Cal defense denies Gophers

Tyler Rushmeyer

BERKELEY, Calif. – Minnesota’s Big Ten opener looms just two weeks away and, as the Gophers quickly found out Saturday, the team still has a lot of work to do if it is to make any noise in the conference this season.

Facing a ranked nonconference opponent for the first time in nearly a decade, Minnesota was outplayed and outmanned on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense, as No. 22 California scorched the Gophers for 531 total yards in their 42-17 win.

Offensively, Minnesota failed to put together consistent drives throughout the contest. Plagued by turnovers, dropped passes and an inconsistent running game, the Gophers still managed to pick up 352 total yards but failed to pick up big plays at crucial junctures throughout the game.

Coach Glen Mason simply summed up his team’s performance.

“I’ll state the obvious – we didn’t play very well,” Mason said. “Credit them, they made the plays and we didn’t. I thought our execution was atrocious both defensively and offensively.”

But things didn’t look bad early in the contest.

The Gophers defense began the game by forcing California to an opening three-and-out drive.

After taking possession on their own 29 yard line, Minnesota orchestrated an effective six-play 71-yard scoring drive capped off by sophomore running back Alex Daniels’ 1-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0.

“I think their defense sat down after that first drive and said, ‘We can’t let them do this to us,’ ” Daniels said. “But they were definitely up to the challenge of our rushing game for the rest of the game.”

Minnesota’s defense was unable to sustain any type of momentum after the Gophers’ first score, allowing the Bears to march down the field to even the score at 7-7 on a nine-play, 67-yard scoring drive.

After an ineffective offensive series by Minnesota, California put together another quick touchdown-scoring drive lasting just 56 seconds, highlighted by a 42-yard completion to junior wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins.

That was the first of four touchdown passes for sophomore quarterback Nate Longshore, who exploited the Gophers’ secondary throughout the contest, completing 22 of 31 passes for 300 yards and no interceptions.

Minnesota seemed to have no answer for his favorite targets: Hawkins and sophomore DeSean Jackson, who had nine receptions for 125 yards and seven receptions for 114 yards and three touchdowns, respectively.

When asked about the effectiveness of Minnesota’s secondary, Mason appeared speechless.

“Did you see the statistics?” he said. “They have good receivers but we had broken coverages throughout the game. That’s both the players and coaches’ fault combined. It’s just inexcusable at this level.”

With California leading 14-7 to begin the second quarter, the Gophers got a much-needed shot in the arm when Dominic Jones returned the Bears’ kickoff 99 yards to even the score at 14 apiece; the first Gophers kick return for a touchdown since Laurence Maroney did so against Troy State in 2003.

Minnesota then caught a break as it recovered a fumble by Heisman-hopeful running back Marshawn Lynch on California’s 41 yard line. Lynch finished with 152 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns.

With perhaps the game’s most important possession and a chance to take the

lead in the game, the Gophers’ offense sputtered as Daniels was stopped twice and quarterback Bryan Cupito under-threw junior wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright to go three-and-out.

After another California touchdown drive made it 21-14, Cupito threw the first of his two interceptions the following possession, which the Bears quickly turned into another score and a 28-14 lead.

“I got to make plays when our running game is not working and I just didn’t do that,” Cupito said. “The interceptions were huge. If we had made a few plays here and there, we could’ve seen a much different game.”

Minnesota’s final score of the half – and the game – came when sophomore kicker Jason Giannini connected on a 34-yard field goal attempt to end the half and bring the Gophers within 11 points, 28-17.

With a chance to build on the halftime-ending momentum, Minnesota’s first possession of the second half stalled at midfield and California took it in for another score to make it 35-17.

After another Cupito interception, and the game well in hand, California added one more touchdown in the fourth-quarter to make it a 42-17 final.

“You can really learn from an early opponent like this and it exposes you,” junior linebacker John Shevlin said. “It prevents you getting a false sense of security going into the Big Ten season and I think that’s a good thing.”