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September 30, 2013

First Look: Minnesota exposed in 23-7 loss

Had Minnesota won Saturday, then an undefeated Gophers team would be meeting an undefeated Michigan team for the first time since the two both entered play with unblemished records in 1940. Instead, Iowa exposed Minnesota in a 23-7 beatdown that wasn't as close as the final score.

The Golden Gophers had entered the game 4-0 for the second consecutive season and feeling good about themselves after dispatching UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois and San Jose State by an average of 21.8 points (and by at least 17 in each victory).

Minnesota had racked up an average of 282.3 yards rushing per game and 387.5 yards of total offense per contest in its undefeated start. The Maroon and Gold even managed to survive without their starting QB, Phillip Nelson, for a game, as No. 2 Mitch Leidner rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns while throwing for 71 yards in a 43-24 week-four win over San Jose State.

But that running game, so reliant on Nelson and Leidner the first four games - they were responsible for an average of 118.0 yards rushing per contest - went nowhere against the Hawkeyes, as the entire team finished with 30 yards on 27 carries and Nelson went minus-18 on nine carries, getting sacked four times for 23 yards.

"We couldn't move Iowa; they handled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball better than we did," head coach Jerry Kill said. "When you can run the ball you can have some success, but we didn't run the ball well."

With Nelson struggling - he's completing only 51.2 percent of his pass attempts and has a pass efficiency rating of 99.71, ranking him outside of the top 100 leaders according to NCAA.com - there were calls for Kill to turn to Leidner, who is completing 60.0 percent of his attempts, but the Gophers' boss stuck with his No. 1.

"He's our first-string quarterback and when he's good to go, we're going to play him," Kill said. "He practiced and had lots of reps, so it wasn't as if he came into the game cold.

"We made the decision and the game didn't dictate that we play Mitch because we couldn't run the ball. I've been in a similar situation before, but I think switching quarterbacks during the game wouldn't have changed much of our play."

Neither quarterback is a very good passer, at least not this season with a devoid of receiving targets. The Gophers rely significantly on the run and when they're getting beat up along the line of scrimmage, no personnel move will make a difference.

Minnesota has also benefited this season from an opportunistic defense and dynamic special teams, scoring this season on a punt return and a kickoff return, a blocked field goal return, an interception return and a fumble return.

Those unexpected TDs have influenced the bottom line and have helped present the appearance perhaps that Minnesota was better than it truly was after four games.

But, the Golden Gophers will have a chance to rebound against a Michigan team that is still finding its way after two near disasters against Akron and Connecticut.

"We can grow from this loss by sticking together and getting better one day at a time," Kill said. "We've got a young team, so we have to continue to move forward and correct mistakes now.

"We've got Michigan and then a week off, and this game needs to leave a bad taste in our mouths. We have to just wake up and go back to work. The big message was that this was just one game and we need to all be accountable. We can't point fingers. We all have a responsibility to this team."

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