ten rushing lead with 266 yards, or almost three times as many yards as Minnesota's entire offense produced against a Spartans defense bent on reaching a bowl game of its own, and Michigan State handed the Gophers a 26-10 loss that raises a host of new questions.
Chief among them: What's the condition of coach Jerry Kill, who remained in the locker room at halftime?
Kill suffered an epileptic seizure just before he was to leave the locker room, and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys coached the second half from the press box. Kill is recovering normally from the seizure, athletic director Norwood Teague said afterward, and will not require hospitalization. He's expected back at work on Monday, Teague said.
Kill has twice before been stricken with epileptic seizures on a game day. Last year, Kill suffered a seizure late in the fourth quarter of a 28-21 loss to New Mexico State, and last month, Kill was stricken about an hour after Minnesota's 21-13 loss to Northwestern. In both cases, Kill rejoined the team after short hospital stays.
But the Gophers have more questions to answer, too, like: Will the Meineke Car Care Bowl prefer a 6-6 Purdue team that has won three straight games, or a 6-6 Minnesota team that beat the Boilermakers but has lost two straight games without showing a glimmer of offense? And wherever the Gophers end up next month, who will quarterback an offense that has failed to pass or throw for 100 yards in each of the past two games?
The Gophers had hopes of posting their first winning regular-season record since 2009, but Michigan State's need for a victory in order to reach bowl eligibility proved a more effective motivation. Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell had little luck passing against Minnesota's defense, completing 13 of 29 passes for 143 yards, with two interceptions and a touchdown.
But who needs to throw the ball when you have a yardage machine like Bell, who entered the game in second place, 35 yards behind Wisconsin's Montee Ball, for the Big Ten rushing lead. Bell found huge hole after huge hole in the rushing defense, and finished with the second-biggest yardage total by an opponent in Gophers history. On 35 carries, Bell piled up 266 yards and a touchdown; only Wisconsin's Anthony Davis, who finished with 301 yards against Minnesota in 2002, has ever had more.
Minnesota, by contrast, had no running game. Donnell Kirkwood's 19 yards led the team, and the Gophers had only four yards as a team. The passing game was hardly any better: the Gophers used all three active quarterbacks, and they combined to go 13-for-30 for 92 total yards and four interceptions. Starter Philip Nelson threw three of the picks, and completed just 10 of 23 passes.
The Gophers' only touchdown was provided by the defense. Minnesota linbacker Aaron Hill grabbed one Maxwell pass at the Michigan State 33 and picked his way down the sideline for a touchdown, giving the Gophers a first-quarter lead that they held until the final 90 seconds of the half.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- They honored Tom Osborne during Saturday's Cornhusker game. Then they played a game with the Gophers that must have looked awfully familiar to the Hall of Fame coach.
Minnesota didn't move within 38 yards of the end zone until it trailed by 38 points, while Nebraska rolled up more than 400 yards of offense, leading to a throwback final score of 38-14.
Talk about a historic relic: Osborne, who led the Cornhuskers onto the field before the game as part of ceremonies to mark his impending retirement as Nebraska's athletic director, coached against Minnesota six times during his career, and managed a 328-27 total score.
Bo Pelini is the coach now, and he's got the Cornhuskers within one win of a Legends Division championship after quarterback Taylor Martinez led a nearly flawless offensive performance. The junior quarterback completed 21 of 29 passes for 308 yards and two touchdowns, and led the Huskers to scored on four of their first six possessions.
The Gophers, meanwhile, were never competitive, not that it's a huge surprise. The Gophers have now lost 16 straight games to Nebraska, and have been outscored 277-28 in their last seven visits to Memorial Stadium.
Minnesota went three-and-out on its first two possessions, and trailed 10-0 before it registered a first down. The Gophers punted away all six first-half possessions, and punted four more times in the second half before finally ruining the Huskers' shutout with a fourth-quarter touchdown. MarQueis Gray scored his first rushing touchdown since September by lining up at tailback, taking a direct snap, and plowing five yards into the end zone.
When the Huskers' second-team offense fumbled deep in their own territory in the final minutes, the Gophers pounced on it. Gray immediately turned it into a face-saving touchdown, running the ball in from 6 yards out.
But the game was long out of reach by then. The 16th-ranked Huskers, now 9-2 on the season and needing only to win at Iowa on Friday to claim a berth against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, rolled down the field with ease in the first half. Martinez threw a 36-yard scoring strike to Kenny Bell, and set up the other two Husker scores with a pair of 29-yard completions to move the ball inside the Gophers' 5. On both occasions, fullback Imani Cross did the honors of carrying the ball across the goal line, one from 3 yards out and the other from the 1.
The defeat could have been worse, too: Nebraska ran an effective two-minute drill to close the first half, moving 64 yards in the final 90 seconds to reach Minnesota's 1, but Cross was stuffed at the goal line as the clock ran out.
Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson had little luck against a Nebraska defense that leads the nation in completion percentage. The 19-year-old freshman completed just 8 of 23 passes for 59 yards, and he was picked off twice, his first interceptions since his debut in Wisconsin last month. The second of those interceptions, on a pass that slipped through receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts' hands, was returned 45 yards by cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The Gophers' season was extended by a game Saturday. Too bad they can't play that bowl game here.
Minnesota won for the fourth consecutive time in Memorial Stadium, this time relying on an improving-by-the-minute defense. Minnesota became eligible for a bowl game by keeping Illinois out of the end zone and capturing a 17-3 victory over the last-place Illini.
The Gophers improved to 6-4 on the season, 2-4 in the Big Ten, and handed coach Jerry Kill his first career Big Ten road victory by bottling up an Illinois offense all day. The Gophers stonewalled two straight Illini runs from the 1-yard line on their first drive, and never allowed 2-8 Illinois to get anywhere near the end zone again. The Illini never even reached the red zone again until only 5 seconds remained in the game.
With two games remaining -- a trip to Nebraska next week and the home finale against Michigan State -- the Gophers appear headed to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, or the Heart of Dallas Bowl in the Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Minnesota quarter Philip Nelson had his worst day of four career starts, completing only nine of his 15 passes for 78 yards. But with a stout defense and an effective running game, they didn't need him. Sophomore tailback Donnell Kirkwood picked up 152 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, his third 100-yard game of the season.
Kirkwood's longest run was a 38-yard burst along the left sideline in the second quarter. But his most important run, late in the third quarter, was far shorter. As the center point of the Gophers' three-back "diamond" rushing formation, Kirkwood took a handoff and followed fullback Mike Henry through a small hole in the Illinois line, easily stepping three yards into the end zone.
That turned out to be the game's decisive touchdown,. The Illini crossed midfield only once in the second half, getting to Minnesota's 36 in the fourth quarter before turning the ball over on downs. And given the ball with 3:30 to play, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fumbled the snap on a third-and-inches play at the Illini 30. Safety Derrick Wells recovered, and three plays later, Kirkwood put the game away with a 12-yard romp through the middle of the defense.
It was the first time the Gophers have kept an opponent out of the end zone since a 17-6 victory over Purdue in 2008, and the fewest points allowed by Minnesota in a Big Ten game since a 45-0 shutout against Illinois in 2004.
The Gophers never had a chance against Michigan last year in Ann Arbor. They had chance after chance Saturday in Minneapolis.
So which hurts more?
I'm saying this one, because the Gophers definitely had the feeling that a historic victory was possible. Last year, there was embarrassment over the 58-0 loss, but little frustration; they knew, with MarQueis Gray out with a toe injury, that winning in the Big House would be next to impossible.
On Saturday, the Wolverines looked nothing like the powerhouse they usually are. The absence of quarterback Denard Robinson helped, but there was little of the physical man-handling that Minnesota experienced a year ago. The Gophers sacked fill-in quarterback Devin Gardner three times, and Philip Nelson was sacked only once.
Nelson wasn't as sharp as he had been the past couple of weeks, but that was no surprise; the Wolverines have the best pass defense in the conference. Nelson completed only 13 of 29 passes for 142 yards, and was off the mark with several throws. Expect his accuracy to improve quite a big next week against Illinois' significantly less stingy pass defense.
Meanwhile, Gopher fans have a week to figure out this coaching staff's odd sense of timing for fake field goals. Against Northwestern last month, they ran a fake rather than kick a 52-yard field goal in the wind, a play that fooled nobody. Saturday, the element of surprise was much greater -- because a field goal seemed like the best choice.
It was Minnesota's first possession of the third quarter; the Gophers faced fourth-and-16 from the Michigan 19, and trailed only 14-7. That's a lot of yardage to pick up for a first down; the call is far more defensible on fourth-and-7 or less, something like that. Quarterback Philip Nelson pretended to trot off the field when the field-goal team came on, but he lingered near the sideline, hoping he wouldn't be noticed. On the snap, the holder, Peter Mortell, threw a pass to Nelson, but he got only five yards before he was swarmed by the defense.
"It was exactly how it's supposed to be executed," Nelson said. "Those guys just got right over there right away."
Coach Jerry Kill said his reasoning was that Michigan was rolling. "They're moving the ball, and we know they're a pretty good football team," he said. But the Gophers had just opened the half by stopping the Wolverines on a three-and-out; in fact, Michigan had scored on only two of its six possessions to that point.
Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference. As Kill said, had Nelson surprised Michigan and scored a touchdown, he would have been hailed as a hero. Still, the timing just seemed very odd.
The Gophers prepared all week to face Denard Robinson. Turns out, the Wolverines didn't need him.
Michigan's dynamic quarterback, who suffered nerve damage to his throwing elbow last week in Nebraska, watched from the sidelines Saturday as junior Devin Gardner led the Wolverines to their 29th win in the last 31 meetings with Minnesota. Garner threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as Michigan kept the Little Brown Jug with a 35-13 victory at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers took their first lead against the Wolverines since 2007 when Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson hit tight end John Rabe with a 10-yard pass across the middle on the first play of the second quarter. It was also the Gophers' first offensive touchdown against Michigan since 2006, five meetings ago. But it was the Gophers' lone touchdown of the day.
Gardner responded with four long scoring drives -- each 79 yards or more -- on the Wolverines' next five possessions, and Michigan, which has not lost in Minnesota since 1977, pulled away to retain at least a share of the Legends Division lead at 4-1 in the Big Ten. The Gophers missed several opportunities to make the game close; twice they had first-and-goal on Michigan's 3, and both times, they came away with only a field goal. And trailing by just seven points in the third quarter, the Gophers tried a fake field goal on fourth-and-16 rather than kick a 17-yard field goal; the pass play fell well short of a first down.
Michigan had no such trouble taking advantage of its opportunities, even without Robinson. Gardner tied the score by turning a broken play into a touchdown in the second quarter. The former wide receiver rolled to his right, then scrambled back to his left before spotting junior Drew Dileo alone in the end zone, 45 yards away, Gardner's deep throw got to Dileo just before Minnesota safety Derrick Wells.
And just before halftime, Gardner led a 90-yard scoring drive that had a controversial finish. On third and goal from the Gophers' 4, tight end Devin Funchess and cornerback Martez Shabazz tried to catch a fade pass in the right corner of the end zone. The ball fell incomplete, but Shabazz was called for pass interference, and Gophers coach Jerry Kill complained vociferously to three different officials. Given a first down on the penalty, the Wolverines scored on the next play, with running back Thomas Rawls stretching into the end zone from two yards out, putting Michigan ahead with 55 seconds left in the half.
The Gophers tried to respond, but their drive stalled at the 37, and Jordan Wettstein missed a 55-yard field-goal attempt as the half ended.
The second half featured three straight touchdowns by the Wolverines, on a 10-yard leaping catch by receiver Jeremy Gallon, a 2-yard scramble by Gardner, and Fitzgerald Toussaint's 41-yard romp to close the scoring.
Minnesota, 5-4 on the season and 1-4 in the Big Ten, travel to Illinois next Saturday, probably the Gophers' best shot at earning their sixth victory to become eligible for a bowl game.
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