Easy part’s over for Gophers

A week before going to Michigan, the Gophers willed their way past Penn State.

Dan Miller

It wasn’t the exclamation point Minnesota’s football team wanted to make before entering the Big House.

Instead, the No. 18 Gophers (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) pulled out a closer-than-expected 16-7 win over Penn State.

But after the game, Minnesota coach Glen Mason didn’t dwell on the negative, and gave the game synopsis a more positive spin.

“I have never seen an ugly win,” he said. “Ever.”

After posting only 16 points – their lowest point total since playing Ohio State in 2002 – the Gophers will travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a game that could very possibly have Rose Bowl implications.

Minnesota, running into an inspired Penn State defense, had to rely on a couple big plays to beat a desperate and banged-up Penn State (2-3, 0-2) team.

The Lions defense blocked three kicks in the game – two field goals and an extra point – and kept the team within striking distance until late in the fourth quarter.

But Minnesota safety John Pawielski buried the Lions with a fourth-quarter interception with 3:33 remaining.

Pawielski, a junior, made the impressive pick by out-jumping receiver Mark Rubin for a Zack Mills pass in the end zone.

“I recognized their formation from an earlier drive, and Darrell Reid was able to get some pressure,” Pawielski said.

With the offense sputtering, Minnesota’s suddenly stingy run defense had another impressive performance.

The Gophers’ defense did what it prides itself on, holding the Lions to a meager 21 rushing yards.

Penn State’s inept running game forced Mills, who played with an apparently very painful shoulder injury, to throw the ball 48 times.

“Our game plan coming in, we wanted to run the ball, control the ball Ö but we didn’t do that,” Mills said. “I don’t know how many yards we had rushing, but it was under 50. It’s just mind boggling.”

The Lions’ offensive frustrations, however, weren’t limited to the running game.

Along with the sputtering run game, the Lions committed five costly penalties and dropped numerous catchable passes.

“That was very frustrating,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. “If we catch the ball, it’s a different ballgame.”

After the second half opened, it looked as if the Gophers would blow the game open.

On the Gophers’ first play out of the locker room, Laurence Maroney broke a 24-yard run to midfield.

On the carry, Maroney broke a school record by gaining 100 or more yards in his sixth consecutive game. Paul Giel and Thomas Hamner held the previous record of five consecutive 100-yard games.

Marion Barber III was limited to 88 yards on 21 carries, but he came up with a huge play in the third quarter. Barber improbably broke four tackles and dove into the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown to put the Gophers up 16-0.

But the Lions blocked the extra point attempt and then a Rhys Lloyd 41-yard field goal.

Penn State’s offense finally put together a scoring drive with 4:10 left in the third quarter.

The Lions went 52 yards in eight plays – all but the first were pass plays – ending in a Mills 6-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Smolko.

Penn State’s Scott Paxson blocked his second field goal of the game with 7:45 to play in the game.

And now the Gophers shift their focus to avenging a 38-35 loss – in which they blew a 28-7 lead – to the Wolverines at the Metrodome last year.

With inevitable questions about the notorious collapse, Minnesota defenders said they just want another shot.

“It was a heartbreaker,” Minnesota cornerback Ukee Dozier said. “But, you know, we’ve got another chance. It’s not revenge; it’s just a chance to get the respect we deserve.”