Despite late lead, it’s Mich-again

Ben Goessling

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Last year, a 21-point fourth quarter lead wasn’t enough. This time, three takeaways, including one on the doorstep of the goal line, weren’t enough.

What will it take for Minnesota’s football team to beat Michigan?

For the second year in a row, the 13th-ranked Gophers watched a late fourth-quarter lead against the Wolverines and their inside track to the Rose Bowl melt away in a flurry of blown opportunities and missed tackles. In the end, it was Michigan, again, that held the trump card, putting together a six-play, 87-yard drive with less than three minutes remaining and no timeouts to rip a 27-24 decision away from Minnesota before 111,518 at Michigan Stadium.

“Michigan is a very talented football team. We knew in certain situations we’d be hanging on for our life, and that’s what we were doing,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “We got the turnovers, we got the field position, and we squandered it away, so to speak.”

The Gophers recovered a fumbled punt on Michigan’s 9 yardline with 14:07 left but abandoned their run attack and kicked a field goal after two incomplete passes by quarterback Bryan Cupito.

A touchdown would have given Minnesota a 27-17 lead and put the game almost out of the 14th-ranked Wolverines’ reach. But the Gophers’ offense couldn’t convert, and a defense that spent 37:14 on the field was burned for 10 points in the final 13 minutes.

“I wouldn’t say we really ran out of gas, but they were just hot,” defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery said. “They were hitting all their passes, and I guess they just wanted it more than we did.”

But it’s difficult to imagine Michigan (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) could have wanted this game more than the Gophers, who admitted this week they’ve had a hard time keeping their minds off a chance for redemption against the Wolverines.

But it is clear Minnesota (5-1, 2-1) was done in by a Michigan offense with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. After numerous media outlets, Sports Illustrated among them, picked the Gophers to win on the strength of their running backs, Michigan became the first opponent to outrush Minnesota in 11 games.

Laurence Maroney broke an 80-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, but Minnesota’s rushing attack totaled just 34 yards in the second half.

“People have been talking about their two running backs all week,” said Michigan’s Michael Hart, who ran for 163 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. “We felt like we had to come out and earn some respect.”

Minnesota’s offense devolved into a handful of deep sideline passes from Cupito to receivers Jared Ellerson and Ernest Wheelwright, many of which fell incomplete. As a result, Minnesota didn’t put a drive together longer than 3:02 and left its defense on the field with a Wolverines offense that ran 94 plays – third-most in school history.

The Gophers began the game in a 10-0 hole after going three-and-out on their opening drive and watching Michigan travel 65 yards in nine plays for an opening score.

Minnesota took a 21-17 lead on Cupito’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Ellerson with 8:33 left

in the third. But the Gophers managed just three points on their three second-half takeaways, and when Michigan got the ball with 3:04 left in the fourth, it sliced through Minnesota’s defense with stunning precision.

Wolverines quarterback Chad Henne went 6-for-6 on the final possession, connecting with backup tight end Tyler Ecker for a 31-yard touchdown with 1:57 left.

The Gophers now have to cope with the dual sting of another loss to Michigan and the crippling blow it dealt to their Rose Bowl hopes. Michigan, Wisconsin and Purdue are all undefeated in the Big Ten, and the Wolverines have the tiebreaker with Minnesota.

That means the Gophers must win out and hope for some help.

“One loss doesn’t mean you can’t go to the Rose Bowl,” Cupito said.

No, but it does mean there is no more room for error.