Notebook: Eskridge carried load

Wide Receiver Eric Lair scores a touchdown on a 25 yard catch in the gophers 29-28 loss against Northwestern on Saturday.

Simon Guerra

Wide Receiver Eric Lair scores a touchdown on a 25 yard catch in the gophers 29-28 loss against Northwestern on Saturday.

John Hageman

After junior running back Duane Bennett ran for a career-high 187 yards in the season opener, it looked like he was fully recovered from an injury that affected him all last season and that he would be the face of the GophersâÄô run-first offense.

But SaturdayâÄôs loss against Northwestern proved that Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster is willing to go with whoever has the hot hand, which turned out to be junior DeLeon Eskridge.

âÄúEvery game, [freshman Donnell] Kirkwood, Bennett and I feel like [we] are going to get some plays,âÄù Eskridge said. âÄúCoach always says he is going to go with the strong hand. I was having a good game, so he just let me continue to carry it out.âÄù

Eskridge ran for a season-high 119 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown Saturday. It was his third career 100-yard game, but the first since 2008.

Eskridge had just 294 yards on 74 carries last season.

While Eskridge had plenty of strong carries throughout the game, to the point that several Wildcats defenders were needed to take him down, he gave much of the credit to the offensive line for his success.

âÄúI feel like the O-line did an excellent job on blocking, and the holes were there,âÄù Eskridge said. âÄúAll I could do was help the team out and get what was there.âÄù

The Gophers failed to accumulate more than 100 yards on the ground in their previous two games, and Eskridge said their success running the ball gave them more opportunities to use the play-action pass with success. Both of Adam WeberâÄôs touchdown passes came on the play action.

âÄúSome of those big plays we got wouldnâÄôt have been so open if we had not stuck with the run game,âÄù Weber said.

Gray not 100 percent

Minnesota backup quarterback and leading wide receiver MarQueis Gray had just two catches for eight yards Saturday, one week after catching eight passes for 117 yards in a loss to Northern Illinois.

After the game, Brewster said Gray wasnâÄôt 100 percent due to a case of plantar fasciitis, an inflammation on the bottom of the foot, and they didnâÄôt get to use him as much as they wanted to.

Wide receiver DaâÄôJon McKnight and tight end Eric Lair took over as the go-to guys. McKnight finished with four catches for 50 yards, and Lair caught three for 75 yards, two of which were touchdowns.

Persa runs over, around Gophers

Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa came into SaturdayâÄôs game with the nationâÄôs highest passing efficiency rating, completing 80 percent of his passes. He continued his passing success against the Gophers with 309 yards and two touchdowns through the air, but PersaâÄôs running ability proved even more fatal for the Gophers.

Persa, who came into SaturdayâÄôs game leading the team in rushing, gained 99 yards on 18 carries.

âÄúPersa really hurt us with his feet,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúWe knew coming in that was exactly his M.O.âÄù

Persa seemed to be most effective when he was forced out of the pocket with Minnesota defenders out of position. He had 33 yards on the ground on the WildcatsâÄô final drive of the game that ended with the game-winning field goal, including a 22-yard run on third-and-six near midfield.

Minnesota linebacker Gary Tinsley said the defense made some adjustments at halftime to better contain Persa, but âÄúhe just snuck out on some of them.âÄù

Another close finish

Close games with Northwestern are something the Gophers are all too familiar with.

Two seasons ago, Minnesota fell to Northwestern in the last homecoming game at the Metrodome 24-17 thanks to an interception return for touchdown with just 12 second remaining.

The Gophers fell to Northwestern in double overtime in BrewsterâÄôs first season at the helm the previous season 49-48, failing to convert on a two-point attempt that would have won the game.

The GophersâÄô past four meetings with Northwestern have been decided by a combined 20 points.

âÄúYou knew it was going to come down to the end, you knew it was going to come down to a couple of plays,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúAnd thatâÄôs exactly what it came down to.âÄù

With SaturdayâÄôs victory, Northwestern improved to 27-7 in its past 34 games decided by seven points or less.

Extra Points

– Minnesota punter Dan Orseske struggled early on Saturday, with his first three punts averaging just over 27 yards, giving Northwestern prime field position. He ended the game with an average of about 35 yards on six punts.

âÄúHe didnâÄôt punt very well today,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúThereâÄôs no more to the story than that.âÄù

-Lair was named the national tight end of the week by the College Football Performance awards. His two touchdowns Saturday were the first of his career.

Lair has emerged as a reliable target for Weber and has 17 catches for 250 yards this season.

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