Fourth-quarter flop does in Gophers

Aaron Blake

When Minnesota senior tailback Thomas Tapeh dove into the end zone with less than a minute to go in the third quarter Friday night, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr knew his stagnant offense needed a change of pace – literally.

The 25th-ranked Gophers (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) had their biggest lead of the game at 28-7. The 17th-ranked Wolverines (5-2, 2-1) had less than 16 minutes to erase it.

“At that point, we decided to get into the hurry-up (offense),” Carr said. “I think that was the turning point for us, because we answered quickly. From that point on, we felt tremendous confidence offensively, and that was the difference.”

With the help of the hurry-up offense, Michigan blitzed Minnesota for 31 points in the fourth quarter and won 38-35, breaking the hearts of the Gophers and most of the 62,374 fans in attendance at the Metrodome.

The winning score came on freshman Garrett Rivas’ 33-yard field goal with 47 seconds left in the game. The kick capped the biggest comeback in Michigan’s storied 124-year history.

Its 31 points in the fourth quarter were also a program best.

Wolverines’ senior quarterback John Navarre struggled to find his marks early in the game. But much like the rest of the team, he found his way once the hurry-up offense was instituted.

“We just made up our minds to go into the (hurry-up) there,” Navarre said. “We started to do some good things and kept rolling. We have so many things we can do out of that. We just keep defenses off balance. We executed well and took care of the football.”

Navarre found his niche throwing underneath routes and screen passes in front of a Gophers defense that was on its heels the entire final 16 minutes. He finished with 353 yards passing – 195 in the fourth quarter – on 33-for-47 with a pair of touchdowns.

Heisman Trophy candidate tailback Chris Perry found himself on the receiving end of 11 Navarre screen passes, gaining 122 yards through the air and 85 on the ground with two scores.

Minnesota was never able to effectively defend the screen pass, and Michigan went back to it over and over in the fourth quarter.

“Hats off to their coaching staff,” senior safety Justin Isom said. “They came out with that no-huddle offense and those screen patterns. We couldn’t adjust to them quick enough. The screen passes are always tough even if you plan for them.”

The Minnesota offense dominated three quarters of the game with its running attack. Using a plethora of sweeps and pitches to Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney and handing the ball off to Tapeh in short-yardage situations, the Gophers accumulated a season-high 424 yards rushing in the loss.

The total is also fourth-best in school history and the most ever allowed by a Michigan opponent.

Barber rushed for a career-high 197 yards and a touchdown, Maroney added 81 and Tapeh had 31.

“Fifty-three rushes for 424 yards?” coach Glen Mason said. “I don’t think that’s been done very often to Michigan, but it doesn’t mean a thing because it’s still the score (that matters).”

Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq finished with a career high of 106 yards on the ground, 52 of which came on a quarterback sneak for the Gophers’ only fourth-quarter points.

But Abdul-Khaliq blamed himself for giving the Wolverines a chance to recover.

Early in the fourth quarter, the senior was wrapped up by Michigan’s Leon Hall and threw inadvisably to his right, where safety Jacob Stewart stepped in front of tight end Matt Spaeth and ran the interception 34 yards to bring his team within 28-21.

It was the second score for the Wolverines in 54 seconds.

“My interception that got returned for a touchdown definitely let those guys in the game,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “That’s what we talked about all week. This is not the kind of team that you can do those things against.”

Abdul-Khaliq seemingly redeemed himself moments later with the rushing touchdown. But 53 seconds later, Navarre’s 52-yard scoring bomb to Braylon Edwards answered Abdul-Khaliq’s run, making the score 35-28.

On their next drive, the Wolverines marched 60 yards in 2:28 and tied the game on a 10-yard, off-tackle run by Perry.

The Gophers went three-and-out quickly, returning the ball to a Michigan offense on the roll.

After converting a gutsy fourth-and-inches near midfield, the Wolverines marched into the Minnesota red zone.

On second-and-eight from the 19, Perry ran left and was spun around by safety Eli Ward. The ball popped free of Perry’s grip but straight into the hands of Michigan tight end Tim Massaquoi.

“Eli is bound to make a play at any given time,” Isom said. “He made a great hit, but with how the fourth quarter was going, that’s how the ball bounced.”

The Wolverines downed the ball on the next play, forcing the Gophers to burn their second timeout, and Rivas split the uprights on fourth down for the lead and the win.

After the puzzling up-and-down loss, Minnesota players lamented the only thing they can do is pick up their pride and prepare for another tough foe in No. 15 Michigan State on Saturday.

“It’s definitely hard to think about because we played so hard tonight,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “But we’ll definitely get over it because, to get better as a football team, you have to learn from your mistakes.”