Gophers drop the ball late

David McCoy

The best explanation Minnesota football coach Glen Mason could muster up for Saturday’s fiasco was “bizarre.”

Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez called it “crazy.”

Gophers running back Laurence Maroney said the play was something he “would have never imagined happening.”

It’s doubtful any of them will ever forget it.

Minnesota lost to Wisconsin 38-34 on Saturday at the Metrodome after leading by 10 points with 3:27 remaining in the fourth quarter.

“It’s amazing,” Mason said. “When I walked out to shake Barry’s hand, we both said identically the same thing to each other, ‘When you think you’ve seen it all, here comes something new in football.’ Except he had a smile on his face, and I didn’t.”

The reason for Alvarez’s smile wasn’t just the 38-34 win. His team was responsible for bringing about what was probably the worst Gophers collapse of the Mason era.

The game was seemingly wrapped up. With a 34-31 lead and 38 seconds left, Minnesota freshman punter Justin Kucek lined up near his 5-yard line to punt the ball away to a Badgers offense with zero timeouts remaining.

The snap was perfect, but Kucek dropped the ball, scrambled to pick it up and then tried to get the punt off while on the run.

Wisconsin’s Jonathan Casillas blocked it, knocking the ball back into the end zone where it was recovered by Ben Strickland for the winning touchdown.

The announced crowd of 65,089 – the Gophers’ second-largest ever – was stunned. The Minnesota team that had dominated Wisconsin for a 19-play, 80-yard drive to go ahead 34-24 with only 3:27 left had lost.

“We were going to punt it on that play, and it was just a normal punt,” Kucek said.

“It just didn’t go my way. I sort of just picked it up and just reacted.”

Kucek said it wasn’t that he took his eyes off the punt but that he just didn’t catch it cleanly.

With a three-point lead, Minnesota (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) could have elected to just take a safety to avoid having to kick the ball from so deep in its own territory. But Mason said he didn’t want to do that because then Wisconsin could have won on a field goal.

Asked if he told Kucek to just take the safety if anything went wrong, Mason said, “No.”

Minnesota dominated the game statistically, racking up 411 rushing yards to just 131 for Wisconsin (6-1, 3-1).

Maroney had a career-high 258 yards rushing on 43 carries, including a 93-yard touchdown early in the third quarter that gave the Gophers a 17-10 lead.

A 49-yard field goal by Jason Giannini halfway through the third quarter gave Minnesota its first of three 10-point leads.

Twice Badgers running back Brian Calhoun responded with touchdown runs of 17- and 1-yards respectively. The latter cut the Gophers’ lead to 27-24 with 11:15 left in the game.

Then came Minnesota’s dominant drive which chewed up most of the fourth-quarter clock.

The Gophers converted two fourth-down situations on the drive, one of which came from Wisconsin’s 4-yard line.

Gary Russell, who finished with 139 yards on 19 carries, scored his second touchdown of the day, seemingly icing the victory with a 1-yard run which gave Minnesota a 34-24 lead with 3:27 left.

“The book tells you to kick the field goal,” Mason said. “I wasn’t comfortable with that. I thought if we could score a touchdown and our defense would have been able to hold up, we would be in great shape.”

Then, a cataclysmic series of events followed that only could have happened to the Gophers, reminiscent of Minnesota’s 38-35 loss to Michigan in 2003 in which the Gophers led 28-7 in the fourth quarter.

Badgers quarterback John Stocco threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Williams that cut the Gophers’ lead to 34-31.

Dominic Jones was flagged for a 15-yard facemask on the play, which allowed Wisconsin to onside kick from the 50-yard line.

Minnesota’s Trumaine Banks booted the bouncing ball, and after it deflected off a Badgers player, Maroney fell on the kick at his own 8-yard line.

After a three-and-out, Kucek’s fumble happened, and Wisconsin took the lead with 30 seconds left. Jakari Wallace fumbled the ensuing kickoff, eliminating any chance for Minnesota to make a comeback. Paul Bunyan’s Axe remained in Wisconsin’s possession.

Now with the bye week coming up, Minnesota has an extra week to think about how to bounce back – and how to forget about the one that got away.

“That was a darn hurtful loss,” Russell said. “To lose that in the last minute is frustrating. I wanted to win that ax for the seniors. I wish we could get right back on the field, because I don’t want to be sitting around thinking about that loss.”