Blog: Another Step in Right Direction for Gophers

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By Michael Molde

Last week's win versus Iowa was a step in the right direction for head coach Jerry Kill's University of Minnesota football program. Today's 31-24 loss to #15/16 Michigan State on the road in East Lansing was another step forward, despite being on the short end of the score.

Sure, no football coach is going to accept a moral victory, and Kill, his staff, and players will not be okay with a defeat, no matter the opponent. But there's no denying the fact that the past two games have been proof that the Gophers are beginning to make progress after an 0-3 start in Big Ten play, and there can be some measure of satisfaction in that.

Go Gophers! Da'Jon McKnight
Go Gophers!
Da'Jon McKnight's 3 TDs led an inspired effort by the Gopher football team Saturday.
Go Gophers!
"They (MSU) are a very physical hard-nosed bunch, and it's very easy to see why they've won a lot of games here," Kill said. "We are working to improve our program and move it forward and I think we're doing some of that. I think we played hard today and gave everything we had; they just made eight or nine plays that we didn't and that was the difference. I'm proud of our kids and we just have to keep getting better and move forward."

Minnesota (2-7, 1-4) entered the game against one of the top defenses in the nation with a patchwork offensive line, but the Gophers went toe-to-toe with the heavily-favored Spartans all the way to the wire in front of 72,219 at Spartan Stadium. The Golden Gophers carried a 24-21 lead into the final quarter, and had chances to tie the score on their final two possessions, both of which advanced into MSU territory before faltering.

Led by junior quarterback MarQueis Gray, who played well for the second consecutive week, Minnesota amassed an impressive total of 415 offensive yards (295 passing, 120 rushing), the second-most allowed by Michigan State this season. The yardage total is even more noteworthy because it took place against a stout MSU defense that had entered the game allowing just 228.8 total yards per game and only 127.2 per game via the pass.

"They (the Spartans) have a great defense," Gray said. "They did a great job and are hyped up. On offense, we just tried to focus on one play at a time and I think we did that; we just didn't make enough plays to win the game."

Gray had his best day throwing the ball, as he recorded career-highs for completions (19), passing yards (295), and longest completion (64 yards), while tying his career-high with three TD passes. Gray also rushed 21 times to lead the Gophers with 71 yards on the ground, and he led the team on several time-consuming drives to keep the ball away from Michigan State's potent offense.

"He (Gray) played awfully well," Kill said. "I think at the end of the game he was physically exhausted and gave everything he had, but that's how you learn. There's a lot of pressure to play against that defense...I thought he played very well and I'm pleased with his progress."

For the game, Minnesota held the ball for 34 minutes and 28 seconds, and the Gophers had possession for at least half of all four quarters. But MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins passed for 296 yards and two TDs, including one with :05 left in the first half to give the Spartans a 21-17 edge at the break, and Le'Veon Bell rushed for 97 yards and the game-winning 35-yard TD run with 10:58 remaining to escape with the win.

Gray's top target was senior wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight, who also had a career day with a personal best for receiving yards (173), while tying his career-highs for receptions (nine) and TDs (three). McKnight, who caught 10 touchdowns in 2010, including three versus Penn State on Oct. 23, increased his career total to 15 touchdowns.

"He's (McKnight) a play maker, and we have to put the ball in playmakers' hands," Gray said. "He did a great job for us today and hopefully continues that for the rest of the season."

Minnesota's offensive line - with senior Chris Bunders at RT, redshirt freshman Zac Epping at RG, senior Ryan Wynn at C, redshirt freshman Caleb Bak at LG, and sophomore Ed Olson at LT - played exceptionally well. The unit allowed just two sacks against a team that had recorded 24 prior to today's game, giving Gray the necessary time to find open receivers or scramble for sizeable gains.

McKnight had the big day catching the ball, but Gray spread his passes around to six other targets, with four of those players having a reception of 20+ yards in the game.
"Everybody is just doing their job and making plays to help this team," Gray said. "(Last week's win versus Iowa) gave (us) a lot of confidence, and we know that we can play with anybody if we play for four quarters and do what we are supposed to do."

The Gophers will attempt to continue their positive progression when they face another big challenge next Saturday against arch-rival Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium. The game time for the Border Battle versus the Badgers will be announced early this week.

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