Oct. 20, 2013
Skip Myslenski takes a look back at what transpired during Saturday's Big Ten contest at Ryan Field and how team leaders Collin Ellis and Christian Jones feel the 'Cats can improve going forward.
The 'Cats had scored once, back near the end of the first quarter on a three-yard run by Stephen Buckley. Minnesota had scored once as well, on a 29-yard touchdown pass with just under seven minutes remaining in the first half. But that had been it for fireworks through the first 43 minutes of their game Saturday at Ryan Field. The rest of it had been a slog-fest dominated by defense and offensive inefficiency.
There were inaccurate throws by Trevor Siemian, playing full time with Kain Colter out with an injured ankle. (Before the game it was announced that he would be available in an emergency. But Pat Fitzgerald later said, "He wasn't cleared from the standpoint of being able to play full from the doctors.")
There were drops when his throws did find their target and there was no real running game to augment that stuttering passing attack. (Northwestern running backs, absent the injured Venric Mark
, managed a combined 96 yards on 21 carries, and 33 of those came on a single run by Buckley.)
There were three three-and-outs for the `Cats during those 43 minutes, and an interception as well, and only once during them did their offense manage to sustain a drive longer than four minutes. "We've got to continue to look at the things we're doing schematically on offense to give our guys the best chance to succeed," Fitzgerald would say when asked about its problems.
"Obviously, seven games into the season now, to see the way we're making mistakes, we've got to look first at the scheme and make sure we're asking our guys to do the things they can do so they can go out and execute cleaner and do the things winners do. That's not what we're doing right now."
The `Cats defense, in stark contrast, did perform like winners through those minutes, three times forcing the Gophs to punt after just three plays and two other times surrendering just one first down before forcing the punt. Corner Dwight White had been burned by that explosion play, after which he was replaced by true freshman Matthew Harris. But other than that, said Fitzgerald, "I thought our defense rose to the occasion. They gave us an opportunity to win the game the way they went out there and got stops."
Then came this game's final 17 minutes.
The 'Cats take over here on their own 12 and, on first down, Siemian completes a bubble screen right to Tony Jones, who carries it for a gain of seven. Now, on second down, he throws left to Christian Jones, who's running a short slant. "The read starts outside and we didn't start there," Fitzgerald will say, explicating the kind of mistake that bedeviled his offense this day.
"I saw someone in different colors run across my face. It was really quick," says Jones himself, and in those colors is Gophers linebacker James Manuel. He picks the ball cleanly, easily at the 24 and returns it in for the touchdown that puts his team up seven.
Now, again, out comes the `Cats offense, and on first down Siemian is sacked and stripped by Gophers defensive end Theiren Cockran, who recovers the fumble he causes at the 23. The `Cats defense responds once more, keeping the Gophs out of the end zone, but on the first play of the fourth quarter, their Chris Hawthorne kicks a 34-yard field goal to put them up 10. "We just can't turn the ball over like that and expect to win a lot of football games," Fitzgerald will say. "The football gods upstairs aren't going to let you do that."
Yet now the 'Cats try to defy those gods and here, starting on their own 25, they unfurl a drive that reaches the Gophs' 18 and results in a Jeff Budzien field goal that cuts their margin to seven. Just over 11 minutes remain still, there's plenty of time, but at last their defense buckles, allowing the Gophs an 11-play, 54-yard drive that eats up 5:45 and ends with another Hawthorne field goal.
Again the 'Cats respond, getting one first down on a fourth-and-14 when Gopher corner Eric Murray interferes on a pass to Tony Jones; getting another on fourth-and-10 when Siemian finds Christian Jones on a slant similar to the one that had been picked for six; getting a third on fourth-and-three when Siemian hits running back Mike Trumpy on a short curl.
Then, on the very next play, he throws to the back shoulder of Tony Jones, who makes the adjustment and reception just inside the right front pylon to pull the 'Cats back to within three at 2:07. "We definitely felt we'd bounce back," Christian Jones later says when asked the team's mood at that moment. "The momentum was swinging our way and our defense was making stops the whole game and we finally started to pick it up and scored a touchdown. So the whole mood on the sideline changed. We thought we could actually pull this thing off."
One more stop. That is what the `Cats defense has to deliver now after Budzien's on-side kick failed to travel the required 10 yards. One more stop with everyone knowing the Gophs are going to try and bleed the clock by running the ball. But on first down, with two tight ends and out of the old-fashioned I formation, they gain 11. Then on third-and-six with 1:18 remaining, their quarterback Phillip Nelson gains seven on a naked bootleg. "Really disappointing. Really disappointing," Fitzgerald will say when asked about this final series of the game, which Minnesota closes out by taking a couple knees. "Especially on the third down play when we had a good call on and we suck in too much and we let the quarterback get outside and we told them the naked quarterback was coming. Disappointing."
It is all so different now from what it was just two Sunday's ago. Then, after their stare-down with Ohio State, the `Cats were buoyed by their ability to play even with the nation's fourth-ranked team. But now, after an uninspired loss to Wisconsin and this misstep against the Gophers, it is all so different. "It's a bad taste in our mouth. Everybody's upset," said linebacker Collin Ellis.
So how do they regroup, refocus?
"I'd say if we're playing great and we're losing, that would be tough," Fitzgerald finally said. "But it's not like we're playing great, so there's a lot of room for improvement. That's what we've got to embrace. We have to embrace coming back next week and getting better at the things winners do. First and foremost is taking care of the football. Number two is, when you're supposed to be in the gap be in the gap. Do your job. That's everybody. That's the coaches, that's the players, that's the staff, it's everybody. You just stick together and that's what I fully expect these guys to do.
"They'll stick together, they'll come back to work next week and go have a tough road test (at Iowa) and find a way to win. These guys are winners. They've won a lot of games. There's no confidence [lost] in that room. There's just a lot of disappointment that we're not doing a good enough job as a program to win. So what do you do? You get up off the mat and keep swinging. That's what you do."
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