EVANSTON, ILL. – Jerry Kill’s usual fiery voice and sweet Kansas drawl were somber and monotone as he started digesting the Gophers’ first shutout loss to Northwestern since 1959.
Kill seemed as dejected as he has been in five years as Gophers coach following their 27-0 defeat to the 16th-ranked Wildcats at Ryan Field.
“We’ve got a group that’s lost some confidence,” Kill said after the Big Ten opener. “I take full responsibility. I wish I could click my fingers and have that answer. I’ve got a lot of sleepless nights.”
Now he has a full-blown quarterback controversy, too.
Saturday’s winds off Lake Michigan blew steadily at 25 miles per hour, but this wasn’t a with-the-wind, against-the-wind equation. For three-plus quarters, Mitch Leidner and the offense looked like they were trying to play football in a hurricane. Helpless. Desperate. Overmatched.
With 11 minutes, 41 seconds remaining, Kill inserted true freshman Demry Croft for his college debut. The results did not improve.
Leidner completed 10 of 21 passes for 72 yards, with a first-half interception and a second-half fumble that Northwestern returned for a touchdown.
The 6-6 Croft, who hails from Rockford, Ill., looked nimble enough, taking off for runs of 11 and 7 yards. He showed a quick release and a tight spiral but finished just 5-for-11 for 27 yards. He also took three sacks and was nearly intercepted at least two times.
Kill declined to say which quarterback would start moving forward.
“I’m not going to make any decisions in 10 minutes on anything right now, until I watch video,” Kill said. “We’ve got a lot more problems than just the quarterback. Everyone wants to blame the quarterback. They need to blame me.”
In his postgame radio interview, Kill said he spoke with Leidner in the third quarter and alerted him Croft would be warming up. Kill told Leidner that no quarterback would be successful with the amount of pressure Northwestern’s defense delivered.
The Wildcats (5-0) came in ranked third in the nation in scoring defense (8.8 points per game), with stifling performances against Stanford (six points) and Duke (10) during nonconference play.
“It wasn’t anything [Northwestern] did,” Gophers receiver KJ Maye said. “It was all just execution on our part.”
But Kill wanted to be clear: “Northwestern’s got a very good football team. They’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
The Gophers (3-2) hadn’t been shut out by anybody since their 58-0 drubbing at Michigan in 2011, Kill’s first season. They finished this game with 173 yards, their fewest since they gained 165 in their 2013 loss to Iowa.
Asked about his team’s energy level, Kill said: “I thought we’d play harder. That’s a reflection of me, so I’ve got to do a better job.”
Leading 10-0 at halftime, Northwestern came out and sapped whatever hope the Gophers had left with a 19-play drive. It consumed 8 minutes, 47 seconds, ending with a short field goal.
The Gophers had the wind at their back that quarter, and the whole drive — for nearly nine excruciating minutes — they could feel the game slipping away.
“That took a lot of punch out of our guys,” Kill said.
It was 20-0 early in the fourth quarter when Leidner threw what looked to be another interception, based on the replays. But the referees ruled the pass incomplete and didn’t review it. No matter. Two plays later, Leidner fumbled, and Anthony Walker returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.
At that point, Kill finally turned to Croft.
“We talked to Mitch in the third quarter,” Kill said. “He wasn’t getting any help. We’ve got to have two quarterbacks if somebody gets injured or something like that.”
Kill has been lamenting the missed chance to play younger players, such as Croft, during the nonconference schedule because the games were so close. The Gophers’ victories over Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio were all by three points.
“[Croft] didn’t get the minutes early in the year, and that hurt him,” Kill said. “But we felt we probably should have [played Croft] last week, just to get him some repetition and see what he can do.”
Next week the Gophers play at Purdue, which made a comeback bid Saturday against No. 2 Michigan State but lost 24-21.
“We’ve got some good seniors, and we’ve got a long season ahead of us yet,” Kill said. “That’s one Big Ten game. We’re on the road, and [Northwestern’s ranked] 16th in the country. But I come in thinking we’re going to win every game. We got our butt kicked today.”