60-minute men: Gophers preserve 31-21 victory

Brian Stensaas

Feeling he needed to try something out of the ordinary, Toledo football coach Tom Amstutz attempted to pull the rabbit out of his hat twice in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against Minnesota.

But the hare never appeared.

One drive after an offensive pass interference call brought back a fake punt turned touchdown, the Rockets again faked a special teams play. And again it went sour.

Set for an apparent field goal, Toledo holder Bruce Gradkowski flicked the ball to running back William Bratton, who never gained control.

The play was ruled an incomplete pass, and the Rockets had run fresh out of fuel.

Toledo fumbled on its next possession, a play that led to a 21-yard Ben Utecht touchdown reception from Asad Abdul-Khaliq on fourth down. The catch – Utecht’s fifth-straight game with a touchdown dating back to last season – iced a 31-21 Gophers win.

“In football, you play to win and you play to get any advantage you can,” Amstutz said. “Especially in a game like this. Playing a Big Ten team on the road, you sometimes have to take risks. Sometimes it will go your way, sometimes it won’t.”

For the majority of the game, things did go in Toledo’s (2-1) favor. Bratton ran for a career-long 45-yard touchdown on the Rockets’ fourth play from scrimmage, and the team did not go three-and-out the entire afternoon.

However, Minnesota’s defense held strong despite allowing a touchdown for the first time all season.

Starting in his first career game, Terry Jackson II evened the score with a five-yard touchdown run before Toledo went up 14-7 on Bratton’s second score. Jackson finished with a career-high 83 yards on 21 carries.

Then the Gophers veterans took over. Abdul-Khaliq scrambled for a two-yard touchdown capping a 17-play, 80-yard drive to make it a 14-14 game at halftime. The lead was recaptured when Thomas Tapeh broke free for a 31-yard score in the third quarter sending the 36,640 fans into a frenzy.

“We have a motto,” Tapeh said, “‘Count on me.’ When someone else is out there, I know I can count on him. And when I get the call, they can count on me. That’s important in the backfield.”

Bratton tacked on one more touchdown for good measure, adding to his bittersweet career day. He finished with 114 yards and three scores. But the impressive output was not enough to stop Minnesota (3-0).

“If I look happy, I am,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “It’s been a tough couple of weeks for us. It may seem like two weeks to you, but it seems like two years to me. It’s very rewarding to be in that locker room with a bunch of happy kids again.”

Abdul-Khaliq finished the game 10-16 passing for 110 yards, but he did added damage on the ground. The junior ran for 103 yards, including a career-long 47-yard sprint in the fourth quarter that led to a Dan Nystrom field goal.

“I didn’t let myself get down,” said Abdul-Khaliq, who threw a first down interception in the opening quarter. “I just had to forget about it and come back strong. I said, ‘The hell with the interception. We still have three more quarters to play.’ “

Though Toledo racked up 428 yards of offense on the Gophers – the nation’s top defense entering the game – poor execution down the stretch allowed the Gophers to step in and capitalize.

“We needed one of those games that went the full 60 minutes,” Mason said. “It was back and forth. Everything at that point means something. Every call. That’s when you can really evaluate how you’re doing.”

Boasting an unscathed record, so far, so good – but not without a little bad luck on the other sideline.

Brian Stensaas covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]