Special teams play concerns Gophers’ Mason

Aaron Blake

Minnesota football coach Glen Mason was happy with the way the defense and offense performed in the final three quarters Saturday at Northwestern.

Special teams, however, were a different story.

“I really was disappointed with our performance in the kicking game,” Mason said. “We need to be better in almost all of those phases.”

The 17th-ranked Gophers (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) allowed an average of 24.9 yards per kickoff return, and the Wildcats didn’t start a drive inside their 30-yard line until their ninth drive of the game.

Minnesota kicker Rhys Lloyd averaged just 35 yards per punt and missed a 26-yard field goal late in the third quarter.

Also, Minnesota kick returners gained just 16 yards on two attempts, and punt returner Marion Barber III dropped his fourth kick this season.

Mason expressed his dismay concerning the coverage team’s performance early in the game Saturday. This came on top of everything else that went wrong when the Gophers dug themselves into a 14-0 hole.

Second-half shutout again

Mason had praise for the defense, focusing on their second consecutive second-half shutout and big plays.

“I’m especially pleased that our defense was able to pitch a shutout in the second half,” Mason said. “Our defense had the ability to prevent the home run, and we got some turnovers that had a big effect on momentum.”

The Gophers led 21-17 at the half on Saturday. On Sept. 27, they led Penn State (2-4, 0-2) 17-14 at halftime and withstood a Lion offense that advanced into Minnesota territory on every possession of the second half.

Third-down threats

Minnesota’s 59.8 percent third-down conversion percentage ranks a distant first in the Big Ten. Illinois is second with a 45.5 percent clip.

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, whose team plays the Gophers on Friday at the Metrodome, made reference to that stat Tuesday.

“The most impressive single thing I’ve seen about Minnesota’s team is its third-down conversation rate,” Carr said. “That has to be the highest in NCAA history. It speaks to the fact that they’re not in a lot of third-and-longs.”

Mills likely out again

Penn State starting quarterback Zack Mills will probably miss this weekend’s game at No. 18 Purdue, coach Joe Paterno said.

Mills sprained his left knee against Minnesota and did not return or play Saturday against Wisconsin.

“I’m not sure he’ll be able to make it this week,” Paterno said. “He’s throwing the ball and just warming up, but he’s not taking part in any game aspects. It would be doubtful, in my mind, that he would be able to go this Saturday.”

Sophomore Michael Robinson replaced Mills to begin the second quarter against the Gophers and started his first collegiate game Saturday in the 30-23 loss to Wisconsin.

Robinson was 22-for-43 for 379 yards and two touchdowns in the losing effort. In three quarters versus Minnesota, he was 16-for-27 for 178 yards and two interceptions.

His performance against the Badgers impressed Paterno and could signal a tough decision when Mills becomes healthy.

“Now that he’s played and played so well, we’ve got to keep playing him,” Paterno said. “I’m not sure who starts. That’s the kind of thing I’ll have to determine after Mills gets healthy.”

Wisconsin RBs still hurt

No. 23 Wisconsin (5-1, 2-0) coach Barry Alvarez got Heisman Trophy candidate Anthony Davis back Saturday in a limited role. The junior carried the ball eight times for 35 yards, returning from an ankle injury suffered Sept. 13 versus UNLV.

But Davis isn’t the only one hurting. Backup Dwayne Smith hasn’t been completely healthy either, opening the door for redshirt freshman Booker Stanley, who gained 119 yards on 24 carries just in the second half Saturday against the Lions.

“We’ve got the luxury of three backs playing better than we ever anticipated,” Alvarez said. “We have been blessed to have that kind of depth because in our last three games, our No. 1 and No. 2 backs have had problems with ankle injuries. Booker really stepped in, in the North Carolina game and the Penn State games.”

No feature for back Void

No. 22 Purdue (4-1, 1-0) received a big lift from tailback Jerod Void on Saturday in a 43-10 lashing of Illinois. But coach Joe Tiller is hesitant to go away from rotating two other tailbacks in as well.

Void rushed for 119 yards on 25 carries with four touchdowns on Saturday.

“We do have three running backs that we like, although Jerod had his best game at Purdue on Saturday,” Tiller said. “He will remain the starter. But we’re really pleased with the progress of redshirt freshman Jerome Brooks. And Brandon Jones is finally getting healthy.

“We haven’t changed since the season has begun in regard to touches by the respective backs, and I don’t suspect that’s going to change much in the future.”