Spartans top Gophers in a shootout

Brett Angel

Minnesota football players had to wait seven days for a chance to get back on the field and avenge their fourth-quarter collapse against Michigan.

But the Gophers had to wait just six seconds Saturday for all the bad memories to resurface.

Backup tight end Jarod Posthumus fumbled while returning the opening kickoff Saturday against Michigan State – leading to a Spartans touchdown – and Minnesota fell behind 17-0 before eventually falling 44-38 for its second loss is two weeks.

The Gophers (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) viewed Saturday’s game as an opportunity to forget about their 38-35 loss to the Wolverines. Instead, they appeared to have the football equivalent of a hangover from the week before.

In its first period since allowing 31 fourth-quarter points to Michigan, the Minnesota defense was picked apart by Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker, who was 10-for-16 passing for 106 yards in the quarter.

The Spartans (7-1, 4-0) scored on each of their first three possessions and led the entire game.

“It’s hard to play from behind against any team,” Minnesota wide receiver Tony Patterson said. “We just shot ourselves in the foot early, and it was hard to dig ourselves out of that hole.”

With the Michigan State defense stifling the Gophers normally potent running attack, Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq turned to the passing game and engineered consecutive touchdown drives. The second pulled the Gophers within seven points at 24-17 with just 48 seconds remaining in the first half.

But just when it looked as though Minnesota had seized the momentum, disaster struck.

DeAndra Cobb returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to increase Michigan State’s lead to 14.

Then, with the Gophers content to run out the remaining time on the clock before halftime, running back Marion Barber III fumbled. Michigan State recovered, and Dave Rayner booted a 50-yard field goal at the gun to make it 34-17.

“In big ballgames where you’ve got two good teams going at it, the special teams can turn the tide,” Michigan State coach John Smith said. “That’s what happened.”

Defensively, Minnesota made enough adjustments to contain Smoker and Michigan State’s spread offense for most of the second half. But the Gophers’ lack of a pass rush gave Smoker more time in the pocket than a billiard ball, and Minnesota was unable to force a single Spartan turnover.

“After the first quarter I felt the defense responded well,” Minnesota safety Eli Ward said. “Going into the second half we were making more plays, but unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.”

Abdul-Khaliq finished with one of his best statistical Gopher games, passing for a career-high 377 yards and four touchdowns. He also scrambled for 40 yards on the ground.

Wide receiver Aaron Hosack set personal bests with eight catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Patterson added six catches for 98 yards and a score.

Despite some gaudy aerial numbers, Minnesota’s offense struggled to find a rhythm through much of the game once Michigan State stopped the run.

Although he did have a 1-yard touchdown plunge in the second quarter, Barber had his worst game of the season by far – gaining just 19 yards on 14 carries.

As a team, Minnesota finished with 148 yards rushing. Its previous low this season was 241 versus Northwestern.

The Spartans defensive line controlled the game from the beginning, stuffing the run and forcing four sacks. That was without senior defensive end Greg Taplin – tied for the team lead with three sacks – who sat out with a sprained knee.

“My hat goes off to those guys,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “They may not be the best athletic-wise, but as far as being motivated and going hard every play, I would have to say yes (they’re as good as anyone).”

Despite trailing the entire game, Minnesota remained within striking distance into the fourth quarter. Down 37-24, the Gophers drove to the Michigan State 22-yard line. But a halfback pass on fourth down was sniffed out, and Minnesota turned the ball over on downs.

Three plays later, Michigan State running back Jason Teague broke off a 60-yard touchdown run to ice the game.

Abdul-Khaliq added late touchdown passes to Jakari Wallace and Hosack to close the gap in the final score. But Minnesota lost this game early with costly turnovers and mistakes on special teams.

“The whole team was prepared,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “We were hyped up for this game because we felt like we definitely had to get up from last week (against Michigan).

“It just didn’t happen. We had some real bad turnovers, and things just kind of rolled their way.”