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Jon Krawczynski / AP Sports Writer, Published September 22 2012

Gopher start season 4-0 for first time since 2008 with win over Syracuse

MINNEAPOLIS – Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns and the Minnesota defense showed it is no longer the pushover it has been for decades in a 17-10 victory over Syracuse on Saturday night.

The Golden Gophers forced four turnovers and Max Shortell threw for 231 yards in place of injured starter MarQueis Gray to improve to 4-0 for the first time since 2008.

Ryan Nassib threw for 228 yards and a touchdown for Syracuse (1-3), but he was intercepted twice and lost a fumble. The Orange also committed 10 penalties, including four false starts in suddenly rowdy TCF Bank Stadium.

The gem of a stadium on Minnesota’s campus has been awfully quiet for most of its three seasons of existence. But a sellout crowd of 50,805 gave the Gophers a big advantage.

The Minnesota students have taken some criticism for not showing up to games since the Gophers moved back on to campus in 2009. But the team hasn’t given them much reason to pay for a ticket.

On Saturday night, they got quite a show from a defense that has routinely been ranked among the worst in the nation. The Gophers held Syracuse’s pass-heavy, no-huddle offense to 350 total yards.

They set the tone from the very first play, when Cedric Thompson made an acrobatic, diving interception on a poorly thrown pass from Nassib that bounced off of Jarrod West’s shoulder pads.

The key play came early in the fourth quarter after Kirkwood’s 1-yard plunge capped a 12-play drive to give Minnesota a 14-3 lead.

Syracuse came right back with a 15-play drive that was aided by a roughing the passer penalty on linebacker Aaron Hill. On third-and-goal from the Minnesota 4, Brock Vereen came free on a safety blitz and hit Nassib just as he was throwing. The ball popped up in the air and Hill corralled the interception to turn the Orange away.

The crowd erupted, cheering and dancing to “Gangnam Style” in the kind of euphoric college atmosphere the university was hoping to recapture after moving out of the lifeless Metrodome four years ago.

When they weren’t committing penalties or turning the ball over, the Orange were short-circuiting promising drives with curious play calls, including a draw on third-and-10 from midfield that gained only five yards in the second quarter. By the time they finally reached the end zone on a 14-yard TD pass to Marcus Sales with 46 seconds to play in the game, it was too late.

Syracuse 3 0 0 7 – 10

Minnesota 7 0 7 3 – 17

First Quarter

Minn – Kirkwood 2 run (Wettstein kick), 6:59.

Syr – FG Krautman 33, 1:54.

Third Quarter

Minn – Kirkwood 1 run (Wettstein kick), 10:13.

Fourth Quarter

Minn – FG Wettstein 43, 3:20.

Syr – Sales 14 pass from R.Nassib (Krautman kick), :46.

A – 50,805.

Syr Minn

First downs 21 20

Rushes-yards 33-122 41-106

Passing 228 231

Comp-Att-Int 21-31-2 16-30-0

Return Yards 3 (-3)

Punts-Avg. 5-39.0 5-37.6

Fumbles-Lost 3-2 0-0

Penalties-Yards 10-79 8-63

Time of Possession 26:22 33:38

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING: Syracuse, Smith 9-52, Gulley 10-48, Broyld 3-11,

R.Nassib 11-11. Minnesota, Kirkwood 28-99, Maye 6-17,

Crawford-Tufts 1-2, Team 2-(minus 4), Shortell 4-(minus 8).

PASSING: Syracuse, R.Nassib 21-31-2-228. Minnesota,

Shortell 16-30-0-231.

RECEIVING: Syracuse, Lemon 9-106, West 5-56, Sales 2-32, Wales 2-22,

Gulley 2-7, Broyld 1-5. Minnesota, Barker 4-52, Crawford-Tufts 3-67,

Goodger 3-27, Jones 2-24, Rabe 2-10, Fruechte 1-34, Engel 1-17.