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Spartans Sluggish Early, Survive Gophers Late to Pull it Out 31-24

On a clear and breezy November Saturday, an announced crowd of 72,219 came out for their first look as the Spartans begin the money month of November. MSU talked all week about coming out with the emotion and focus needed to survive the “playoff month” and advance to defend their Big Ten title. Today they didn’t have that early on, and it wasn’t pretty for much of the day. But they had it when they needed it most as a 4th Quarter surge propelled the Spartans over the top of an entertaining and unpredictable contest.

After losing the toss and getting the ball to start, the Spartans got off to a sleepy 3 and Out start, burned a Time Out, and punted it away to MarQueis Gray (Jr. QB) and his Gophers. Gray's impressive day began from his own 18. For a team talking about playing in a November “playoff,” MSU started off as if they were enjoying a first-game bye.

Three snaps later, Gray found Da’Jon McKnight (Sr. WR) on a simple pass for decent looking yards. Yet, 64-yards later, it was an embarrassing Touchdown given up for the second ranked Defense in the nation, highlighted by missed tackles from the likes of Tony Lippett (Rs.-Fr. CB) and Trenton Robinson (Sr. DB).

After Nick Hill (Rs.-Fr. RB) bobbled the kick return, MSU started from the 10. The Offense looked to settle the poor start down. And following a 15-yard run from Le’Veon Bell (So. RB), the Red Shirt connection hit big on a Gopher blown coverage as Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB) found B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR) for 69-yards to the Minnesota 6.

On 3rd and Goal from the 4, Cousins ran left and looked to the back corner of the End Zone, which was crowded with Spartans and Gophers. It looked like one to simply throw away and settle for 3, but Cousins decided to force it, and barely got it past a couple pair of Gopher hands to Keith Nichol (Rs.-Sr. WR) for the score. Nichol’s impressive grab tied it at 7, and appeared to wake the Spartans up.

The Spartan Defense then stopped Gray and company on a 3rd and 10 at their 36 to start their drive, forcing a punt which Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) fair caught at the MSU 30. The Spartans were primed to snatch the momentum with a solid drive. But on a predictable looking 1st down run call, Edwin Baker (Jr. RB) was hit in the backfield by Anthony Jacobs (Sr. DL) and fumbled the ball away. Baker’s ball security has now become an issue.

After being recovered by Minnesota’s Keanon Cooper (Jr. LB), Goldy Gopher was in business at the MSU 26. It was a massive momentum switch, and served to spurn the visitor’s confidence moving forward. Another Gray run, and then pass to McKnight later, the Spartans were down 14-7, and looked pretty awful early on.

Thanks to a 15-yard Personal Foul applied on the Gopher kick off, MSU started again at their 43. After a 3rd and 9 from the Minnesota 30 was stopped, Mark Dantonio was in that “no man’s land” where it’s not clear whether a Punt, Field Goal try, or going for it on 4th down makes the most sense. Given the strengthening wind and trusting his Defense, the Spartans went for it. Yet, Cousins found Martin more than 3 yards short of the 1st down marker, and the ball went back to the Gophers on downs. It was not a good looking 4th down effort.

The Gophers went backwards from there, with good thanks to two penalties of their own. A poor punt left it at the MSU 46 for the then shaky Spartans, with 1:28 left in the 1st. Missed tackles on a 1st down pass from Cousins to Nichol gave the Spartans 31 yards in bulk. Two plays later, as the Quarter ended, Bell brought it down just short of the Minnesota Goal Line. It was far from the opening Quarter the Spartan Nation was expecting to start MSU’s “playoff month.” But Bell opened the 2nd with the punch in run to make it 14-14. The TD run was marked by an injury to Sr. Captain-Left Guard Joel Foreman though, who did return to action on the game's next drive.

After a big pop on kick coverage from MSU's Drew Stevens (Rs.-Jr. TE) the Defense came out energized and tight to send Gray’s Gophers 3 and Out. MSU got it back after a better Minny punt at their 34. Cousins then found space through the air primarily, with some help on the ground from Bell too, bringing MSU to the Gopher 17. They’d go backwards from their though, in an odd fashion.

Cousins threw incomplete on 1st, and then was sacked for a loss on 2nd down. Frustrated by the inconsistency of the nearly make-shift Offensive Line, which certainly contributed to the sack, Cousins uncharacteristically spiked the ball into the turf in disgust. That was whistled for an Unsportsmanlike 15-yard Persona Foul penalty (yes, on KirkCousins), which set up a 3rd and 31. It proved to be an ironic turning point for Cousins. After he briefly revealed an honest does of humanity, via frustration, Cousins showed even more fire from there.

On 3rd and 31, you’re typically not thinking of anything too big, but Cousins was looking to make up his imperfection immediately when he threw deep into the End Zone for a diving B.J. Cunningham. The ball was right there. It was a catch the Cunningham almost always makes, but this time the ball bounced off his outstretched hands, robbing the Spartans of what would’ve been a highlight making set of plays.

After a Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) punt pinned the Gophers to their 7, MarQueis Gray went back to work with 9:29 left on the clock. With his feet and with his arm, Gray led Minny down the field on a 14 play drive deep into MSU territory. After a Time Out from the MSU 10, Gray faced a 3rd and 4. The Spartans brought heat, but Gray scrambled away but then decided to throw into the End Zone. It was out of reach for Devin Crawford-Tufts (Fr. WR), and Minnesota’s Jerry Kill settled contently for the Field Goal to make it 17-14. The drive chewed an impressive 8:22 of the period, but not enough to close the Half.

Running the “Two Minute” Offense from the MSU 26 after the kick, Cousins was on target for the drive (6/8 74 yards). The play that broke the drive open was a 21-yard catch and run to Cunningham down to the Gopher 36, with 33-seconds and MSU's 2-Time Outs left. One of those TOs, and two snaps later, MSU faced a 3rd and 10. Cousins smoothly looked to his right and found Bell running up the sideline for the 1st down at the 11 (and one of the best Offensive plays of the day), with 11-seconds left.

After a Pass Interference call against the Gophers while defending Cunningham in the End Zone, Cousins found Todd Anderson (Rs.-Sr. FB) on a pretty 2-yard “flow” pattern and the TD to put MSU up for the first time of the day, 21-17. It was hardly the half, nor the Quarter's ending that anyone expected. It was up and down, good and bad, all over the field.

For most of the half, the Spartans played flat, and also beat themselves. They didn’t show up enough mentally from the opening kick, turned it over early again, and ran into a Gopher team that saw day light. Fortunately for MSU, their Sr. Captain (Kirk Cousins) navigated the choppy waters (14/21, 223 yards, 2 TD) to get them out of the half, with a lead.

To their credit, the Gophers rode their best thoroughbred (Gray) to a very fine half. They were still more than in it, and would get the ball to start the 3rd. The Gophers, save the final Spartan drive, out-executed MSU on both sides of the ball. They also won the battles up front.

Starting the 3rd at his own 20 after an MSU Touchback, the Spartan Defense looked to get a better handle on MarQueis Gray from the front. After a drive extending fumble recovery on their second snap, Gray led Minnesota into Spartan territory as the Gophers continued to more than hold the line of scrimmage. Jerry Kill told Spartan Nation earlier this week just how important that would be to the Gophers’ chances today. Gray had enough time and space to work a balanced attack down to the MSU 10, but stalled to a 3rd and 7. He couldn’t get the snap off in time, so back to the 15 Minnesota went. That would prove no issue for Gray though, as he had plenty of time to complete the play-action TD pass to McKnight, again, to make it 24-21 Gophers. The heralded Spartan Defense didn’t look to have much energy to start the 3rd through the 80-yard drive. The frankly looked fatigued all over the field, and Gray their best foe behind an opposing center all year.

The Spartans Offense started their first drive of the 3rd from the MSU 29. It was highlighted by the “swing” play of the drive, a 2nd and 10 lateral…errrr…pass attempt, which Cousins flung towards Bell as he fell under the Gopher rush. The ball bounced on the turf, and nearly every player on the field pulled up and stopped playing. Bell didn’t, he scooped it up and took off straight down the sideline for an apparently game changing 56 yard score. After video review, the call was correctly reversed, and the Spartans had to punt.

Losing their football mind on the punt rush, Minnesota’s rush hammered Mike Sadler after the punt got off to earn a 15-yard Personal Foul. The Spartans regained life at the Minny 41, but couldn’t do enough there to avoid a 4th and 2. Sensing his team needed to gain an edge, Coach D ran the recently reentered Rock (Edwin Baker), who picked up 3 and extended the drive. Two snaps later, Cousins had no protection, was headed backwards, and failed to throw it away in time before being brought down for a monster sack. He could not take that sack. It pushed the Spartans back from the 29 and a possible Field Goal, to a guaranteed MSU punt after the 3rd down screen went nowhere.

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Starting again from his 20, Gray looked to extend their beyond one score. He wouldn’t get far this time. On a 3rd and 12 from the MSU 31, Gray went right and threw off his back leg. Trenton Robinson made a read, and grabbed the energizing-much needed INT at the Gophers 41. Two snaps later, the 3rd Quarter ended, and the Spartans were up against another 3rd and long.

For the first 45:00, the Gophers won the effort battle, won the execution battle, and did nearly everything they could have to lead by 3-points on a team with far superior talent and depth. After stumbling heavily through the first 3, MSU needed to play a Championship 4th to have any shot of playing for another one later this fall.

The 3rd and 9 from the Minny 22 was a bad ball from Cousins to Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Sr. TE) that could’ve been picked off. It barely wasn’t, and Dan Conroy (Rs.-Jr. PK) made the most of it with the 40-yarder to tie it up at 24. If that ball was picked, the final result would’ve likely been different.

Starting from their 28, Gray was quickly into a 3rd and 10, and bounced a pass short to go 3 and Out. A Gopher punt left Keshawn Martin enough space to give Cousins the ball at his 42 with 13:20 to go. It was time to take the game by the reigns, and it didn’t look like it was going to have anything to do with the Spartan running game.

But the wildness and unpredictability of this one continued as the Spartans got a new found push up front. After mixing runs from Bell and Baker along with passes to Martin, Le’Veon Bell took a 3rd and 1 behind a perfect Todd Anderson lead-block for 35-yards and the TD to put MSU up again, 31-24. Prior to that drive, the Spartans had only 50 yards rushing for the day. On that drive, they had 52.

With the 10:53 to go, Gray led the Gophers out from their 14. After missing a potential huge completion on 1st down, the Gophers ended up in another 3rd and 7. Trenton Robinson and Denicos Allen (Rs.-So. LB) stopped pass catcher Colin McGarry (Sr. TE) short of the marker, and Minnesota had to punt. The punt rolled out at the Spartan 43.

Three plays later, however, Sadler had to punt. And again, the outstanding first year Punter starred by sticking it in place to be downed at the Gopher 6.  Gray was deep in the Student Section end of Spartan Stadium, and he heard about it. He moved it to the 10, but again bumped into another 3rd down. After seeing a blitz up the middle, however, Gray scorched the Spartan D again, this time for an impressive 19-yard run.

Gray’s burst brought the Gophers’ energy back up. And a 21-yard pass to McKnight brought them just over midfield. The next two snaps were snuffed out by the Spartans, and Gray faced yet another 3rd and 10. Under heavy heat on the edge again from Denicos Allen, Gray couldn’t find an opening and the Gophers faced a 4th down with 4:16 left.

In a surprisingly and very questionable move, Jerry Kill decided to go for it. With the Spartans poor rushing performance on the day, it’s hard to understand why the Gophers didn’t punt to get the field position edge. Yet, Gray took the snap and looked up the sideline, but couldn’t find anything open as his pass went out of bounds to end the drive. Instead of being potentially pinned deep by a punt, the Spartans took over at the middle of the field with just over 4-minutes to burn off.

After Bell ran it 2 yards and Martin was blanked on a really questionable End Around play call, Cousins was stuck into 3rd and 8. Despite Bell’s best efforts on the short pass, he was about 2 yards short. After their first Time Out, MSU decided not to go for it, and called on Sadler again to punt.  He did his job well, sticking Minnesota at the 10 with 2:22 left and no Time Outs of their own.

Gray had been outstanding all day, but could he really go 90 yards in this situation, against this Spartan Defense? The best player on the field today wasn’t going down without a fight as he moved the Gophers to the 27 rapidly for a 1st down. As Gray threw over to the sideline on 1st down, Tony Lippett was flagged with a Pass Interference, which moved the Gophers further to their 32.

Two plays later, the Spartans brought heat as Denicos Allen was again rather disruptive. Minnesota was flagged for a Holding call that bumped them back to the 20 for a 3rd and 22 with 36-seconds left. Facing apparently softer coverage, Gray went big over the middle and connected with John Rabe (Jr. TE) for 24-yards and the 1st down at the Minny 44. It kept some Gopher hope alive.

Seconds later, Gray ran out of bounds at the MSU 45 with 14 seconds to go. The Spartans wisely took a Time Out (since you can’t take them with you) to review the final seconds’ Defensive approach. On Gray’s final play of the day, he saw his receiver break the opposite way of the deep ball he had let fly. It went right into the hands of Trenton Robinson (his 2nd INT of the day) to close out those final Gopher hopes, in a game Robinson’s Spartans had to have.

It was wild and rocky ride for 3 Quarters, but a final period’s margin of 10-0 MSU proved enough to bring the Spartans back from the brink of an early “playoff month” exit. MSU survived and advanced to play another week. It's that time of year in Big Ten football. A “W” is all that matters in the money month if you’re playing for a Division Title and shot at the Rose Bowl. As the Spartans’ Head Coach, Mark Dantonio is now 10-3 in the final month of regular season play.

Today’s win sets up what will be the biggest game of the month next week at Iowa City against Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Spartans already know they’ll need to be much better and more consistent if they hope to exercise some demons next Saturday at Kinnick. What more could Spartan Nation really ask for at this point?

Today's Three Stars

1.        Kirk Cousins—After the astonishing flag for spiking it, Cousins intensity and focus went up a notch. Without him today, there’s no “W,” and no realistic chance to play for the Division or Big Ten crown. Though fortunate to avoid a couple balls that should’ve been picked, they weren’t, and the numbers don’t lie (23/34 296 yards, 2 TD)

2.        MarQueis Gray / Da’Jon McKnight—Without Gray and his top target shredding the Spartan Defense today (Gray: 19/31 298 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 70 yards rushing) (McKnight: 9 179 yards, 3 TD), this would’ve had no chance to ever be so close.

3.        William Gholston—The Sophomore is quickly emerging to become dominant. From his position, to have the size, speed, and athleticism to record 14 tackles tells you what you need to know. He’s only getting better by the week.

Tell me what you think inside the Phalanx Forum, and @JPSpartan