EVANSTON, ILL. – Special teams lapses continue to plague the Gophers, continuing an uncharacteristic trend for a Jerry Kill-coached team.
In last week’s victory over Ohio, the Gophers had five fumbles on special teams, and the one they failed to recover led to a Bobcats touchdown. Ohio also had a last-minute 56-yard kickoff return that almost set up a game-tying field goal.
In Saturday’s 27-0 loss at Northwestern, the Gophers handled all their kickoff and punt returns cleanly. But trailing 3-0 late in the second quarter, they gave up a costly punt return.
Peter Mortell, the reigning Big Ten Punter of the Year, booted a low line drive — a nightmare for a coverage team. Northwestern’s Miles Shuler made a quick move and returned it 55 yards.
Mortell made a touchdown-saving tackle, but on the next play, quarterback Clayton Thorson scored on a 5-yard keeper, giving Northwestern a 10-0 lead going into halftime.
All-Big Ten cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun did not make the trip after injuring his right knee against Ohio.
Senior safety Antonio Johnson returned after suffering a concussion against Ohio. He and Adekunle Ayinde tied for the team lead with nine tackles.
Sophomore cornerback and punt returner Craig James suffered a lower left leg injury. He tried jogging on the sideline but didn’t return. KJ Maye replaced him as the team’s punt returner.
Senior left guard Joe Bjorklund, who has a knee issue, was replaced by Foster Bush.
Brooks gets the start
Shannon Brooks got his first career start for the Gophers and had a strong first quarter, rushing six times for 30 yards. But Rodney Smith wound up getting most of the carries after that.
Neither freshman had the same success he had last week. Brooks finished with 10 carries for 33 yards (3.3), and Smith had 11 carries for 32 yards (2.9).
“We just didn’t block,” Kill said. “We didn’t do a good enough job up front. They’re both good players.”
The Gophers held Northwestern to 312 total yards, almost 100 yards below the Wildcats’ average. But for the third consecutive game, the Gophers failed to create a turnover.
“We tried to because as much as we can say, ‘The offense this, the offense that,’ we’ve got to help them out as much as we can,” Ayinde said. “And we’ve got to get a turnover and give them good field position.”
Gophers linebacker Jack Lynn said he had about 50-60 friends and family members in the stands. The graduate of Lake Zurich (Ill.) High School, delivered a strong performance, with eight tackles, including a career-high two tackles for a loss.
“I was just passionate,” Lynn said. “Just my roots and knowing where I came from, all the way from youth through high school. I play this game with a lot of passion all the time, but this one’s just a little extra, I guess.”
• Chris Streveler no longer throws passes in warmups. He works strictly with the receivers and plays on special teams. He was listed as the team’s No. 2 quarterback before this week.
• The Gophers plan to redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Gary Moore. Other defensive line injuries led the team to thrust Moore into duty last year as a true freshman, but he needs to add strength.