Music City Bowl victory is Gophers’s first in 17 years

Brian Stensaas

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Acting as Minnesota football’s assistant head coach for the first time in a game situation, Moe Ankney was disheartened to see there were no halftime cookies in the dining area at the Music City Bowl on Monday.

“I need something sweet,” Ankney said.

Thirty minutes later, Ankney had it: A Gophers bowl win for the first time since Ronald Regan occupied the Oval Office.

Behind clutch kicking from game MVP Dan Nystrom and heads up play by quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq, the Gophers (8-5) rolled to a 29-14 win over No. 25 Arkansas in front of a paid crowd of 39,183 at the Coliseum.

“I’m a pretty happy coach today and it’s been a while since I’ve been a happy coach,” Minnesota’s Glen Mason said after directing the University band to a post-game rendition of the Minnesota Rouser. “I’m extremely proud of my football team. We endured a lot. Sometimes it’s not real exciting to go into a season when everyone picks you near the rock bottom of the league. But we got the opportunity to play in a bowl game against a formidable opponent and I felt our players worked unbelievably hard for the game.”

It was the first bowl win for the program dating back to the 1985 Independence Bowl where Minnesota handed Clemson a 30-13 loss.

The win was surprising for more reasons than crowd (dominated by Arkansas faithful), point spreads (the Hogs were favored by more than a touchdown) or wind (20 mph).

Terry Jackson II, Minnesota’s leading rusher tallying 1,281 yards this season, wound up in the hospital with the flu after the morning meal and made it back to the stadium just in time for the Gophers to take the field. Cornerback Michael Lehan also experienced flu-like symptoms and was hooked up to an intravenous line prior to the game.

Just when it seemed the team was headed to its fifth-straight loss dating back to the regular season, Minnesota fought on.

The Razorbacks (9-5) started the game off on the right foot, gaining 44 yards on their first two plays from scrimmage. Just over two minutes later, Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones found George Wilson in the end zone for a two-yard score to put the Hogs up 7-0 early.

The game slowed after that point, however. Nystom’s second of a bowl record five field goals on the day – a 45-yarder that barely made it through the uprights – made it a 7-6 ballgame. Nystrom nailed two more three-pointers before the end of the half to give the Gophers a 12-7 lead.

The score stood until Abdul-Khaliq found Ben Utecht for a 19-yard touchdown score with 2:44 left in the third quarter. It was one of Abdul-Khaliq’s easier passes on the afternoon, as Utecht was virtually wide open near the hash marks. Other plays weren’t so simple as Abdul-Khaliq was pressured nearly all game forcing him to scramble.

“That’s Arkansas defense,” said Abdul-Khaliq who completed 16-of-31 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown. “They like to blitz a lot and it came down to either they were going to sack me or I was going to have to make a pass. Thank God the deep passes were on my side today and we were able to make some plays.”

With Jackson ailing – he finished with 42 yards on 16 carries – Thomas Tapeh took the load and ran for 99 yards, including a highlight worthy 33-yard touchdown romp to all but put the game away in the fourth quarter.

Arkansas made a late run, scoring a touchdown with 5:29 to play and orchestrating another drive in the waning minutes. But Minnesota safety Justin Isom intercepted Ryan Sorahan’s pass in the end zone at the 1:53 mark to seal the bowl victory.

“This is one of the best feelings after a win we’ve had all season,” linebacker Ben West said. “To come back and get a win here after losing four is crucial for everybody’s mindset over the summer. Personally it feels great.”

You might even say it’s sweet.