Minneapolis — After limiting its opponents to 20 points or fewer in its last four outings, the MSU defense figured to be in shutdown mode as it prepared for Minnesota, which entered Saturday’s game at the bottom of the Big Ten in total offense. Instead, MSU surrendered 505 yards of total offense and six touchdowns against an offense that surprisingly was lethal and a passing attack that seemed to suddenly find itself in the Golden Gophers’ 42-34 win Saturday.
Minnesota picked the MSU secondary apart and connected on several big passing plays while the Spartans were left dazed.
“Our goals were pretty much the same, it’s just that they hit some pretty big plays,” junior defensive end Colin Neely said. “(On) first and second down, we were stopping them, and then the next thing we’d know, they’d be hitting a big pass or something.”
The Spartans’ defensive struggles began immediately when Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber connected with running back Duane Bennett for a 62-yard score on the first play from scrimmage.
After an MSU turnover on the ensuing kickoff, the Spartans suffered a case of déjá vu when Weber squeezed a tight pass down the sidelines to receiver Brandon Green, who secured the Gophers’ second touchdown of the game less than two minutes into the game.
To its credit, the MSU defense never gave up and came up with some big plays later in the game, but the first two minutes represented the Spartans’ susceptibility to big plays all night.
When MSU clawed to within four, Weber responded with a 23-yard pass play to Green that brought the ball inside the MSU 30-yard line and led to a Gopher touchdown.
The backbreaker for the Spartans took place with 6:04 remaining when Bennett caught a deflected pass and rumbled for a 59-yard touchdown to put the Gophers ahead 42-34, a lead they would hold for the rest of the game.
“They had a measured response every time we got back in it and I think that’s good coaching and good execution,” MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said. “We stopped the run but we couldn’t stop the pass. (Minnesota) made some great catches.”
Considering the Golden Gophers were without their star receiver Eric Decker — out for the season last week because of injury — MSU looked to generate a steady rush and contain Minnesota’s receivers.
But players such as tight end Nick Tow-Arnett and receiver Da’Jon McKnight stepped up in Decker’s place, combining for 179 yards and two touchdowns.
Weber had drawn some criticism for recent performances against No. 12 Penn State and No. 17 Ohio State, but looked like an all-Big Ten quarterback Saturday, passing for a career-high 416 yards and five touchdowns.
After failing to reach the end zone on three straight plays inside the Iowa two-yard line last week, the Spartans again were denied on the goal line on two separate occasions Saturday.
Late in the first quarter, MSU was faced with first-and-goal at the Minnesota four-yard line, looking to cut its deficit to 14-7.
However, after Larry Caper was shut out of the end zone on the first two plays, the Spartans called a passing play to tight end Brian Linthicum that was sniffed out at the two-yard line by Minnesota’s defense, forcing the Spartans to settle for a field goal.
MSU again failed to produce a touchdown on a crucial series late in the game and settled for a field goal to cut Minnesota’s lead to 35-34.
Freshman running back Larry Caper, who has handled the majority of the workload running the ball in the last several weeks, left the game in the second quarter and did not return.
Dantonio said after the game that Caper had a concussion, and it’s unknown when he will be able to play.
When he exited, Caper had five carries for nine yards. Fellow freshman Edwin Baker filled in, gaining 24 yards on 11 carries.
On the night, MSU had 124 yards on 20 carries, 84 of those coming on sophomore receiver Keshawn Martin’s long touchdown run.