Turnovers plague Gophers in loss to Michigan State

by Aaron Blake

Minnesota football coach Glen Mason wasted little time getting to the point after his team’s 44-38 loss to Michigan State on Saturday.

“I’m going to state the obvious because I think it’s the important thing in the game,” Mason said. “It’s about turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. I don’t care who you’re playing, let alone a team like Michigan State. It’s awful hard to overcome those things.”

The Gophers (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) lost three fumbles to the Spartans (7-1, 4-0) – one at the outset of the game and two later in the first half – and were unable to secure a turnover of their own.

Michigan State managed 17 points off the turnovers, and all three fumbles came at critical junctures of the game.

The first came on the opening kickoff, the second came when Minnesota had a chance to tie in the second quarter and the third came in the final minute of the first half.

So it’s no wonder that both coaches, as coaches often do when it comes to turnovers, drove home the point following the game.

“Other than the win-loss, that’s the only stat you worry about,” Spartans coach John L. Smith said. “If you can win that stat, particularly on the road, you can win some games.”

Michigan State did both, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the Gophers, who found themselves victimized for the second straight week at home by a Michigan school.

“In the Big Ten, you can’t turn the ball over like that,” quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said. “There are some good defenses out there and great offenses who can capitalize on it. Today, we made a couple terrible turnovers, and they capitalized on them.”

Backup tight end Jarod Posthumus’ fumble on the opening kickoff gave Michigan State the ball and a short field right away.

Spartans quarterback Jeff Smoker and company took just over a minute to punch in the game’s first touchdown in a four-play, 36-yard drive.

After Minnesota rallied from 17-0 to a 17-10 deficit, Abdul-Khaliq was hit from behind by linebacker Seth Mitchell, jarring the ball from his hands.

A Smoker draw play reversed the momentum the Gophers had gained and put his team up by a pair of scores once again.

Though the final fumble resulted in just three points for Michigan State, it capped off a 48-second span in which things went from uplifting to upsetting to abominable for Minnesota.

The Gophers came within 24-17 on a fourth-and-goal pitch to Marion Barber III, allowed a 100-yard kickoff return to DeAndra Cobb and coughed up their third fumble of the half.

Barber lost the ball sweeping left, and Spartans linebacker Ronald Stanley grabbed it just before he went out of bounds.

As the last three seconds ticked away, Michigan State kicker Dave Rayner’s 50-yard field goal was damaging to a team that was so close less than a minute before.

Now, they needed three scores.

“Michigan State’s been having a lot of turnovers come their way this year,” Minnesota defensive tackle Darrell Reid said. “I don’t want to call it luck, but they’ve been lucky. It’s just tough when they return a kickoff to the house. That’s out of the defense’s control. We were stopping them pretty good, and we still had a chance then.”

As Mason and Reid both iterated, the Gophers still had an opportunity to win the game. But the slippery gloves they sported in the first half made a second-half comeback improbable and, eventually, nonexistent.

The offense wasn’t the only unit unable to hang on to the ball. The defense had several opportunities for interceptions, and special teamer Jonathan Richmond had an onside kick in his grasp with two minutes left and the Gophers trailing by six points.

“When big plays come, you’ve got to make them,” safety Justin Fraley said. “That’s it.”

Richmond’s inability to cradle the ball was indicative of a game in which losing the ball meant losing it all.

So when the clock control of the referees came into question following the game, Mason wanted none of it.

“I’m not going to concentrate on that,” Mason said. “I’m going to concentrate on how we turned the ball over. Worry about things you have control over, not things you don’t have control over.”