Previously this season, Minnesota faced the Big Ten’s best quarterback, Purdue’s Drew Brees, and lost.
Last weekend, the Gophers faced arguably the best athlete in the conference — Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington — and won.
On Saturday, Indiana presented a combination of the two in mercurial signal-caller Antwaan Randle El.
The final score: Minnesota 44, Indiana 20. The closing analysis by exhausted Gophers defenders: Call it a draw.
“That guy Randle El — that’s a good guy,” safety Tyrone Carter said. “He’s talented. You saw during the game that we had his back against the wall and somehow he got out of there.”
Time and time again, Randle El slipped the Minnesota pass rush like Bo and Luke Duke once evaded lawman Rosco P. Coltrane.
Though he ended the game with a modest 64 yards rushing and 161 yards passing, the dazzling Randle El upheld his reputation for a Barry Sanders-like style.
“He was slippery,” linebacker Ben Mezera said. “He’s the fast one that makes everyone else look slow.”
Mezera served as one of the willing but unable tacklers on Randle El’s 6-yard reception from wide receiver Jerry Dorsey in the second quarter.
“They threw one back to him and it was just he and I with a whole half of open field,” Mezera said. “I was just waiting for my buddies.”
Randle El pushed the Hoosiers’ option assault upfield in relentless fashion: running, pitching and passing in a controlled, yet chaotic manner.
“I love doing that,” Randle El said. “I think that’s big because the defense doesn’t know what you’re going to do and you yourself don’t know what you want to do. But you know you’re just trying to make that play. That’s when you’ve really got them on their heels.”
After spending the better part of three quarters moving around the ring looking for an opening, the teetering Gophers defense landed a haymaker in the fourth quarter. Senior cornerback Jimmy Wyrick intercepted a Randle El pass and raced untouched 61 yards for the touchdown.
Wyrick’s interception put the Gophers ahead 34-20 and marked the first turnover by the Minnesota defense since the Ohio State game — a span of 12 quarters. It also was the first interception of Randle El in 18 quarters.
“We had been preaching getting our depth and watching Randle El as he scrambles,” Wyrick said. “I saw the receiver come to the flat, he threw it, and I broke on it.”
In the process, Wyrick broke Indiana’s back.
“Let’s face it, that game hung in the balance,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “I’m not saying the game was over when that happened, but boy did momentum swing our way.”
While the interception might have effectively ended the game, the Gophers’ ability to contain Randle El’s big-play potential won it.
Though he darted and danced between the 20-yard lines at will, the Minnesota defense kept Randle El from sashaying his way across the goal line. Randle El neither ran or threw for any touchdowns Saturday.
Indiana’s offense suffered through its share of miscues, but the Minnesota defense did its job, keeping the Hoosiers from getting loose.
“You just have to stay on your receiver,” cornerback Willie Middlebrooks said. “You hear the crowd going crazy and you might think one of your defensive lineman sacked him. Next thing you know, there’s a deep ball thrown on you.”
David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]