Minnesota officially home for the holidays

by John R. Carter

ANN ARBOR, Mich. ñ Even a first-time, unbiased visitor to Michigan Stadium on Saturday could, if asked, break down the reason why Michigan’s football program is superior to Minnesota’s.

No, not because of the outcome, a 31-10 Wolverines victory.

Not because Michigan is on its way to a bowl game for the 27th straight year, while the Gophers loss ended their hopes of going to a third consecutive bowl for the first time in school history.

Not because the Big House, a 75-year-old on-campus, outdoor college football shrine, packed in 110,828 diehard fans decked out in maize and blue.

Not because Michigan’s fight song – the best in the nation – is called Hail to the Victors, and the stadium’s scoreboard boasts the school’s 11 national titles.

Those could be supporting arguments in a case to prove Michigan is in a higher class. But on this fall day the reason simply came down to execution.

“Michigan is a good football team, let’s face it,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “Why are they good? They have good football players and they’re well coached. And they don’t make mistakes like we did today.

“It’s hard enough to beat Michigan. But it’s even harder when you’re beating yourself at the same time.”

Mason, of course, was ultimately referring to penalties. Minnesota (3-6, 1-5 Big Ten) played its sloppiest game of the season against Michigan, committing a season-high 10 fouls for 96 yards.

Broken down, the Gophers were flagged with four false starts, two holdings, two chop blocks, a pass interference and a personal foul.

There was also a third holding penalty on Thomas Tapeh’s 50-yard run that was wiped out by offsetting fouls. All together, the Gophers had 72 yards called back from penalties.

“That was the main factor in our offensive struggle,” senior center Derek Burns said. “We shot ourselves in the foot way too many times. You can’t have that. We have no one to blame but ourselves.”

While the fingers should be pointed right at the Gophers, the Wolverines (7-2, 5-1) did have some say in the way the game unfolded.

Going into halftime down just 14-10, Minnesota had visions of the upsets at Penn State two years ago and Ohio State last season.

But then the Wolverines took over.

Michigan’s defense proved to be the peskiest Minnesota has faced all season in the second half. The Gophers were held to just 105 yards after the break.

On the ground, Minnesota’s running game – ranked seventh in the nation – never got into a groove against Michigan and its fourth-ranked rush defense. The Gophers ran the ball just 11 times in the second half for a mere 52 yards.

“We never established what I consider a Minnesota running game,” Burns said. “That was definitely a letdown.”

The Gophers passing game
wasn’t much better.

Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq completed just five of 11 pass attempts in the second half for 53 yards. Receiver Ron Johnson, who caught four balls for 73 yards and a touchdown before the intermission, only touched the ball once after the break – on a dropped pass.

On the other side of the ball, the Wolverines enjoyed a breakout game, netting 300 yards and four touchdowns despite being ranked ninth in the conference in rushing.

Michigan ran the ball 31 times in the second half for 186 yards – just three less than its season-high for an entire game.

Yet, afterwards, the fouls were all Minnesota talked about.

“We had a lot of stupid penalties,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “That killed us.”

In the end, the Gophers just couldn’t stay with the powerful Wolverines and it earned them a trip home for the holidays for the first time since 1998.

“Some we win, some we lose,” senior defensive end Greg White said. “But we’ve lost a lot this year. Our goal was to win this game. This hurts more than not going to a bowl.”

Now comes the challenge of regrouping for a pair of games with no postseason implications on the line. Mason insists it won’t be hard.

“We play Iowa and Wisconsin,” Mason said. “That should be enough right there. That’s two college football rivalries.”

Michigan and the 98-year history of the Little Brown Jug, however, didn’t seem like much of a college rivalry. It resembled a father teaching his young son a lesson – a lesson on how to put yourself in a situation to win.

The Gophers have a lot of learning to do.