Gophers stumble in season finale

Minnesota limited Michigan State but couldn’t score on offense.

Minnesota defensive lineman Ra'shede Hageman moves to tackle a Hawkeye Saturday Sept. 28, 2013 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Amanda Snyder

Minnesota defensive lineman Ra’shede Hageman moves to tackle a Hawkeye Saturday Sept. 28, 2013 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Dane Mizutani

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Ra’Shede Hageman was visibly disappointed after the Gophers’ 14-3 loss to Michigan State on Saturday.

Hageman hung his head and tightly grasped the straps of his backpack as reporters filled the space around him after the game.

“I definitely didn’t want to go out [with a loss],” Hageman said of his last Big Ten game.

His defense had just capped another impressive performance, but for the second week in a row, it had a loss to show for its effort.

Minnesota’s offense struggled for the second consecutive week in the game against the Spartans, leaving Hageman contemplating how he could have made a bigger impact in the game.

‘Should I have picked that ball up [and tried to score]?” he said in reference to his fumble recovery in the game. “I feel like the defense had … to contribute to scoring.”

That feeling has been magnified lately. The Gophers haven’t scored a touchdown on offense in the last 10 quarters.

Still, Hageman shouldered a lot of the blame after the loss to the Spartans.

“It’s up to the defense to make plays,” he said. “It’s all about making plays.”

The Gophers’ defense forced a pair of turnovers in the game but never had the full support of the offense.

Minnesota limited Michigan State to 324 yards of total offense, but its own offensive unit never got into a groove against a stout Spartans defense.

The Gophers amassed just 249 yards of total offense, but junior running back David Cobb did his part, finishing with 101 yards against the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation.

“We moved the ball,” said head coach Jerry Kill. “We just didn’t finish drives. … We just need to make a few more plays.”

Cobb said the offense has to improve its efficiency in the red zone.

The Gophers got inside the opposing 20-yard line three times in Saturday’s game and had only a field goal to show for it.

“We can’t leave our defense on the field like that,” Cobb said. “I feel like the defense played great, and we have to come up with more points.”

The Spartans scored twice — once at the start of the game and again at the beginning of the second half. That proved to be the difference.

While the Gophers have lost the last two games, Kill said he’s been satisfied with the physicality his team has showcased in both losses.

Minnesota showed more fight against Wisconsin a week ago and Michigan State this weekend than it has in recent memory. It only lost to those two teams by a combined 24 points after losing by a combined 36 points in 2011 and 41 points in 2012. 

“We showed that we’re a physical football team that can play against any style of offense,” junior cornerback Derrick Wells said of the last two weeks.

There has been a noticeable shift this season — a shift Hageman said happened after a tough loss to Michigan at the start of the Big Ten schedule.

The team came together after that loss and “kind of caught a groove,” he said.

“We went on that four-game winning streak,” Hageman said, “[and] we identified who we were.”

That fueled the team down the stretch, and it won four of its last six games.

Amid the moral victories of the last two weeks, the games have also showed that this team still has room to grow. That growth will come over the next month in preparation for a bowl game for the second year in a row.

“We’re definitely excited about going to a bowl game, but we’re not satisfied with losing to Wisconsin or Michigan State,” Cobb said, “because we felt like we had opportunities to win both games.”

While frustrated that his final Big Ten game ended with a loss, Hageman took solace in the fact that it wasn’t the last game of his career.

“If we weren’t bowl-eligible, the season would really be over, so the fact that we have another game to prepare for is always a good feeling,” he said.

Kill has said all season that this team has come along faster than even he expected. He said it again Saturday and gave all the credit to his players.

“We gave a great effort and came up short and we feel bad about that … but we know we’re still playing,” Kill said. “There’s still an opportunity to accomplish a lot this season.”