Memphis’ mistakes key Gophers win

by Michael Dougherty

While 15-year-olds are battling it out for the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick championship, 21-year-old Memphis punter Jim Cande has staked his claim as the 1998 unofficial champion of blocked punts, fumbled snaps and historical benchings.
Tigers coach Rip Scherer might soon track down one of those strong-legged teenagers and offer him a job after seeing Cande’s first punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. Cande bobbled the snap on his second attempt and coughed up the ball on his own 1-yard line.
Those two blunders were just part of a truckload of mistakes that plagued Memphis and helped the Gophers football team to its third win in as many tries in a 41-14 thumping Saturday at the Metrodome.
Minnesota stormed out of the gates, taking the opening drive 76 yards in five plays. Thomas Hamner took a Billy Cockerham handoff 36 yards for the game’s first score.
After the Gophers defense forced the Tigers to punt on the ensuing possession, Cande entered the game and the kicking carnival was underway.
Gophers safety Delvin Jones tore through the Memphis line untouched and blocked Cande’s punt, which cornerback Trevis Graham snatched up and rumbled 17 yards for the touchdown.
“We just turned that guy loose,” Scherer said. “Our right tackle just flat out never laid a hand on that guy — he never touched him.”
Minnesota coach Glen Mason said Mark Snyder, the defensive ends coach who also works with the special teams, had predicted such a play.
“(He) guaranteed our team before the game that we’d block a punt today,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “He felt that strong about it.”
The touchdown gave the Gophers a 14-0 lead before the game was even three minutes old. Then, on Memphis’ next drive, quarterback Kenton Evans threw an interception right into the chest of Gophers linebacker Sean Hoffman.
Hoffman’s pick put the Gophers in position for a 28-yard field goal by Adam Bailey.
The highlight of Saturday’s football follies would occur on the next Tigers offensive series, when the Minnesota defense again forced a Memphis punt deep in their own territory.
Cande tried to rush the play and avoid the Gophers rush, but he dropped the ball at his feet. He picked it up and ran desperately to his left but was caught at the 1-yard line by Graham and Keith Dimmy.
After the Gophers were stuffed on three straight shots — including a pair of quarterback sneaks by Cockerham — at the one, another Bailey field goal gave Minnesota a 20-0 lead with 4:29 left in the first quarter.
Those punting game blunders, along with two interceptions and a pair of lost fumbles — one of which was returned five yards for a touchdown by Gophers strong safety Tyrone Carter — ended any hopes Memphis had of putting a notch in the win column.
“I don’t even know what to say after something like that,” Scherer said. “It was a total embarrassment, an embarrassment to me as a coach because I’m responsible for that.”
Cande’s mistakes forced Scherer to bench him in favor of backup Ben Graves, something Snyder said he’s never seen.
“The concentration left that punter because he knew we were coming at him, and he dropped that snap,” Snyder said. “I’ve seen snapper’s get benched before, but I’ve never seen a punter get benched.”
Not only did Cande get benched, but after Evans was picked off by Hoffman, Scherer yanked him in favor of Stephen Galbraith.
Memphis continued to send its starters to the bench because of ineffectiveness while Minnesota was receiving some impressive individual performances, particularly from Carter. With his third impressive game in a row, Carter continues to prove he is worthy of the All-America talk that’s surrounding him.
After opening the season with an 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Arkansas State, he’s rolled up 39 tackles, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles, an interception and a sack in the first three games.
“I like to make things happen,” Carter said. “I’ve got to turn the game around by doing anything I can do. We came in here with two different defenses where I come in and blitz to make those things happen. We challenge each other to make the big plays like who’s going to beat each other to the quarterback or running back.”
While Carter and his defensive backfield mates Graham and Jones were turning in big plays, Cockerham and Hamner were pacing an offense that showed some flashes of outstanding play between bouts with mediocrity.
Cockerham was effective at times, going 9-of-14 for 145 yards and carrying the ball nine times for 38 yards. But the junior, who edged out sophomore Andy Persby for the starting job, admits there is plenty of room for improvement.
“I feel good now, but I know I’ve got a long way to go,” Cockerham said. “It feels good to be 3-0. We thought that would be a key to our season, but we’ve got to keep improving.”
With a week off to savor his 3-0 start as well as prepare for a tough Big Ten opener on the road at Purdue on Oct. 3, Mason said the winning streak is nice but admits the competition isn’t exactly comparable to Big Ten talent.
“With all respect to the three teams we’ve played, they’re not Purdue,” he said. “That’s why I said it’s not an off-week for us and I guarantee it.”
Scherer said he thought better things might lie ahead for the Gophers, who haven’t had a winning season since going 6-5 in 1990.
“They’re playing with confidence being 2-0 coming in and 3-0 afterwards,” Scherer said, “I don’t know how they perceive themselves, but I think they are every bit as good as Mississippi State and Ole Miss.”