Gophers get past Spartans

Zach Eisendrath

;EAST LANSING, Mich. – What seemed like a fantasy three weeks ago for the Minnesota football team is now a realistic possibility.

The Gophers overcame a flurry of self-inflicted obstacles, including questionable play calling and numerous penalties to top Michigan State 31-18 on Saturday at Spartan Stadium, keeping their chances of making a bowl game alive.

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Iowa
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday
WHERE: Metrodome
TV: ESPN Plus/WCCO-TV

Left for dead after going winless in its first five conference games, Minnesota (5-6 overall, 2-5 Big Ten) only needs to beat a slumping Iowa team next weekend in its season finale to become bowl-eligible.

However, this didn’t seem like a possibility after Minnesota’s mistake-riddled first quarter.

The Gophers dug themselves into an early hole when the Spartans blocked Justin Kucek’s punt on Minnesota’s first possession and Michigan State senior defensive back Kiel Beltinck fell on it in the end zone for the touchdown.

After three straight plays went for naught on the Gophers’ next possession, coach Glen Mason took a huge gamble – faking a punt from the Gophers own 13-yard line, which failed miserably and handed Michigan State the ball deep in Minnesota territory.

The Gophers’ defense held the Spartans (4-7, 1-6) out of the end zone – coming up with an opportune stop on fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line, but when the Gophers took over, junior running back Amir Pinnix was tackled by Michigan State senior defensive back Clifton Ryan in the end zone for a safety on the very next play.

“Obviously all of the momentum was going Michigan State’s way,” Mason said. “And when somebody else has momentum, you’ve got to get it back.

“They aren’t normally going to give it to you. You’ve got to get it back and you’ve got to do something pretty special.”

Minnesota took the momentum around the time Michigan State senior quarterback Drew Stanton was forced to leave the game with dizziness.

Sophomore quarterback Brian Hoyer came in with under two minutes remaining in the first quarter and led the Spartans into the red zone, but on the first play of the second quarter, Minnesota junior free safety Dominique Barber intercepted a pass in the end zone.

From there, Minnesota’s defense took over the game.

The defense held the Spartans to four yards on twelve plays in the second quarter. On the day, the Gophers held the Spartans to just three rushing yards on 28 carries.

Not long after Barber’s interception, Minnesota put up points in a hurry. Redshirt freshman running back Jay Thomas capped off a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a touchdown from three yards out to cut the Spartans lead to two.

The Gophers took the lead moments later when Hoyer was stripped of the ball by senior linebacker Mario

Reese and sophomore defensive end Steve Davis picked up the ball and scuttled 48 yards to the end zone to give Minnesota a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

After a Spartans field goal, Minnesota senior quarterback Bryan Cupito helped the Gophers pull away.

Cupito found junior wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright for a 37-yard touchdown to put the Gophers up 24-12. As Wheelwright spun away from two defenders and into the end zone, Cupito became Minnesota’s all-time leading passer.

“That was a great play by (Wheelwright), probably the best play he’s made all year,” Cupito said. “He can do that more. He just has to focus on what he does.”

Mason said the win was rewarding because of how the team “self-destructed” early on but found a way to regroup.

Barber, who had six tackles and two interceptions on the afternoon, said the team has started to click during the stretch run of the season.

“I just think we have a lot of momentum going right now,” Barber said. “A lot of players are getting excited. We’re trusting one another, and I think we have a good team right now.”