The Minnesota Golden Gophers pushed their 2012 record to 4-0 on Saturday night, defeating the Syracuse Orange at TCF Bank Stadium by a score of 17-10. The big story of the night for Jerry Kill's team, however, was the defense.
Minnesota's defense, which looked as fast and as aggressive as they've looked in a long time, relentlessly pressured Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib all night long. The stat sheet only showed three sacks on the evening, but there were many occasions where Nassib was running for his life from the Minnesota front four. The Gophers also forced four Syracuse turnovers, which played a big part in the usually explosive Orange offense only registering three points.
Minnesota got things started early, as Cedric Thompson intercepted Nassib's first pass of the evening. The Gophers were unable to cash in, however, as Jordan Wettstein missed a 44-yard field goal attempt. After a Syracuse punt, however, Minnesota found their way into the end zone, as Max Shortell led the team on a five-play, 58-yard drive that concluded with a 2-yard touchdown run by Donnell Kirkwood to make the score 7-0.
Syracuse answered with a long drive of their own, one that went 13 plays and and 67 yards, resulting in a Ross Krautman field goal from 33-yards out to make the score 7-3 with just under two minutes remaining in the first quarter. That would be the last of the scoring for a while, as the second quarter saw no points scored. Minnesota changed that with their first drive of the third quarter, however, putting together an impressive 12-play, 87-yard drive that saw Kirkwood find the end zone from a yard out to make the score 14-3.
The Orange then put together a long, 15-play drive that saw them get all the way down to the Minnesota 2-yard line, but Brock Vereen hit Nassib just as he was getting ready to throw a pass on third and goal, and the high deflection was snagged by linebacker Aaron Hill for an interception, keeping the score at 14-3.
Minnesota added a field goal by Wettstein in the fourth quarter, a 43-yarder to make it 17-3. Syracuse then answered that with their best drive of the second half, with Nassib moving the Orange 83 yards in nine plays and just over two and a half minutes, concluding the drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Sales to close the gap to 17-10. However, Syracuse's onside kick was recovered by the Gophers, and Minnesota ran out the clock for the victory.
When it was all said and done, the Orange actually outgained the Gophers yardage-wise, 350 yards to 341, but that's not indicative of the performance of the Minnesota defense. The four turnovers (two interceptions, two fumble recoveries) by the Gophers really turned the tide of the football game, taking opportunities away from Syracuse and helping Minnesota to go 4-0.
Shortell filled in quite nicely for injured starting quarterback MarQueis Gray, completing 16 of 30 passes for 231 yards. Kirkwood had 99 yards on 28 carries to go with his two touchdowns, and Devin Crawford-Tufts led the Gophers in this one, grabbing three passes for 67 yards.
Minnesota will open up Big Ten Conference play next weekend as they make a trip to Kinnick Stadium to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Gophers will hope to retain ownership of Floyd of Rosedale in this one, and if they do so the bronze pig will stay in Minnesota for the third straight season for the first time since Minnesota won the trophy in 1998, 1999, and 2000.