Hartman: Gophers' miscues proved too costly against Badgers

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2013 - 11:10 PM
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Gophers tight end Maxx Williams fumbled in the first half after being hit by Wisconsin safety Nate Hammon. It was one of three turnovers by the Gophers, although this one indirectly led to their only points of the game. On the Badgers’ ensuing possession, Joel Stave threw an interception returned for a touchdown by Gophers linebacker Aaron Hill.

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After losing the previous two games to Wisconsin by a combined 90-26 score, you might think that Gophers coach Jerry Kill would accept Saturday’s 20-7 loss to the 16th-ranked Badgers as progress, but that wasn’t the case when Kill held his postgame news conference.

His first words to his team after the game were to the tune of how he doesn’t deal in moral victories, only real ones. Winning is the only thing that counts.

And as Kill pointed out, the elimination of three crucial Gophers turnovers could have given the home team a chance to score one of the biggest upsets in the recent history of the maroon and gold.

Wisconsin scored two touchdowns, one that followed a Philip Nelson fumble at the Wisconsin 42-yard line when the Gophers held a 7-3 lead and appeared to be driving for another score, and another that followed a questionable pass interference call on third-and-9 when it appeared the home team was going to force a field-goal try.

“When you play a quality opponent you have to make plays,” said Kill, pointing to the fact that the Gophers passing game definitely missed leading receiver Derrick Engel, out for the season because of a torn knee ligament. Without him, Nelson completed only seven of 23 passes for 83 yards with a long of 31 yards. The only Gophers points were scored by the defense, on a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown by Aaron Hill.

Kill was proud of that defense, which held the high-scoring Badgers to only the one second-half touchdown.

The 12 seniors who were honored Saturday should be proud of how they finished their final home game, and regardless how they come out at Michigan State, a good bowl invitation awaits them.

Testing Ponder

No doubt the reason Christian Ponder, as long as he is healthy, will start every Vikings game for the rest of the season is because the team executives want to find out if he can be their quarterback for the future or if they need to draft one next year.

Ponder has shown some improvement this year, posting his highest completion percentage in three years in the NFL at 63.7 percent, up from last year’s 62.1. Also his 6.84 yards per attempt are a career high, all this despite the fact that he has been sacked 18 times in seven games.

Ponder was asked if he believes it is harder for QBs to come straight into the league and start playing successfully.

“I don’t know if I agree with that or not,” he said. “I have to be playing the best I can. Two weeks ago I played well, last week I didn’t. I had too many turnovers. I just need to find consistency. My expectation is that I should be playing better than I am, and with more and more experiences I’m going to keep learning from those and trying to get better.”

Ponder was reminded that General Manager Rick Spielman had once talked about the struggles that Eli Manning and Drew Brees went through in their early seasons before becoming stars.

“And [Manning is] a guy that has won two Super Bowls,” Ponder said. “He took a little more time to develop, but every quarterback is different. It’s hard to peg every guy in the same hole. I don’t know.”

Ponder said that the primary issue he has to control is not turning the ball over. “We saw that throughout this whole season really, and keep making good decisions and not forcing things that aren’t there,” he said. “I think sometimes I get impatient and try to make plays that just aren’t there.”

Has to play four quarters

Ponder did have a strong start in last week’s loss to the Seahawks, going 9-for-13 for 114 yards and a touchdown in the first half to post a 122.0 quarterback rating. But his second half was not pretty: 4-for-9 for 15 yards and two interceptions before getting pulled for Matt Cassel.

“It was the tale of two halves,” Ponder said. “I think our offense and myself played pretty well in the first half, but in the second half, especially the fourth quarter, just played pretty poorly. We have to close out games. We’ve seen a couple times this year where the fourth quarter didn’t come through and we didn’t win the game.”

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