Bad defense and a lackluster student section have been staples of Minnesota’s football program in recent years.
But on Saturday night, a rowdy crowd and a tenacious Gophers defense led the home team to a win at TCF Bank Stadium.
Was the combination an aberration? That remains to be seen. Is Minnesota 4-0 for the first time since 2008? You bet.
The Gophers capped an undefeated nonconference schedule with a 17-10 win over Syracuse on Saturday night. An energetic crowd was packed to the rafters in the stadium’s first nonconference sellout since 2009.
Minnesota is just two wins away from being eligible to compete in a bowl game. The Gophers haven’t played in a bowl game since 2009, and with eight games left on the schedule — half of which are at home — there’s a great chance they’ll qualify for one.
“It felt great for everybody to show up to support us, and we need them every game at home,” said running back Donnell Kirkwood. “With a crowd like that, I don’t think anybody can come in here and get an easy win.”
Minnesota came to play Saturday, and that was evident at the game’s first snap. Safety Cedric Thompson intercepted Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib and invigorated the home crowd and his defense.
“When coach came out in his speech, he was like, ‘Let’s go get something big right now.’ We came out with that interception,” said defensive end Michael Amaefula. “I think it just motivated us throughout the game.”
The Gophers forced four turnovers in all, and Nassib, who came in to Saturday’s game ranked second nationally in passing yards, was visibly affected by Minnesota’s pass rush and its noisy, raucous crowd.
Gophers’ defenders hounded and harassed Nassib, sacking him three times.
When they weren’t in his head, the crowd was. Syracuse had four false-start penalties and 10 total infractions on a night when yards were already hard to come by.
“It all starts up front now,” said Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. “You’ve got to put pressure on the passer, and we kept him pretty uncomfortable for the most part.”
Nassib finished the game 21-for-32 for 228 yards, with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions.
In contrast, Gophers quarterback Max Shortell, in his first start of the season, was poised and in control in a “game manager” role.
Shortell wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t turn the ball over, made relatively safe throws and guided Minnesota to a pair of scores.
“The offense has a complete different confidence level than last year,” he said. “That game should have been out of hand early.”
The Gophers couldn’t capitalize on Thompson’s interception as Jordan Wettstein missed a 44-yard field goal in the first quarter. On their next drive, however, they found the end zone.
Receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts caught a slant from Shortell and took it 40 yards to set the Gophers up with a first-and-goal. Kirkwood scored a few plays later from two yards out.
The Orange responded with a field goal, but that’s all the points they scored until the game’s final minute. The 7-3 score stood until halftime.
Kirkwood finished a 12-play, 87-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run on the opening possession of the second half to put the Gophers ahead 14-3. He finished with 99 yards rushing on 28 carries.
On the following possession, Syracuse looked like the big-time offense it was touted to be. Nassib marched the Orange straight down the field and had a prime scoring opportunity with a first-and-goal at Minnesota’s 2-yard line.
But Syracuse wasn’t getting in. Not on this night.
Safety Brock Vereen blitzed and blasted Nassib, forcing an errant pass that fell into the hands of Gophers linebacker Aaron Hill. The crowd went berserk. Any momentum the Orange had built was gone.
“We knew that they were a high-profile type of offense. ... We knew it was going to be a big test,” Vereen said. “We were ready for that challenge, and I feel like we answered it.”
Kirkwood grew stronger as the game wore on, and Minnesota was able to run off a considerable chunk of the clock in the second half.
Shortell finished with 231 yards passing in the first win of his career.
The Gophers will open Big Ten play at Iowa on Sept. 29.
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