MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota qualified for a bowl game three weeks ago. The Gophers eagerly pointed to the 15 extra practices they’ll benefit from over the next month and after their last two performances, they sure need a lot of work.
Le’Veon Bell rumbled for a career-high 266 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown to put the game away, leading Michigan State to a 26-10 victory over Minnesota on Saturday to secure a spot in a bowl game.
Bell carried 35 times on a cold afternoon and Dan Conroy made four of his five field-goal attempts to help the Spartans (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) wear down the Gophers (6-6, 2-6), who played the second half without Jerry Kill after the coach had a seizure in the locker room. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ran the team from the press box.
But the players, now accustomed to Kill’s epileptic condition, said they weren’t distracted. Their play on the field was the bigger concern, considering Kill was said to be resting comfortable and able to go home without a hospital visit.
“I was just dazed by us having all those three and outs,” wide receiver MarQueis Gray said. “We just couldn’t get anything going.”
The Gophers had a season-low 96 total yards — and just 4 yards rushing. According to STATS research, that’s the fewest yards from scrimmage by a Big Ten team in five years. Michigan had 91 total yards against Ohio State on Nov. 17, 2007.
And according to the team, the last time the Gophers had an output this low was Oct. 5, 1974, with 64 yards in a 54-0 loss at Nebraska.
Aaron Hill’s 33-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Minnesota a lead it kept for more than 18 minutes in the first half, but Jordan Wettstein’s season-long 48-yard field goal was the only offensive score for the Gophers, who lost 38-14 at Nebraska last week.
Philip Nelson threw three interceptions, two by Johnny Adams, and was replaced in the fourth quarter by Max Shortell, who was picked off too. Nelson finished 10 for 23 for 61 yards.
Minnesota’s trouble moving the ball was predictable. The Gophers, except for their 34-point first half that fueled a 44-28 win over Purdue on Oct. 28, haven’t scored more than 17 points in a game since a mid-September win over Western Michigan.
The Gophers finally have their offensive line close to full strength after a slew of injuries, but wide receiver Marcus Jones and tight end Drew Goodger were both out this game with maladies of their own. And their best wide receiver, A.J. Barker, is gone after angrily quitting the team earlier this week in a dispute with Kill.
Then there’s that Spartans defense, as stingy as ever, seventh in the nation and best in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game entering this week.
“We knew it would be a challenge. But obviously going into this week we thought we could move the ball a little bit better and control it a bit more,” Claeys said
Despite the single-digit margin that lasted until 7:25 was left, when Bell patiently waited for an opening around left end and jogged across the goal line, this was downright domination for the Spartans considering how close all their games were this season. They lost five times in conference play by a total of 13 points, and their other two Big Ten wins were by seven points combined.
For all the work the defense did to keep the Gophers competitive, there were two costly lapses. In the second quarter, Andrew Maxwell went 5 for 7 for 74 yards to lead an 82-yard touchdown drive capped by a 40-yard catch and run for the score by Bennie Fowler off a tipped pass. Fowler finished with seven receptions and 101 yards.
Then there was the clinching march, when Bell ran eight straight times to close from 8 yards out and stretch the lead to 16 points. Bell was the conference’s second-leading rusher behind Wisconsin’s Montee Bell entering the week, and is ninth in the nation. The junior became the seventh rusher in Spartans history to pass the 3,000-yard mark for his career.
“I’m embarrassed for us as a defensive line, because we’re supposed to set the tone up front,” defensive end D.L. Wilhite said.
The Gophers had won their final home game in each of their first three seasons at TCF Bank Stadium and were 11-4 on senior day over the previous 15 years.
“We’re just happy to get an opportunity, that we don’t have to end the season on this kind of note,” Wilhite said.
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