The Gophers have who they have, their coach shrugged Saturday night, and it’s his job to squeeze victories out of them regardless.
Too bad they don’t have Marcus Williams.
The Hopkins alum, ignored by the Gophers when he graduated in 2009, helped turn both of Minnesota’s interceptions into Bison touchdowns on Saturday, leading North Dakota State to a 37-24 victory that demoralized the home team just in time for Big Ten play.
“I feel bad. I feel bad for our students, I feel bad for the state of Minnesota, I feel bad for our kids,” coach Jerry Kill said after dropping to 1-3 in his first season in Minneapolis
. “We all want to win.”
Maybe so, but it’s not going to happen as long as the Gophers somehow allow four first-half touchdowns when the Bison have only three possessions. As long as they allow yet another quarterback to start hot and stay hotter. As long as they fix their running game, then watch their own quarterbacks — plural — fail.
“You plug one hole, and another one pops,” Kill said.
This hole looks enormous. The Gophers are now 2-8 in TCF Bank Stadium since the start of last season, 1-3 in their past four games against what used to be called Division I-AA, and looking at a schedule that includes five nationally ranked teams the rest of the way.
And now they have to figure out their quarterbacking situation, too. The Gophers used both MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell on Saturday, but to little effect. 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, was 4-for-8 passing for 71 yards. Both threw an interception.
“We were just scrambling to get back into the game,” Kill said.
The Bison were hired to be schedule-filler, some glorified-scrimmage chum expected to send Minnesota off to Michigan’s Big House next week with confidence borne of a lower-division beatdown. Seven Big Ten teams relished nothing-to-it 20-point victories on Saturday, and the Gophers wanted one of their own. Even paid $375,000 for the pleasure.
But the Bison took the money and, for the second time in four years, inflicted an embarrassing thrashing as a tip.
“Coach [Craig Bohl] outcoached me and their team outplayed us,” Kill said humbly. “They deserve to win the game.”
They made that clear right from the start. The Gophers’ defense was backpedaling most of the night against the FCS-level Bison, who reeled off long, clock-killing scoring drives on each of their three first-half possessions.
And if that crash to Earth wasn’t painful enough, Williams and teammate Colten Heagle gave the Gophers one final kick in the head just before halftime.
On the final play of the half, with Minnesota already trailing by a touchdown, Heagle intercepted a MarQueis Gray pass and headed upfield. Trapped near midfield, Heagle tossed a lateral over his head, which Williams scooped up off the ground, almost in stride. He romped the final 52 yards into the end zone to give North Dakota State a 28-14 halftime lead, and the Gophers flinched.
“The kids were shell-shocked a little bit,” Kill said. “I gathered them on the sidelines, then in the locker room, I called them back [together] again. I said, 'Hey, we can get back in this game. We can’t all come unglued.’ ”
He was right, for a while. 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 the freshman 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 dividing 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-7, but Shortell hit Eric Lair across the middle for a 20-yard score.
But the Gophers couldn’t come all the way back; Williams made sure of it. The Minneapolis native snuffed the Gophers’ desperate fourth-quarter rally by intercepting a Shortell pass and returning it 40 yards for the game-clinching score with 2:48 to play.
“We’re back to a little adversity again,” Kill said. “We’ll eventually get to the point where we’ll play hard all the time.”