The box score reads like this: seven fumbles, three turnovers, nine penalties and 0-for-3 on fourth down.
The translation reads like this: way too many blunders for a football team that has no margin for error.
Flubs doomed a clumsy Gophers squad Saturday as it fell to Northwestern 21-13 under steady rainfall at TCF Bank Stadium.
Minnesota (4-2, 0-2, Big Ten) had the gaffes were too much to overcome. Northwestern (6-1, 2-1, Big Ten) turned two first-half turnovers into two touchdowns, didn’t turn the ball over and led wire-to-wire.
“The bottom line, I’ve said all along, we have no margin for error,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “We had some critical situations where we made some not-very-good football plays.”
It took all of 11 seconds for the effect of Minnesota’s first snafu to show on the scoreboard. Gophers linebacker Lamonte Edwards fumbled the opening kickoff, and the Wildcats recovered. On the next play, speedy Northwestern running back Venric Mark scored from 26 yards out.
Mark went back to work after a Minnesota field goal, and his 47-yard run helped set Northwestern up with a first-and-goal, which the Gophers defended well, initially.
But a pass-interference penalty on third down gave the Wildcats a fresh start, and quarterback Kain Colter scored from two yards out.
Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray, who missed the last two games with a high-ankle sprain, took over for dinged-up starter Max Shortell in the second quarter and energized the home team and its fans.
“MarQueis … looked good, moved around good, felt good,” Kill said.
On his first drive, Gray ran the zone-read option and guided the Gophers on an eight-play, 75-yard drive which he punctuated with a 25-yard touchdown run.
An announced crowd of 49,651 went wild — after a Northwestern three-and-out, it appeared Minnesota had seized momentum.
On the next possession, Gray dropped back to pass and threw into triple coverage, resulting in a momentum-draining interception.
Mark scored two plays later — this time from 48 yards out. He finished with 182 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“If a team comes out and pounds us and just whoops our butts, then we have to look ourselves in the mirror,” Gophers linebacker Keanon Cooper said. “When we kill ourselves, that’s just very unfortunate.”
The 21-10 score stood through halftime, and the teams traded missteps in the second half. Northwestern became conservative on offense and struggled to get first downs with any regularity.
The Gophers kicked a field goal on their first drive of the third quarter. After that, whenever they were poised to make something happen, a penalty or fumble would cost them key yardage.
Minnesota had four of its seven fumbles in the second half. Northwestern had one fumble in total.
After the game, Shortell said the rain had a lot to do with the fumbles.
Gray left the game late in the third quarter with an ankle injury, and Shortell took over for the remainder of the game.
With the Gophers down eight in the fourth quarter, Shortell led the offense on a 12-play, 80-yard drive and had multiple opportunities to score.
He had Isaac Fruechte open on what would have been a game-tying touchdown. The pass was a little short, Fruechte slipped in the end zone and the pass fell incomplete. Shortell also airmailed Andre McDonald on a fourth-down fade route, which effectively ended the game.
“I have to give him a chance. I cannot overthrow it like that,” Shortell said. “[McDonald] is a special athlete, and the ball went a lot further than I would have liked it to.”
Cooper said the defense didn’t make any adjustments at halftime, and for the second consecutive game, Minnesota didn’t allow an offensive touchdown in the second half. It did, however, allow more than 180 yards rushing for the second consecutive game.
Things won’t get any easier next Saturday. The Gophers will travel to Wisconsin where they’ll be tasked with stopping running back Montee Ball, a 2011 All-American and one of the best runners in the nation.
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