Gophers ring victory in Happy Valley

by Aaron Blake

When Penn State drove stealthily to the Minnesota 15-yard line, trailing by six points with under a minute remaining Saturday, the Gophers were prepared.

Earlier in the week, coach Glen Mason talked to his team about the game coming down to one last play. Defensive lineman Sam Logan taught them to believe they wouldn’t break in that situation.

And as they had done throughout most of the game, Minnesota’s defense bent, twisted and warped on that final drive. Three incomplete passes and a curious draw play later, they still weren’t broken.

A Michael Robinson-led Penn State offense drove into Minnesota territory on each of its final five drives. But thanks to some Lions mistakes and a Gophers defense that played its best when closest to disaster, No. 21 Minnesota (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) held Penn State (2-3, 0-1) scoreless on each of those possessions and came away with a 20-14 triumph in front of 106,735 spectators at Beaver Stadium.

“Your goal is to shut them down,” Minnesota linebacker Ben West said. “But you’ve got to be ready if you don’t. That’s what every defense does. You can give up yards, but just don’t give up points. We seemed to do that pretty well today.”

Robinson, a sophomore quarterback, replaced starter Zack Mills to begin the second quarter after Mills sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

The more nimble Robinson gave the Gophers problems with his feet, as they expected. What Minnesota had yet to see was how damaging he could be with his arm.

“What we’ve seen on film is him running the ball,” Minnesota junior safety Justin Fraley said. “When he’s in the game, there’s a high probability that they will run the ball. With him throwing the ball, it was kind of surprising. But we did what we had to do, and we came up with the win.”

Robinson, who was 6-for-22 for 70 yards this season heading into the game, completed 16 of 27 passes for 178 yards – all career highs. He was 5-for-8 on third down as Penn State converted 10-of-16 overall, including several third-and-long situations. Robinson led the Lions into Gophers territory on every possession he played, including the first two, which led to touchdowns and cut Minnesota’s lead to 17-14 in the second quarter.

“Football is a game of third downs,” Mason said. “Our defense did a lot better on third-and-3 than we did on third-and-13.”

But the Minnesota defense came out on top by picking Robinson off twice and forcing two turnovers-on-downs – the final of which thwarted Penn State’s last effort.

Just as the game ended on a tense note, it began as such, too.

After Minnesota won the coin toss and deferred, junior kicker Rhys Lloyd tapped an onside kick straight ahead and recovered it himself.

“He’s a magician with the ball,” Mason said. “He said he could kick it and have it bounce back to him. He did it once, and I told him not to practice it anymore. He’s earning his scholarship, I can tell you that.”

The offense didn’t capitalize immediately on Lloyd’s game-planned trickery, but the field position that resulted from it spurred a 43-yard drive on their next possession. That drive was capped off by an 11-yard touchdown run by Marion Barber III.

Barber finished with 134 yards on 23 carries and the score.

Barber and company would have to travel significantly farther their next possession, but the results would be the same. The Gophers began their next drive on their own one-yard line and drove the full 99 yards in just 4:38 with freshman Laurence Maroney diving three yards for the touchdown.

Robinson entered the game with his team trailing 14-0. Immediately, he began to engineer a 79-yard drive resulting in a one-yard touchdown pitch to freshman Austin Scott.

Scott finished the game with 95 yards on 20 carries.

The Gophers responded with a 44-yard field goal from Lloyd before Robinson again victimized Minnesota’s defense. His 10-yard quarterback draw for a score brought Penn State within 17-14 with just over two minutes remaining in the first half.

The Lions got the ball back quickly before linebacker Terrance Campbell was credited with intercepting Robinson on third-and-goal from the 11 with six seconds remaining before halftime.

Television replays clearly showed the ball hit the ground before Campbell could gain possession.

The questionable call thwarted Penn State’s momentum and the Lions failed to score the rest of the game.

“At halftime, (defensive coordinator Greg) Hudson told me we were going to go back to playing base defense,” Mason said. “We were really concerned about the draw. Going into this game, I told them I would be really upset if they beat us on the draw or the option. With those two things, if you overplay one, you’re susceptible to the other one.”

After a largely uneventful third quarter, the Lions had a chance to tie the game early in the fourth. But a 45-yard field goal attempt from Robbie Gould was booted wide right and the Gophers retained their lead.

Penn State once again crept into Minnesota territory on its next possession, before Fraley picked off a Robinson pass over the middle on the Gophers 36-yard line.

“The receivers have a landmark they try to get to, and I was just trying to beat them to that landmark,” Fraley said. “That’s what happened. It was the right throw. I just beat him to the point. It was a momentum changer in the game.”

Following the interception, a stagnant Minnesota offense harnessed that momentum and went to the turf for their first scoring drive since the middle of the second quarter. Eleven rushes and 51 yards later, Lloyd put the Gophers up 20-14 with a vital field goal, and 6:17 was milked off the clock.

Penn State’s final drive began with 2:21 remaining and ended with a pair of incompletions at the edges of Minnesota’s end zone.

And just like in 1999 when Dan Nystrom kicked the game-winner, the Gophers had beaten the Lions in Happy Valley in the final seconds of the game – just what Mason had prepared them for.