Jazzy start gives way to late blues

David McCoy

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ” Perhaps Bryan Cupito had never played better.

Minnesota’s quarterback was 18-of-28 for 263 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl. He threw three of those touchdowns in the first half alone and led the Gophers to a commanding 21-7 lead.

But there was just one problem for Minnesota.

Marques Hagans was even better.

Virginia’s senior quarterback completed 25 of 32 passes and threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns while scrambling, rambling and hurdling his way to an additional 26 yards rushing and 7 yards receiving, leading the Cavaliers to a 34-31 Music City Bowl win at The Coliseum in Nashville.

“He was a great runner and a great scrambler, but he didn’t scramble to run the ball,” Gophers linebacker Kyle McKenzie said. “He scrambled to throw it and to find the receivers and that’s what really killed us.”

Minnesota (7-5) had no answer for Hagans. The game’s most valuable player was never more impressive than on Virginia’s final drive, leading the Cavaliers (7-5) down the field 75 yards to set up place kicker Connor Hughes’ game-winning 39-yard field goal with 1:08 remaining.

Along the way, Hagans twice avoided disaster with brilliant plays, thrilling the announced crowd of 40,519 fans ” a majority of whom wore Virginia orange.

“I just think my God-given abilities took over,” Hagans said. “I felt hands grabbing at me. I don’t remember where I went or how I got out. I just knew that I got out and started looking for receivers.”

After Virginia took the late lead, Cupito hit Ernie Wheelwright with a 25-yard pass to move the ball to Virginia’s 48-yard line and Wheelwright, who led Minnesota with seven catches for 120 yards, ran to the sideline to stop the clock with 45 seconds remaining.

But then Minnesota coach Glen Mason called a play

that proved costly. Rather than playing conservatively to move into field goal range for the tie or get a closer shot at the end zone, Mason called for a Hail Mary.

Cupito heaved the pass into the left corner of the end zone, and for a moment, it appeared as though Wheelwright would come down with the ball. But in a midair struggle, Cavaliers cornerback Marcus Hamilton ripped the ball ” and the bowl game victory ” from Wheelwright’s hands before falling to the turf.

“If you want to be critical, that was my call,” Mason said. “I knew we only needed a field goal to tie it and put it into overtime, but I thought it was the right time to take a shot. We’ve got tall receivers and I thought Cupito put it up there just perfectly; you know, it was a jump ball. I think more often than not, from a defensive perspective, the offense gets that ball. Take a shot, what the heck.”

Virginia’s domination on the last drive was the exclamation point of a dominant second half altogether.

Trailing 21-10 at the half, the Cavaliers opened the third quarter with a 13-play, 84-yard drive, capped by a 7-yard touchdown run by running back Wali Lundy. Lundy ran 16 times for 61 yards and two scores. Laurence Maroney, who declared for the NFL Draft after the game, led Minnesota with 109 yards on 26 carries. Gary Russell added 87 yards on 22 carries for the Gophers.

The game’s swing was largely the result of a previous string of questionable play calling by Mason.

In field goal range and a minute left in the first half, Mason called a timeout, only to call another running play and burn another timeout to stop the clock with 55 seconds left.

After an incomplete shot at the end zone made it fourth-and-seven on Virginia’s 33, Mason chose to go for it rather than allow kicker Joel Monroe to attempt a long field goal which would have given Minnesota a 24-7 lead.

The ensuing incomplete pass led to a six-point swing as Hagans quickly moved the Cavaliers into field goal range. Hughes cut Minnesota’s lead to 21-10 at the half.

“You can coach one of two ways,” Mason said. “You can coach to win or you can coach not to lose. And I learned a long time ago it’s a lot more fun to try to coach to win.”