Jug half full: Gophers hope to hit ground running at Michigan

Ben Goessling

If Minnesota wants to walk out of Michigan Stadium with the Little Brown Jug for the first time since 1986, it had better hope its offense is its old self and its defense isn’t.

The Gophers turned in their second straight solid defensive performance in a 16-7 win over Penn State, but their persistent troubles defending the screen could come back to haunt them Saturday against No. 14 Michigan.

And the 13th-ranked Gophers went just 6-for-17 on third down, while quarterback Bryan Cupito finished just 8-of-18 for 113 yards while throwing his first interception.

Offense sputters in win

Cupito underthrew Ernie Wheelwright on a deep pass that could have gone for a touchdown and sealed the game, but Penn State’s Anwar Phillips reached in and broke up the play.

“I thought that was a touchdown, but he got a hand on it,” Cupito said. “I felt like it was a good ball, but those things are going to happen.”

Under more pressure than usual, Cupito responded with several nice throws on the run, including a 21-yard strike to Jakari Wallace with 8:56 left in the second quarter.

But Cupito threw into coverage on several occasions, lacking his typical accuracy on post routes.

Penn State also had a good idea of where the Gophers’ run audibles were headed, thanks to Cupito’s habit of smacking either side of his helmet at the line to direct Minnesota’s running backs.

Aside from Laurence Maroney’s 64-yard run in the first quarter, the Gophers’ run game didn’t connect as it usually does. Marion Barber III ran for 88 yards and broke four tackles on a 19-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. But Minnesota’s 288 rushing yards were nearly 50 below its season average.

Wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright had perhaps his best game since a two-touchdown debut against Toledo, catching three balls for 73 yards, including a crucial (and spectacular) 34-yard catch for a first down in the fourth quarter.

He also took advantage of a soft zone with a minute left in the third quarter, coming back on a post pattern and giving Cupito cushion enough to complete a 24-yard pass.

The Gophers’ offensive line gave up one sack in the fourth quarter, but Cupito took the blame, saying he held onto the ball too long and didn’t hit tight end Matt Spaeth in the flat.

Run defense Strong

Minnesota gave up just 21 rushing yards on 22 carries. Defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery controlled the point of attack, registering two tackles and recovering a fumble in the third quarter.

“We didn’t need the offense to carry us tonight,” said defensive end Darrell Reid, who registered two sacks. “(Coach Mason) really challenged the defense this week, and it carried over to the game.”

But Minnesota’s linebackers could have Michigan salivating. The Wolverines ran a host of quick passes during their 31-point fourth quarter last year, and Penn State showed the strategy might still be effective.

Lions running back Tony Hunt caught seven passes for 110 yards, slipping past Brandon Owens on two screens that went for 20 and 24 yards, respectively.

Linebacker Dominique Sims was the catalyst for Penn State’s fumble when he took out fullback Paul Jefferson, leaving Hunt exposed to safety Justin Fraley’s strip.

Junior safety John Pawielski led Minnesota with nine tackles, including one for a 6-yard loss, and sealed the game with an acrobatic end-zone interception in the fourth quarter.

“I recognized the formation from an earlier drive. Reid was able to get some great pressure,” he said. “My first (career) pick will be one I remember for a long time.”

Special teams

Kicker Rhys Lloyd now has five kicks blocked this year, and at least this week, he didn’t have anybody to blame besides himself.

Long snapper Rob McGarry was perfect on all three kicks, and Cupito’s holds were solid. Lloyd, however, drilled all three kicks too low to clear the Lions’ wall.