Gophers edge Ducks 31-30 for Sun Bowl victory

Aaron Blake

;EL PASO, Texas – Minnesota placekicker Rhys Lloyd didn’t need to listen to what his coach said with 23 seconds left in the game and a 42-yard field goal awaiting in Wednesday’s Sun Bowl. He had been there.

“He was just kind of mumbling something to me,” Lloyd said. “I couldn”t understand what he was saying. I was just kind of laughing.”

Despite the fact that the wind was in his face and Oregon defensive lineman Junior Siavii got a piece of the ball with his forearm, Lloyd netted his second dramatic game-winning field goal of the season as the ball cleared the crossbar with little to spare.

The field goal put Minnesota on top 31-30, and an interception by Gophers safety Justin Isom erased any hope a potent Ducks passing game had at setting up a field goal of their own in the waning seconds.

With the win, the Gophers (10-3) avenged a loss to Oregon (8-5) in the 1999 Sun Bowl, when the Ducks edged them 24-20. This year’s crowd of 49,894 at Sun Bowl Stadium was the fifth-largest in the game’s history and slightly more than the 48,757 who showed up in 1999.

“I think it was reminiscent of the 1999 game between the Minnesota Gophers and the Oregon Ducks,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “I thoroughly enjoyed the 1999 game, and we lost. I thoroughly enjoyed today”s game, and we won.”

Thankfully for Mason, it was also reminiscent of Minnesota’s Nov. 8 win over Wisconsin, in which Lloyd wobbled a 35-yard field goal through the posts as time expired.

The kick was set up by a 16-play, 55-yard drive which included a key conversion of fourth-and-two and a five-yard run by Laurence Maroney.

On third-and-seven from the Oregon 30 yard line, Gophers quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq called an audible at the line. Maroney grabbed the handoff and powered right for five yards.

“It was an audible, because it was originally a pass,” Maroney said. “We were going to try and get it out of bounds and stop the clock. But Asad saw something open that I didn’t see.”

The play didn’t earn Minnesota a first down, but the five yards turned out to be invaluable when Lloyd’s kick nearly fell short.

The Ducks called a timeout before Lloyd stepped on the field, hoping to have enough time to mount an improbable comeback should Lloyd make the kick.

But the time was little, and Paul Nixon’s hit forced Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens to throw his first interception of the game on the first play after the ensuing kickoff.

Clemens was huge for his team all game, tossing for 363 yards and three touchdowns. His favorite target for the day, Samie Parker, caught a Sun Bowl-record 16 balls for 200 yards and a pair of scores.

The Gophers were led by tailbacks Laurence Maroney and Thomas Tapeh. Maroney ran for 131 yards on 15 carries and a 22-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Tapeh found the endzone three times on short runs.

On his first carry of the game – a 15-yard scamper early in the second quarter – Maroney became the 12th Gophers back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for a single season. It was also his fifth 100-yard effort this year.

Minnesota depended on its running game when things got sticky, handing off on fourth downs and running the ball on 12 of their final 16 plays.

Despite a scoreless first quarter, both offenses came to life in a big way in the second quarter. The 31 combined points in that quarter set a Sun Bowl record and a precedent for the remainder of the game.

Clemens passed over the Gophers defense and Minnesota’s offensive line opened holes for the running game.

The Minnesota defense looked futile to contain Clemens until the fourth quarter, when pressuring the Ducks quarterback caused a pair of field goal attempts instead of touchdowns.

After Oregon kicker Jared Siegel nailed a 32-yarder with 9:36 remaining, a driving Gophers offense lost the ball in Ducks territory on an Abdul-Khaliq fumble.

The Ducks drove to the Minnesota 23 yard line, when a Clemens throw drifted toward Gophers safety Eli Ward. The ball hit Ward squarely on the shoulders, but bounced off and fell to the ground.

“When Eli Ward dropped the interception in the end zone, it didn’t seem to spell good things for us,” Mason said. “And then I didn’t think their guy would make the field goal, but he did.”

A Siegel 47-yarder stayed inside the goalposts and put Oregon on top 30-28, before the Gophers mounted the gutsy comeback.

With the win, the Gophers salvaged something after losing out on an opportunity to play in the bigger and better Alamo Bowl earlier in the week in San Antonio.

“I used to hear people tell me we had a great season, and I would correct them and tell them we had a good season,” Mason said. “With a 10th win and a win over Oregon, in my book, it’s a great season.”