Gophers empty 19 years’ worth of frustration

Matt Perkins

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Minnesota football coach Glen Mason said he had no idea how much time was left on the clock.

But with possession of the ball and one timeout remaining on the Michigan 12-yard line and the score tied at 20 in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, he said he told the referee, “Don’t let the clock run out on me,” and then moved his attention to kicker Jason Giannini.

“I said to him ‘I’m going to love you whether you make this or miss it,’ ” Mason said. ” ‘But, I’ll love you a heck of a lot more if you make it.”

It was a Gary Russell 61-yard run on third and 10 from the Minnesota 26 that set up Giannini’s 30-yard field goal, which gave the Gophers a 23-20 win over Michigan (3-3 overall, 1-2 Big Ten). After the game, the Gophers rushed to the Michigan sideline and took hold of the Little Brown Jug for the first time since 1986.

Mason said it’s been a long time coming for both the team and the program.

“They talked about (the losses to Michigan) a lot and it really kind of festered inside of them,” Mason said. “It’s special for that group right now.”

The Gophers (5-1, 2-1) completed just one pass in the second half, and quarterback Bryan Cupito suffered an injury to his shoulder and a concussion, forcing their rush offense to carry the team.

And they did just that.

After Michigan’s Steve Breaston gave the Wolverines a 20-13 lead with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter, the Gophers answered.

Largely on the legs of Russell and Laurence Maroney, Minnesota went 61 yards in 13 plays, capped off by a 1-yard Maroney touchdown run to tie the game at 20.

On the ensuing drive, Michigan kicker Garrett Rivas missed a 42-yard field goal attempt which would have given the Wolverines the lead. He missed another kick in the fourth quarter, a 34-yarder with the score still tied at 20.

While the Gophers’ rushing offense sealed the game late, in the first half, it was the arm of Cupito that helped keep Minnesota in the game. He hooked up with Ernie Wheelwright for a 21-yard touchdown pass at the end of the second quarter which got Minnesota to within 13-10 at the half.

But when it came time to push and shove, the Gophers offensive line dominated Michigan, and more impressively, so did their wide receivers.

“That’s the thing that a lot of people don’t realize, we consider those guys part of the offensive line,” Russell said. “They help make the plays happen.”

Michigan used their last timeout with 1:27 left on the clock as the Gophers faced a critical third and long, deep in their own territory, with backup quarterback Tony Mortensen under center.

Mason said he was content with running the clock down and trying to force overtime, but then a hole opened up.

Russell – who finished the game with 18 carries for 128 yards – ran off the right side and got key blocks from wideouts Logan Payne and Jared Ellerson. Tight end Matt Spaeth sealed off the inside edge, creating a huge hole for Russell to go 61 yards untouched, down to the Michigan 13-yard line.

Giannini, who was kicking into the net at the time, heard his team’s roars and ran to the sidelines to receive Mason’s comic relief.

Adding to the suspense was the fact that the game clock hadn’t been working on the scoreboard since about the three-minute mark, and the field judge was keeping time.

But Giannini was true on his 30-yard game winner with one second left on the clock, and after the obligatory kickoff return by Michigan failed, it was time to celebrate.

Minnesota rushed the Michigan sideline looking for the beloved Jug and the celebration ensued.

Gophers fans can remember a similar 2003 celebration against Wisconsin, which the Gophers play next weekend, when Rhys Lloyd’s field goal sailed through the uprights and he sprinted to the sidelines to snatch Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

The one noticeable difference, other than the trophies won, was that this time Giannini wasn’t leading the pack over to the Michigan sideline.

“You know Rhys is a lot faster than I am,” Giannini said. “But I was just happy to come through after we fought to get in a position to win it.”