For the second consecutive year, Minnesota is bowl bound. The Gophers (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) were extended an invitation Monday to the Micronpc.com Bowl in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 28.
The Gophers opponent remains unknown. If N.C. State defeats Wake Forest on Saturday, it is more than likely headed to the Micronpc.com Bowl.
Minnesota is one of six Big Ten teams making postseason play. Purdue is headed to the Rose Bowl, Michigan is going to the Citrus Bowl, Ohio State will represent the conference in the Outback Bowl, Northwestern is going the Alamo Bowl and Wisconsin is headed to the Sun Bowl.
Apparently, one quarter of no-quit effort is enough to overcome three and three/fourth games of abysmal football.
Minnesota’s defense proved this theory Saturday, as the Gophers snuck past Iowa 27-24 to salvage the season and become bowl eligible.
Finally, Minnesota didn’t beat itself.
“We were losing games. We weren’t getting beat,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “I knew because of that in programs you are trying to turn around there becomes a lot of doubt. Programs that haven’t traditionally won, they don’t self-correct. We needed a win very badly and we really lucked out. We got more than a win (Saturday). We got a great team victory.”
Most importantly, the Gophers defense rediscovered their mid-season form.
After stopping Illinois’ potent offense earlier this season and then moving on to upset Ohio State, Minnesota’s defensive toughness just disappeared.
In the team’s last three games — all of which were losses — the defense handed out 1,574 yards of total offense like charity.
The kindness should have stopped with Iowa.
After all, the Hawkeyes entered the contest last in the Big Ten in total offense, averaging 306.8 yards per game. Even more telling, Iowa averaged a barely noticeable 86.7 yards rushing per game.
Still, heading into the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game a turnaround by Minnesota’s defense looked doubtful.
With a bowl berth in jeopardy, the Gophers had given up 249 yards of total offense to Iowa heading into the fourth quarter. Most of the offensive production came from running back Ladell Betts, who rushed for 143 yards through three quarters, including a 65-yard touchdown run in the third, on 14 carries.
Betts and Iowa continued to roll early in the fourth. With more than 14 minutes remaining in the game, a punt bounced off the hands and chest of Gophers return man Tellis Redmon and Iowa cornerback Tim Dodge recovered.
Three plays later, Betts found himself in the end zone again, as Iowa’s lead stretched to 12.
This was not supposed to happen against the Hawkeyes.
Then something clicked on defense, snapping the Gophers back to their mid-season form.
Iowa did not go anywhere on its two final drives. The Gophers teamed up for a three-and-out while defensive end Karon Riley came up with two crucial sacks on the Hawkeyes final drive.
“That’s what you expect from a veteran crowd,” Riley said. “We’ve got a lot of seniors on defense and down the stretch if you can’t step it up, you’re not worthy.”
By game’s end, Riley posted a school record four sacks.
“He had his motor running (Saturday),” Mason said. “He normally does, but he really had it running.”
As for Riley, he just saw at is a chance to jump-start the defense, which recorded a school record-tying eight sacks.
“I had to put my (Superman) cape on and do my thing,” Riley said. “It was a crucial time for us and somebody had to step up.”
Finally, Minnesota made a stand.
“Our defense played better (Saturday),” Mason said. “The reason we have not been playing better defense is because we have not been playing Gopher defense. Gopher defense is 11 guys playing.”
ù After making a second quarter reception against Iowa, wide receiver Ron Johnson moved into a tie for first on the Gophers consecutive games with a reception list with 34. Johnson has caught a pass in every game he as played in at Minnesota. He is tied with Tutu Atwell (1995-97).
ù Kicker Dan Nystrom’s two field goals (29,27) against Iowa broke his own record for point scoring in a season. Nystrom now has 97 points for the year. He finished with 92 last season.
ù Nystrom’s field goals on Saturday also gave him 22 field goals made for the season. This is the most field goals made by a Big Ten kicker since Michigan’s Remy Hamilton connected on 25 in 1994.
ù Punter Preston Gruening also handled kick-off duties on Saturday, replacing Nystrom and kicker Mike Albert. Gruening kicked-off six times and was inside the 5-yard line each time.
ù Wide receiver Jack Brewer (stiff neck) did not play against the Hawkeyes. Cornerback Mike Lehan was knocked out of the game in the first half with a concussion.
Sarah Mitchell covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]