MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — MarQueis Gray’s return from injury was short-lived.
And so, it appears, was Minnesota’s claim to relevance in the Big Ten.
Gray played for the first time in three games, giving the offense a brief spark before re-injuring his left leg in the mistake-prone Golden Gophers’ 21-13 loss to Northwestern on Saturday.
The Gophers (4-2, 0-2) fumbled the ball seven times, losing two, and committed nine penalties despite having an extra week to prepare for Northwestern (6-1, 2-1).
“The worst losses are the ones that happen because of yourself and not because of them,” linebacker Keanon Cooper said.
Gray took a snap at receiver early in the game, then stepped in at quarterback full-time at the end of the first quarter when starter Max Shortell was knocked woozy. Gray finished with 86 yards rushing and a touchdown and completed 7 of 11 passes for 66 yards and an interception before being knocked out on a crunching hit to his left knee in the fourth quarter.
Shortell was able to re-enter the game after medical officials determined he did not have a concussion. Gray’s status is uncertain.
The Gophers had a chance for a tying touchdown late, but Northwestern’s defense stiffened at the 6-yard line to keep them out of the end zone. Cornerback Nick VanHoose made the key play on the stand, batting a pass away from A.J. Barker in the end zone to save a touchdown.
Shortell also missed a wide-open Isaac Fruechte earlier in the drive with a short throw that caused the receiver to fall after putting on the brakes in the end zone and badly missed Andre McDonald on a fade route on fourth-and-goal from the 6.
“I’ve got to give him at least a chance,” Shortell said.
Venric Mark rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns, going untouched on scoring runs of 26 and 48 yards and the Wildcats (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) overcame 11 penalties to become bowl eligible and spoil Minnesota’s homecoming celebration.
“The bottom line as I’ve said all along is we have no margin for error,” coach Jerry Kill said. “We had two turnovers and they scored 14 points off two turnovers. That’s the game.”
Less than 10 seconds into the game, Northwestern was already up 7-0. Gophers linebacker Lamonte Edwards, a converted running back, botched the opening kickoff and C.J. Bryant pounced on it to give the Wildcats the ball at Minnesota’s 26-yard line.
Mark took the handoff, burst through the line and saw nothing but daylight, racing 26 yards untouched for the score.
“It certainly was not a good tone to set,” Kill said.
Mark’s big 48-yard TD in the second quarter helped neutralize a brief bit of momentum for the Gophers.
When Shortell went out late in the first quarter, Gray ripped off a 25-yard touchdown run at the start of the second to pull Minnesota to 14-10.
But David Nwabuisi made an acrobatic, one-handed interception off of a pass tipped by Quentin Williams to stall the Gophers. Mark was off to the races two plays later, and the Wildcats were on their way to a rebound victory after losing at Penn State last week.
It was another disappointing effort for the Gophers, who were starting to create some optimism on campus with a 4-0 start to the season. But a 31-13 thumping at Iowa two weeks ago brought them back down to earth. Now they’re back at the bottom of the Big Ten, a far cry from the optimism that surrounded the program just three weeks ago.
“We’re killing ourselves,” Cooper said. “We have to eliminate the mistakes we’re making.”
The turnovers were compounded by three bad snaps from center Zac Epping and some curious play-calling that stunted several drives. After calling time out and pulling their offense off the field on fourth-and-11 from Northwestern’s 36, they ran kicker Jordan Wettstein out for a 53-yard field-goal try. The Wildcats weren’t buying it from the start, and a fake run was thwarted easily to turn the ball over.
On third-and-13 from the Northwestern 46, they called a draw to Donnell Kirkwood that gained just 5 yards. And with no timeouts and the ball at their own 49 with just over a minute to play in the first half, the Gophers called a draw to Gray that went nowhere and took any chance of a late score out of the equation.
“Sometimes in a third-and-9, third-and-8 situation where everybody knows you’re going to throw the ball, lead draw is a pretty good play,” Kill said. “The point being, we shouldn’t have been in those situations.”
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