McKnight and Day

Posted: November 7, 2011 by Kodi in Gopher Redemption, NCAA

After beating Iowa this Gophers Football team looked to pull off another upset, but fell just short . . .

Not due to the lack of effort from WR Da’Jon McKnight

or QB MarQueis Gray, as both players had career games against the Spartans

The Minnesota Gophers football program’s season was completely rejuvenated after a huge victory over Big Ten rival Iowa and ensured that Floyd of Rosedale stayed in Dinkytown for another year. Head Coach Jerry Kill gave a emotional speech after the game to his players and told them that Gopher Nation was “starving for this” and he couldn’t be more right. A season that seemed dark and dreary has brightened up with just a single victory, not just because it may be their last of the year, but because realistically most fans didn’t expect it.

Minnesota is traveling to Lansing, Michigan to face the Spartans for the 44th time and second year in a row. Last season the Gophers left Michigan St. with a brutal 31-8 loss and entered this game with a 17-26 record against the Spartans. Minnesota scored just 22 points against Iowa last week at home but are traveling to Spartan Stadium where Michigan St. has boasted the nation’s 2nd overall ranked defense.  Minnesota had an opportunity to stay bowl eligible with a victory over Michigan St. but with a loss all post-season aspirations would be admonished.

Minnesota has allowed their opponents to rush for over 200 yards a game and pass for over 225 yards a game ranking them 103rd and 67th, while the Spartans balanced offense averages over 133 rushing ypg and 230 passing ypg ranking 81st and 60th in the nation. It seemed that once again the Gophers would be blown out in a Big Ten road game but surprisingly Minnesota stuck around and nearly pulled off a second miraculous victory.

Last week the Gophers scored a TD in the first quarter, a feat they had yet to achieve in 2011, but when QB MarQueis Gray hit WR DaJon McKnight for a 64 yard TD Minnesota had done it twice in as many weeks. The pass looked to be a 8 yard dump off but McKnight was able to break through three tacklers and sprint into the end-zone and gave his team an early 7-0 lead something the Gophers have done just once this season, against North Dakota St. It was the longest TD pass of the season for Minnesota and was DaJon’s first since their second game against New Mexico St.

Michigan St. got the ball back and immediately began charging downfield. An opening drive 15 yard run by RB LeVeon Bell and a 69 yard completion from QB Kirk Cousins to WR B.J. Cunningham and the Spartans were on the 6 yard line and knocking. Two plays later Cousins found a transfer WR from Oklahoma, Keith Nichol, for a 4 yard TD completion. Minnesota couldn’t respond and were forced to punt the ball after 6 plays but on Michigan St.’s first play RB Edwin Baker fumbled the ball and Minnesota recovered it on the 26 yard line. Last week they created their first turnover in 6 weeks and had done it again on the road, they had great field position and seemed like momentum was on their side.

Gray ran for 13 yards before laying a looping pass towards the left corner of the end-zone where who else, DaJon McKnight, was there to make a ridiculous catch. He had two defenders in front of him and a safety over the top, all within the three yard corner portion where Gray threw the pass, yet the senior wide out was able to make the catch of the year. Realistically it was a ball that probably shouldn’t have been thrown but McKnight made it into a memorable play and gave the Gophers another 7 point lead. Gray had thrown for multiple TDs for the second time this season, the only other time in their defeat against the Aggies.

The Spartans had the ball and were driving when the first quarter came to an end and once again the Gophers were doing something for the second time, leading after the first 15 minutes. It didn’t last long as LeVeon Bell had busted off a 21 yard run to bring Michigan St. to the 1 yard line as the first quarter expired. On the very first play of the second quarter Bell ran in his 1st TD of the day. Two drives later the Gophers had the ball and began their longest drive of the season.

The Gophers had the ball at the 7 yard line and worked their way downfield 83 yards in 15 plays that took 8:26 and ended in a 27 yard field goal. The Gophers were showing the Spartans their ground and pound offense with a hint of DaJon McKnight to keep them honest. They worked their way downfield methodically but sputtered in the red-zone and left with just 3 points and gave Michigan St. the ball back with 1:03 left on the clock.

It seemed as if the Gophers may be heading into the locker room with at the very worst a tie but Michigan St. had other plans. Two big connections to B.J. Cunningham for a total of 35 yards and the  Spartans smelt vulnerability and attacked. The Gophers defense was playing on their heels and a crucial pass interference penalty at the 2 yard line allowed Michigan St. to throw another 2 yard TD pass this time with just 4 seconds left in the first half. A 17-14 lead was quickly turned into a 21-17 deficit but all season long Minnesota has played better in the second halves of games.

Minnesota received the ball coming into the 2nd half and they got right back to work mixing in some big passes on their way down to the Spartans 15 yard line. It was 3rd and 12 when Gray connected with McKnight for his 3rd TD of the game, tying a career high. It was the first time in Gray’s career that he threw for more than 2 TDs and the second time that McKnight had hauled in 3 TDs in a game. the other 3 TD performance came in 2010 against Penn State. HC Kill knew that “we wanted to take a few shots, game-plan wise, I think we gave ourselves a chance to win” and that came through the arm of MarQueis Gray and McKnight’s career game.

The Gophers had jumped out to a 24-21 lead early in the 3rd quarter but McKnight’s 3rd TD reception was the last score of the game for Minnesota. Michigan St. had lost to Nebraska 24-3 and they weren’t going to let Minnesota come into their house and catch them off guard. QB Kirk Cousins admitted that “there’s a lot on the line” and that he “want[ed] to go out the right way” and ultimately managed his team back into the game and LeVeon Bells 35 yard TD run with just under 11 minutes left in the game was enough for the W.

Gray tried to put the team on his back but an athletic INT by DB Trenton Robinson stopped the Gophers drive and swung the momentum in his teams favor. “I always go to the sideline and say, ‘we’ve got to keep going. Somebody has to make a play” Robinson said who ended up with another INT later in the 4th quarter that locked up a victory for his team and sealed the Gophers fate. Gray finished the game with career high numbers in completions, 19, yards, 295 and TDs with McKnight’s 3 receptions. McKnight finished the game with a career high in yards, 173 and tied career highs in receptions, 9 and his trio of TDs.

Minnesota was playing the 2nd best defense in all of college football and they managed to have one of their best days offensively. The Gophers were in this game for a long time but in the end Michigan St. was too much for Minnesota to handle. The Gophers are still winless on the road and have a 1-4 record in the Big Ten and a 2-7 record overall. The last two games have given Gopher Nation hope though, with the team actually competing with its conference rivals. There isn’t a pot of gold sitting in front of this team but there is a glimmer of light, although that tunnel looks awfully long the fact that we can see through the darkness is enough for me. Next week Minnesota will face off against Wisconsin and realistically they can only look forward to another moral victory but who knows?


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