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.
Jerry Kill was pleased with his offense, satisfied with his defense, and delighted to be 2-0 on the year. But the coach was practically giddy about a factor that few fans likely noticed:
Hey, how about that punt game.
Yes, Melbourne native Christian Eldred averaged 42.0 yards on four punts Saturday afternoon, and if that number doesn't impress you, you haven't been watching many Gopher games the past couple of seasons. Eldred wasn't just competent, Kill said, he was decisive.
"I'm very proud of Christian Eldred, the Australian. This is only the second game he's ever played in college football," Kill said. "He was the difference in the game, with field position early. ... You can win games on field position."
You can lose them, too, as the Gophers were fortunate not to learn last week at UNLV. Gopher punters averaged only 35.1 yards per kick last week, and that turned into a 14-yard average deficit in field position per drive.
This time, the Gophers were at their own 37, on average, when they received the ball, compared to New Hampshire, which started at its own 28. Those hidden yards are huge, Kill said.
"I'm excited about the field-position part of the game. We've got a chance if we can hold field position," he said. "Punting the football today was critical. That wind was strong, but (Eldred) punted the ball well into the wind."
The wind affected lots of kicks, and may have accounted for Jordan Wettstein's missed 52-yard field goal on the Gophers' final drive of the first half.
If punting isn't a very glamorous reason for victory, Kill didn't mind. He was clearly relieved to have survived this year's test against an FCS school.
"A win's a win. I've been on the other side of it," said the former Southern Illinois coach. "I've been a I-AA coach and gone into (FBS) places and won. Always wondered what it felt like. Well, I got a taste of it a year ago. It doesn't feel very good."
But winning 44-7? Improving to 2-0? That feels much better.
MarQueis Gray vowed to fix his passing problems after a mediocre first week. Consider them fixed.
The Gophers' senior quarterback threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more on Saturday, leading Minnesota to its biggest victory in almost six years, 44-7 over New Hampshire before an announced opening day crowd of 47,022 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers are 2-0 for the first time since 2009.
Gray threw only eight passes, but six of them were on target for an even 100 yards, including a 27-yard strike to Isaac Fruechte for the Gophers' first touchdown, and a 2-yard pitch to John Rabe for another.
And in between, Gray rolled up 109 yards on the ground -- 75 of them on a touchdown romp up the middle, the longest scoring play of his career. When he added an 11-yard keeper for another score in the second quarter, the Gophers were en route to their biggest blowout victory since a 63-26 drubbing of Indiana on Nov. 4, 2006.
The Wildcats handed Minnesota its first two points of the game, when punter Mike MacArthur fumbled a snap in the end zone. He quickly threw the ball out of the end zone for a safety.
The Gophers' defense was just as impressive as its offense, limiting the FCS-level Wildcats to just one scoring drive, an eight-play, 76-yard march in the second quarter that temporarily made the game competitive, 9-7. New Hampshire, which lost quarterback Sean Goldrich to an injury on its first drive, did little else on offense, collecting only 231 total yards, about half of the Gophers' 421.
Here's the Associated Press account of the game:
MINNEAPOLIS - This is how Big Ten teams are supposed to fare against FCS foes: take an early lead, dominate on both sides of the ball and bring the backups in at the end.
For Minnesota, even the easy victories are cause for celebration.
MarQueis Gray threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more by halftime, and the Gophers scored their most points in a game in five years by beating New Hampshire 44-7 on Saturday.
"A lot more comfortable. A lot more confident," said Gray, who passed only eight times but completed six for 100 yards and scores to Isaac Fruechte and John Rabe. Gray also gained 109 yards on 17 rushing attempts, including a 75-yard untouched burst through the middle of the line for a momentum-swinging, career-long touchdown at the end of the first quarter.
"He's 260 (pounds) solid, man, and moving like a freight train. I knew he was gone," said Donnell Kirkwood, who ran for 70 yards and a third-quarter score on 17 carries for the Golden Gophers (2-0), who had lost three of their last five games against FCS opponents.
Andy Vailas replaced Sean Goldrich at quarterback and was 18 for 34 for 158 yards and an interception for the Wildcats (1-1), who failed on all four of their fourth-down conversions. Goldrich separated his left shoulder at the end of a short run on their second play from scrimmage.
"It just wasn't what I expected, and I'm really disappointed," New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said.
New Hampshire beat Northwestern on the road in 2006 and won five straight games against FBS teams until losing at Pittsburgh in 2010. The Wildcats have been to the FCS playoffs eight straight years. But except for a long drive late in the first quarter capped by a touchdown run by Chris Setian, the Wildcats and their no-huddle offense were overwhelmed by the bigger, faster Gophers. New Hampshire finished with 68 yards rushing on 32 attempts, and Vailas was sacked four times in the first half.
"We certainly don't have all the bricks put together yet. It takes time, but I do think we're heading in the right direction," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said.
The Gophers lost to FCS national champion North Dakota State last year, South Dakota the season before and North Dakota State in 2007. Even their recent wins over FCS teams were ugly, by one point over North Dakota State in 2006 and by three points over South Dakota State in 2009. But the difference with the Wildcats is their roster isn't loaded with Minnesotans looking to upset the biggest school in the region.
"This week we kind of emphasized how we have a chip on our shoulder. The last two years we've lost to South Dakota and North Dakota State, so we can't take any team lightly," Rabe said.
Gray took three sacks and fumbled three times but recovered all of them. He was on target with his passes, most importantly, after misfiring on several potential touchdown throws in the opener at UNLV. The Gophers had to rally and win 30-27 in triple overtime, in part because of Gray's early inaccuracy.
"I felt like last week if I'd have made those throws, we wouldn't have went into overtime," Gray said.
Attendance has dropped since TCF Bank Stadium opened in 2009, but the crowd of 47,022 — boosted by free tickets for freshmen — was into the game. Beer sales, allowed for the first time, didn't hurt.
"The students are great. We've got to continue to put a better product out there," Kill said.
New Hampshire punter Mike MacArthur let a slightly high snap slip through his hands and pingpong out of the end zone for an early safety. Then his horse-collar penalty while tackling Troy Stoudermire on the ensuing kickoff gave the Gophers the ball at the 27-yard line. Rabe, who had two touchdown catches in the first game, was wide open on a fade route that Gray threw perfectly for a 9-0 lead.
In the second quarter, Gray gave the Gophers a 30-7 lead when he scored from 11 yards out on the same option read play he faked a handoff on to start the 75-yarder. That's more points than they scored in any game last season. The final tally of 44 was their highest since a 49-48 loss to Northwestern in 2007, and that game went to double overtime. Their last total this big in regulation was 63 points against Indiana in 2006.
"The whole offense was calm. Everyone was on edge at UNLV. Everyone was nervous. We got that first game under our belt, and everyone kind of settled down," Rabe said.
Fruechte caught his first career touchdown pass from Gray, and so did A.J. Barker, in the fourth quarter from backup Max Shortell. Fruechte and Barker are part of a young, fast group of wide receivers the Gophers are counting on to help Gray improve on his sporadic performance as a first-time starter in 2011.
"He's a big boy. He's athletic, and they utilize his strengths," New Hampshire linebacker Alan Buzbee said. "We thought we could give them a fight and early on we did. We kind of let a couple big plays deflate us, but 44-7 is never good, even if it is a Big Ten team."
BY PHIL MILLER
The Gophers committed two turnovers in their season opener, two too many, according to coach Jerry Kill. "We just don't have that margin for error," Kill said of MarQueis Gray's interception on the Gophers' first drive of the game, and Troy Stoudermire's fumbled punt in the fourth quarter. "We can't do those things and win. Now, we got away with it (last week), but we don't have that margin for error."
Coincidentally, the interception and fumble were both recovered by UNLV linebacker Tim Hasson, who had a great night for the Rebel defense. The Gophers won't face him this week against New Hampshire, but they will face a Wildcats defense that forced two interceptions against Holy Cross last week.
Can Gray keep the ball out of Wildcats defenders' hands? Matt Limegrover expects him to. The interception against UNLV was a mistake he can learn from, Limegrover said.
Gray looked to his left on the play, and threw a pass that didn't have much zip on it. "He didn't make the best decision," said Limegrover, the Gophers' offensive coordinator. "He had a better decision to make. But you have to give their kid (linebacker Tani Maka, who tipped the pass to Hasson) credit -- he made a great play and broke to the ball."
Gray's mistake was a split-second of hesitation as he decided to pass, Limegrover said. "He would have liked to hit that thing a little bit earlier. He just waited a fraction of a second" too long, the coach analyzed. "His eyes stayed on it just a little too long. He needs to understand, that thing's got to get out a little bit quicker."
But lost in the postgame critique, which largely blamed Gray for the offense's ineffectiveness until the final eight minutes and overtime, were the obstacles the senior quarterback faced, Limegrover said. "If anything, we had some protection issues," said Limegrover, who also coaches the offensive line. "It wasn't like he was sitting there with nobody in his face."
There's plenty more coverage of Thursday's 30-17 Gopher victory in Saturday's paper, but I wanted to add a couple more points here. Specially, about special teams.
They weren't so special for the Gophers in the opener, and it was a surprise how much trouble they had. Then again, they didn't know exactly who was going to play until gametime.
That was the situation at punter, anyway. Coach Jerry Kill decided to make a change at the position, leaving Dan Orseske, who had kicked 109 of the Gophers' 112 punts the past two seasons, off the 70-man traveling roster. But Kill had trouble settling on which of his other three punters would take Orseske's starting spot.
"I went out and watched them warm up, scratching my head," Kill said. "It's a hard thing, because nobody just stepped out there."
He settled on David Schwerman, who had served as Orseske's backup last year, but the move was only temporary. When Schwerman's second punt traveled only 19 yards, Kill switched to Australian Christian Eldred.
"I thought Christian did a good job. He kept the ball on the pooches inside the 20," Kill said of Eldred, who averaged 36.8 yards on five kicks. "I thought he punted the ball well."
There were problems on punt returns and punt coverage, too. The worst was the muffed punt by senior Troy Stoudemire, who returned the first punt of his collegiate career 40 yards, but then dropped the second one, a turnover that led to UNLV's only touchdown in regulation.
"When I went to the sideline, I forgot about it. It happens. People muff punts all the time," the senior cornerback said. "I've just got to get back and get better. Catch more punts and passes."
Making the mistake worse was the fact that Stoudermire committed pass interference on the very next play, a pass into the end zone. "The penalty was unfortunate," he said. "I guess it was a good call by the ref, but I thought I made a good play on the ball. "
One other weird play: Lamonte Edwards got too close to a UNLV punt, and a Rebel player tried to get him to touch the ball, making it live. Officials eventually ruled that he made no contact, but the play upset Kill.
"First of all, anytime you're in that situation, when that ball is rolling, you give a 'Peter!' call and you get away from it. Get out of the way," Kill said. "Ii think he got caught up, locked on trying to block somebody, and got pushed into the ball. But he's playing hard, and you don't know where that ball's going. It's going to be a good teaching moment."
A couple of other quick points:
-- Not much has been made of the running attack, but while UNLV junior Tim Cornett gained 127 yards on 25 rushes, the Gophers actually easily outgained the Rebels on the ground. Donnell Kirkwood gained 81 yards on 13 carries, James Gillum had 51 yards on 14 carries, and MarQueis Gray picked up 68 yards on 17 rushes. Minnesota averaged 4.5 yards on the ground, UNLV 4.3.
-- Gray had trouble making accurate throws, but his interception wasn't entirely his fault. The pass, which ended a 47-yard drive on the first possession of the game, was tipped by linebacker Tani Maka and caught by Tim Hassan.
-- Kill said last week that A.J. Barker was the surprise of camp. He was the surprise of the opener, too, making big catch after big catch and finishing with 101 yards, all of them big. "I had a gut feeling," about the junior receiver, Kill said. "I thought he played pretty well, caught some crucial balls for us. He runs real good routes."
-- The Gophers released no news Friday on the status of freshman receiver Jamel Harbison, injured in the first half. "I don't know what his status is," Kill said after the game, "but I don't think it's great."
-- If you weren't among the 5,000 or so Gopher fans in the Sam Boyd Stadium stands Thursday, don't worry: You can see the rematch. The Rebels open the 2013 season in TCF Bank Stadium.
-- Headline in Friday's Las Vegas Review-Journal: "Rebels Lose 3-OT Thriller" ... The ending was exciting, but was that game -- the score was 7-3 with 18 minutes to play -- really a "thriller?"
It was a little shocking, truth be told, at how badly Illinois played on Saturday. They couldn't run, their quarterbacks were harassed by one of the nation's most toothless (according to the stats) pass rushes, and their defense left huge holes for MarQueis Gray to run toward.
All of which made it difficult to tell how good the Gophers really played on Saturday. Even Gray wondered -- when asked if Minnesota was merely trying to chew up the clock in the second half, when their five possessions resulted in only seven points, the quarterback admitted, "I'd like to say we did, [but] we just had a couple of dropped balls, a couple of errors on my part. ... We should have scored more."
Still, it was an amazing performance by Gray, whose November (OK, save the ugliness against Wisconsin that Gopher fans have undoubtedly blocked out by now) in no way resembled his September.
"At the beginning of the season, I felt like I was doing too much, thinking too much," he said. Now, he's a confident decision-maker whose statistics (7 for 14 for 85 yards, plus 167 on the ground) would be even better if not for a couple of dropped passes.
After the game, though, it was all about the seniors, who received a nice farewell. Duane Bennett ran for 57 yards and another 32 on a kickoff. Kim Royston made 13 tackles, and finished with a flourish: His first career sack. Da'Jon McKnight had four catches, Collin McGarry one. Gary Tinsley had a sack. The defensive tackles -- Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs -- helped the Gophers hold Illinois to 82 rushing yards and 78 through the air.
"It's a great way to go out," Bennett said. "The seniors came out and led the way."
"It's a wonderful feeling. We played like we were at a bowl game," added Tinsley. "I loved every experience here."
Royston especially seemed to enjoy the moment, because until the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, he didn't expect to by playing football again.
"I feel extremely blessed," he said. "It's definitely bittersweet, but no regrets. I could be working in a cubicle right now."
He'll try to make an NFL team next. Well, unless there's a rule change in college football.
"If they give me a seventh, eighth year," he said with a smile, "I would definitely come back."
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