Philip Nelson knew it as soon as the pass left his hand. The Gophers quarterback had just overthrown a wide-open Maxx Williams at Wisconsin’s 10-yard line late in Saturday’s 20-7 loss.
On a day when Minnesota’s only touchdown came on an interception return by linebacker Aaron Hill, that fourth-down play was another missed opportunity.
“A football game really comes down to five or six plays,” Nelson said Tuesday. “And if we make two or three of them, maybe it’s 14-20 with six or seven minutes left in the fourth [quarter], and the game’s a little more interesting.”
For all the strides the Gophers have made offensively this year, the two toughest defenses they’ve faced — Wisconsin and Iowa — combined to surrender only one touchdown against Minnesota.
Now the Gophers are getting ready to play No. 11 Michigan State, which leads the nation in total defense at 236.6 yards allowed per game.
“This is what Big Ten football’s all about,” Nelson said. “You want to play against teams like Michigan State. Last year, they did a great job stopping us on offense, so that’s definitely burned in the back of your mind, too.”
The Gophers lost last year’s regular-season finale to Michigan State 26-10, and managed only 96 yards of offense. Coincidentally, Minnesota’s only touchdown that day came on an interception return by Hill.
Offensively, the Gophers know they’ve come a long way since that day. They’re averaging 28.5 points per game, compared with 22.1 last year. Williams said knowing the offense was shut out last week “kind of makes us get a little chip on our shoulder. We want to go out there and make the plays and put up as many points as we can this week.”
The Gophers have lost 10 consecutive games to Wisconsin, but they’re 6-5 in their past 11 meetings against Michigan State.
Two years ago, in Jerry Kill’s first season as Minnesota’s coach, he took a 2-6 team to East Lansing and put a good scare into the then-No. 15 Spartans. That was a stout Michigan State defense, too, but the Spartans needed 10 fourth-quarter points to pull out a 31-24 victory.
MarQueis Gray passed for 295 yards and three touchdowns in that game, and Da’Jon McKnight had nine receptions for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
“You go back and look at what you did two years ago, and look at what you did last year, and you evaluate what you did good and not so good,” Kill said. “That’s part of game planning. And you also go back to similar teams and look at who’s had success [against Michigan State] — not many.”
The Spartans lead the nation in rushing defense, at 59.4 yards per game. They often stack the box, playing their safeties near the linebackers to stifle the run, knowing cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes can handle receivers one-on-one.
“I think Al Davis said when he was with the Raiders, ‘Get lockdown corners, and you can do anything you want on defense,’ ” Kill said. “And that’s what makes them good. They’ve got lengthy, long corners who can flat play. Probably both of them will be high-round draft choices, when it’s their time.”
The teams that have had some success against Michigan State’s defense — Indiana and Nebraska scored 28 points apiece — did much of their damage with the pass. This will be a real challenge for the Gophers with leading receiver Derrick Engel out because of a torn knee ligament.
But Wisconsin ranks sixth nationally in total defense, and the Gophers had chances against the Badgers. In the second quarter, the Gophers drove inside Wisconsin’s 40-yard line twice before Williams and Nelson each fumbled.
Throw in the drive that ended with Nelson’s errant fourth-down pass, and these were opportunities missed.