Badgers clip Gophers with 20-17 O.T. win

Michael Dougherty

On the cusp of finally establishing some legitimacy in the college football annals, the Minnesota football team handed the game and Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Wisconsin Saturday in a 20-17 overtime thriller.
The Badgers — who moved up to 17th in the AP poll — stole the game with coach Barry Alvarez in a hospital room in Rochester. Star running back Ron Dayne was on the sidelines for numerous plays because of a shoulder injury suffered on a hit from Minnesota safety Delvin Jones.
Dayne was held to just 80 yards rushing, only the second time he has been held to 80 yards or less since 1997. But shutting Dayne down wasn’t enough because the Minnesota offense sputtered when it needed to sparkle.
After spending most of the first four quarters with the gas pedal to the floor, Minnesota’s offense slapped the transmission into reverse in overtime and watched Wisconsin kicker Vitaly Pisetsky boot a 31-yard field goal to give the Badgers (4-2, 2-1 in the Big Ten) the win.
Pisetsky’s game-winner came in the first overtime that either team has ever played and on the heels of a pathetic offensive series by the Gophers (4-1, 1-1) in the overtime’s first possession.
After Wisconsin won the overtime coin toss and deferred, the Gophers had the chance to get first blood. The NCAA instituted overtime before the 1997 season. Each team gets the ball at the opposition’s 25-yard line and the series is over when the offense fails to score or turns the ball over on downs.
Minnesota coach Glen Mason said the overtime scenario is not as difficult as his team made it look.
“That’s what we call ‘the red zone,'” he said. “We work on red zone all the time.”
However, from the way the offense marched in the wrong direction it was apparent Minnesota’s red zone proficiency was duller than the foam axes that were handed out before the game.
The overtime started when Gophers quarterback Billy Cockerham went for Luke Leverson in the end zone but overthrew him by at least five yards. Then, running back Thomas Hamner was stopped for no gain and a holding penalty on guard Ryan Roth pushed Minnesota back to the 35-yard line.
The holding call clearly got under Mason’s skin, and while he was careful to straddle the line of criticizing the officiating, he wasn’t happy with the flag.
“I’ve been around here for almost three years and you don’t hear me whine much,” said Mason. “It’s amazing to me … you watch 60 minutes of football without a damn holding call — not one — and you go into overtime and one flies. It’s truly amazing. I hope it’s really there, I really do.”
The crucial mistakes continued after Roth’s infraction. First, a miscommunication between Cockerham and Leverson on a pass route resulted in an overthrow. Then on third-and-20 from the 35, Hamner hauled down a weak-side screen pass from Cockerham and was nailed for a five-yard loss by Badgers cornerback Jamar Fletcher.
That put the ball at the 40-yard line and left Mason with a decision on fourth-and-25. Go for the first down, the end zone or have freshman kicker Dan Nystrom attempt a career-long 57-yard field goal.
Nystrom — who missed a chip-shot 27-yard field goal at the end of the first half — said Mason came to him and said he thought it would be a 59-yarder and asked if Nystrom could make it.
“With that kind of distance I’d have a shot at it, but it’s not necessarily going to go in,” Nystrom said he told Mason.
But that time, the team took too long to make a decision and the Gophers were hit with a five-yard delay of game penalty that left them with no choice but to try a shot at the end zone on fourth-and-30.
Cockerham’s ensuing pass was picked off by Fletcher and opened the door for Pisetsky’s kick.
Badgers defensive line coach John Palermo took over sideline duties for the incapacitated Alvarez. Alvarez had communication access to the coaches, but Palermo said he only talked to his boss three or four times. Palermo also said Alvarez’s absence didn’t complicate things — for him anyway.
“I imagine the people down at the Mayo Clinic probably threw him out,” Palermo said.
But while his counterpart was worried about the people in Alvarez’s hospital room, Mason said he was concerned about the players in his locker room.
“I’ve got a locker room full of a bunch of kids that are very down,” Mason said.
For the Minnesota offense, the loss nullified an impressive game that saw Hamner run for 144 yards on 27 carries and catch seven balls for 92 yards and a touchdown. All the players agreed the loss was the toughest they had experienced, especially the way the offense and Hamner played.
“People are down,” linebacker Sean Hoffman said. “You don’t know what to think. It’s such an emotional high when you’re out there playing and then it’s over like that.”
Predictably, the loss hit hardest on the seniors.
“We wanted that axe bad,” Cockerham said. “We haven’t had it since I’ve been here, and it would have been great to grab.”

Michael Dougherty covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]