Can you believe it? U football is 3-0

Jeff Sherry

In one week, a back-up safety has become a front-line scorer. A walk-on kicker has become a big-money performer. And a ridiculed football team has become a gutty, confident unit.
The Gophers upgraded both their play and status Saturday night, knocking off No. 23 Syracuse, 35-33 at the Metrodome. Minnesota, for the first time since 1987, has a perfect record in its first three games.
“To us, it kind of quiets down our skeptics,” senior linebacker Ben Langford said. “We get a lot of heat in this town, and it just shows that we can play and that we won’t ever quit.”
It was the kind of game that typified winning Minnesota football — a sloppy, high-scoring, come-from-behind thriller.
It was the kind of game that prompted University President Nils Hasselmo, Board of Regents Chairman Tom Reagan, and University vice president McKinley Boston to make personal visits to the locker room.
And finally, it was the kind of game coach Jim Wacker and his team have waited five years for: a victory over a top-25 opponent, when it still meant something.
Minnesota now has a week off before beginning its Big Ten schedule on Oct. 5 at 0-3 Purdue. The Gophers felt great about their chances of going 4-0 after Saturday’s upset, but Wacker was quick to provide them with a rather uncharacteristic voice of reason.
“This was a great win for us, but we can’t get too excited,” said Wacker, whose offense was out-gained 429 yards to 266. “We’re not where we want to be yet. We need to do better against the run, we need to make our running game better, and we need to do a better job of protecting our quarterback.
“This game provided us with plenty of things to build on.”
Early on, it looked as if the Orangemen would run away with the game. On the opening drive, Syracuse ran 11 times from their 23 yard-line to the Minnesota 13. The Orangemen’s preseason All-America quarterback, Donovan McNabb, then found Jim Turner all alone in the end zone to take a quick 7-0 lead.
Minnesota countered by going three-and-out on its first possession and fumbling in its own territory on the following two possessions. Syracuse opened a 12-0 lead late in the half when Scott Kneen sent a long snap over the head of punter Steve Kemph, and Kemph batted the ball out of the end zone for a Syracuse safety.
Fortunately for the Gophers, the Orangemen also made their share of mistakes. Minnesota cornerback Mari Moore intercepted McNabb in the end zone in the first quarter, and wideout Tutu Atwell got behind the SU defense for a 50-yard touchdown reception with 1:19 left in the half.
“When we scored that touchdown at the end of the second quarter it really gave us confidence,” split end Ryan Thelwell said. “We came in at halftime saying, `These guys are beatable. Who cares if they’re ranked? We can beat them.’ We came out in the second half and did it.”
Minnesota’s two heroes of the game emerged in the second half. Second-string safety Tyrone Carter picked up a pair of Syracuse fumbles and returned them 63 and 20 yards for touchdowns. Cornerback Rodney Heath set up another touchdown with an interception and 43-yard return.
All the turnovers kept the Gophers defense on the field, however, and it started to tire near the end of the third quarter. Syracuse scored three touchdowns to turn a 12-29 deficit into a 33-29 lead — and the stage was set for Minnesota placekicker Adam Bailey.
Bailey, a walk-on sophomore who was just given a scholarship last week, hit a 48-yarder with 5:23 remaining. Then, with 42 seconds left, he delivered a clutch 26-yarder for the game’s final points.
“I just tried to stay focused,” Bailey said. “I tried not to think of what the game meant and how big the kick was going to be.”
The kick may have been the biggest in Wacker’s five years at Minnesota. Now, after coming back in the game’s final minute for the second straight week, the Gophers are developing a strange, winning feeling.
“We’re off to a fast start now and it’s got everybody excited about playing football,” quarterback Cory Sauter said. “When you have fun playing football, you play with more enthusiasm and you perform a little better. And that’s something that hasn’t happened around here in quite a while.”

GAME SUMMARY
Syracuse 7 5 7 4 — 33
Gophers 0 7 22 6 — 35

First Quarter
Syr — Turner 13 pass from McNabb (Trout kick) 9:11
Second Quarter
Syr — FG Trout 21, 13:19
Syr — Safety (Kemph batted ball out of end zone) 4:26
Min — Atwell 50 pass from Sauter (Bailey kick) 1:19
Third Quarter
Min — Carter 63 fumble return (Hamner run) 8:52
Min — Carter 20 fumble return (Bailey kick) 7:56
Min — Hamner 3 run (Bailey kick) 4:10
Syr — Spotwood 28 pass from McNabb (Trout kick) 0:21
Fourth Quarter
Syr — Thomas 13 run (Trout kick) 11:19
Syr — Thomas 21 run (Trout kick) 7:44
Min — FG Bailey 48, 5:23
Min — FG Bailey 26, 0:42
A — 45,756
T — 3:19

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
RUSHING — Syracuse, Thomas 26-168, Konrad 17-83, McNabb 6-30, McIntosh 4-18, Morris 1-3, Jones 4-(-1). Minnesota, Hamner 22-98, Evans 8-32, Atwell 1-11, Kemph 1-(-14), Sauter 7-(-19).
PASSING — Syracuse, McNabb 10-23-3 128. Minnesota, Sauter 13-20-0 193.
RECEIVING — Syracuse, Turner 3-42, Spotwood 3-47, Maddox 3-33, Konrad 1-6. Minnesota, Atwell 6-126, Thelwell 5-57, Hutton 1-3, Nelson 1-7.