Minnesota defense stifles Syracuse, stays unbeaten
MINNEAPOLIS -- Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns and the Minnesota defense showed it is no longer the pushover it has been for decades in a 17-10 victory over Syracuse on Saturday night.
The Golden Gophers forced four turnovers and Max Shortell threw for 231 yards in place of injured starter MarQueis Gray to improve to 4-0 for the first time since 2008.
"You come to the Big Ten to play big-time football. These last few seasons, let's be honest, we haven't been there," safety Brock Vereen said. "This is our year."
Ryan Nassib threw for 228 yards and a touchdown for Syracuse (1-3), but he was intercepted twice and lost a fumble. The Orange also committed 10 penalties, including four false starts in suddenly rowdy TCF Bank Stadium.
The gem of a stadium on Minnesota's campus has been awfully quiet for most of its three seasons of existence. But a sellout crowd of 50,805 gave the Gophers a big advantage.
"We came into a pretty hostile environment," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "I thought at times we got shaken up early on with it."
The Minnesota students have taken some criticism for not showing up to games since the Gophers moved back on to campus in 2009. But the team hasn't given them much reason to pay for a ticket.
On Saturday night, they got quite a show from a defense that routinely has been ranked among the worst in the nation. The Gophers held Syracuse's pass-heavy, no-huddle offense to 350 total yards.
"When we made a mistake on the offensive side, the defense just rose to the occasion," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said.
Minnesota's defense set the tone from the very first play, when Cedric Thompson made an acrobatic, diving interception on a poorly thrown pass from Nassib that bounced off of Jarrod West's shoulder pads.
The key play came early in the fourth quarter after Kirkwood's 1-yard plunge capped a 12-play drive to give Minnesota a 14-3 lead.
Syracuse came right back with a 15-play drive that was aided by a roughing the passer penalty on linebacker Aaron Hill. On third-and-goal from the Minnesota 4, Vereen came free on a blitz and hit Nassib just as he was throwing. The ball popped up in the air and Hill corralled the interception to turn the Orange away.
The crowd erupted, cheering and dancing to "Gangnam Style" in the kind of euphoric college atmosphere the university was hoping to recapture after moving out of the lifeless Metrodome four years ago.
Alec Lemon had nine catches for 106 yards for Syracuse, surpassing Scott Schwedes and Shelby Hill for the career receptions record at the school with 145. He was about all the Orange had against Minnesota on a disappointing night for the high-powered offense that averaged more than 533 yards in its first three games and slugged it out in competitive losses to Northwestern and USC earlier this season.
When they weren't committing penalties or turning the ball over, the Orange were short-circuiting promising drives with curious play calls, including a draw on third and 10 from midfield that gained only five yards in the second quarter. By the time they finally reached the end zone on a 14-yard TD pass to Marcus Sales with 46 seconds to play in the game, it was too late.
"At the end of the day, you can't have four turnovers," Marrone said. "When you do those things, it's very difficult to win a game. Pretty unbelievable to have four turnovers."
Shortell looked pretty sharp in place of Gray, a senior captain who could miss at least another week with a high ankle sprain. With Shortell under center, the Gophers offense transitioned from one that relies on Gray's athleticism to make plays outside the pocket into a more traditional pitch-and-catch that relied on Shortell's strong right arm to move the ball.
Shortell hit five of his first six throws, looking calm and confident after first getting playing time as a freshman last season. His 40-yard slant to Devin Crawford-Tufts and a pass interference penalty set up Kirkwood's 2-yard TD plunge to get the Gophers on the board midway through the first
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