Minnesota (4-0) recovered an onside kick with 45 seconds remaining to preserve the victory and deny the Orange (1-3) their first road win against a Big Ten team since 2006.
In their first trip back to Minnesota since 1996, Orange head coach Doug Marrone said the capacity crowd of over 50,000 contributed to the team’s struggles offensively.
“We came into a hostile environment for our football team,” he said. “We got shook up at times with the noise.”
Nassib’s first pass of the evening was intercepted by Cedric Thompson after the ball was tipped in the air. Though he went 21 for 31 with 228 yards passing, his three turnovers proved costly. He credited the Gophers defense for creating pressure. Not all of the problems came from the defense, though.
“A lot of it, we shot ourselves in the foot,” Nassib said. “Some bad plays by myself that I wish I could have back.”
While four turnovers were the topic of discussion after the game, 10 penalties for a total of 79 yards prevented the Orange from sustaining momentum.
“We definitely had some penalties that were a lack in communication, really. We haven’t really had to play against that stuff this year. We prepared for it, but it’s hard to get out there and execute in the game.”
The Gophers started the scoring midway through the first quarter, when Kirkwood found the endzone from two yards out.
The Orange responded with a 13-play, 67-yard drive that resulted in a 33-yard field goal by Ross Krautman with 1:54 remaining in the first quarter.
The offense struggled to find any rhythm for the remainder of the half, accumulating only three more first downs. There were few attempts to throw the ball down the field, even in the closing minutes when the Orange trailed by two touchdowns.
With just under four minutes left in the first half, the Orange made a threat to score, driving deep into Gopher territory. But on a first-and-10 from the Minnesota 31, Nassib, trying to avoid a sack, fumbled the ball, which Minnesota’s Michael Amaefula recovered.
The Gophers, though, despite the aid of two turnovers, missed two field goals, keeping the score 7-3 at halftime.
Minnesota received the ball to begin the second half and put together a 12-play, 87-yard drive that resulted in Kirkwood’s second score of the night.
On the ensuing possession, Syracuse marched past midfield until another penalty created a third and 13 from the Syracuse 47. But then a roughing the passer penalty on Minnesota’s Aaron Hill gave the Orange new life. The drive continued after Nassib converted a third-and-7 at the Minnesota 19-yard line. A pass interference call two plays later gave Syracuse its best chance to score.
Two consecutive running plays were foiled by the Gophers front line. Facing third-and-goal from the 4, Nassib was hit as he threw a pass and the ball was intercepted by Hill at the Gophers 3-yard line.
Syracuse forced a punt from the Gophers, and got the ball back near midfield with 3:12 left in the third quarter.
Receiver Alec Lemon picked up 19 yards on a quick pass from Nassib, but a fumble three plays later by Ashton Broyld gave the ball right back to Minnesota.
A 43-yard field goal by Jordan Wettstein made the score 17-3 with just over three minutes remaining in the game.
On what proved to be Syracuse’s final drive, Nassib led a nine play, 83-yard drive, capped by the Sales touchdown. Saturday was the fourth-ever matchup between the two schools. Minnesota now leads the series 3-1.
Minnesota lost its starting quarterback MarQueis Gray last week after a high ankle sprain. Backup quarterback Max Shortell finished 16 of 30 with 231 yards passing.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said he didn’t hold back on the gameplan because of Shortell.
“Our coaches are confident in Max’s abilities, and he checked a lot of plays. He got blitzed probably 85 to 90 percent of the time tonight … and he did a great job of getting the ball out for the most part.”
Linebacker Marquis Spruill said the team reacted well to the sudden change due to turnovers.
“[We] had a couple looks we thought we could get away with – we did at times, we didn’t,” he said. “Their players made plays and that was it.”
Defensive tackle Jay Bromley said Minnesota did exactly what the defense was expecting, but the team had to be more aggressive in the second half. Unlike his coach, he said the atmosphere benefited them.
“It was great, that’s what you live for, that’s what I wanted, what I felt like my team wanted,” he said. “We just didn’t put enough good things together today.”
A bright spot in the defeat was the play of Lemon, who became the all-time receptions leader in school history after his nine catches tonight. The record was previously held by Scott Schwedes and Shelby Hill.
“It means a lot,” he said. “It would mean more if we won the game. It’s nice to be on a list with people like that, but I don’t play this game to get individual records. I go out there to win the game.”
Entering a bye week before hosting Pittsburgh on Oct. 5, Lemon said the team needs to improve at what it already does.
“We’re good at what we do, we just need to keep the ball in our hands,” he said.
Marrone shared a similar message of improvement.
“I told [the players] that perceptions are what other people think of you, character is who you are, and we have to work extremely hard to correct the mistakes that we’re making … and when we do that, we will be a very good football team and we will win a lot of games,” he said. “And I believe we will do that.”