Offense can’t find end zone

Luke Middendorf

;ANN ARBOR, Mich. – After a 1-7 start to the season, the Gophers were not expected to come into Michigan and keep it close with the No. 19-ranked team in the country in the 90th battle for the Little Brown Jug.

But in front of 109,432 fans in the accurately nicknamed “Big House” in Ann Arbor, Mich., Minnesota not only stayed close with the Wolverines; they were leading for much of the first half.

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Illinois
what: Football
when: 7 p.m., Saturday
where: Metrodome

Although the 34-10 final score does not portray that the game was neck-and-neck, the Gophers (1-8 overall, 0-5 Big Ten) stayed with nationally ranked Michigan until midway through the second half when the Wolverines’ offense woke up and exploited the young and inexperienced Gophers’ defense.

In the end, the Little Brown Jug, the oldest trophy in college football, was able to extend its stay in Michigan (7-2 overall, 5-0 Big Ten) for at least one more year.

“The only really disappointing thing to me is that the score is not going to be indicative of the way our (Minnesota’s) football team fought, the way our football team competed and the passion that they played with,” Gophers head coach Tim Brewster said.

The sometimes hostile and always rowdy crowd in Ann Arbor, Mich., was quickly quieted at the start of the game, as the Gophers jumped out to a 10-0 lead after a field goal by senior Joel Monroe and a fumble recovery by senior strong safety Dominique Barber, which was returned 46 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.

Barber’s touchdown was the first for any Gophers defensive player this year, something that ignited the entire Minnesota team to start the second quarter.

“I couldn’t even believe the ball managed to get to me,” Barber said of the fumble recovery. “The opportunity was there, and I took advantage of the opportunity to get the touchdown.”

Minnesota’s defense as a whole got off to a solid start, allowing just 53 yards in the first quarter and giving the offense its much awaited chance to gain a big lead on the road against a Big Ten opponent.

But the offense was unable to use the momentum to put points on the board, getting nowhere near the end zone after the first quarter.

“Our defense was playing the best they have all year,” Gophers freshman quarterback Adam Weber said about the early lead. “As an offense, you have to let your defense rest and you have to put up some points Ö we just kept on shooting ourselves in the foot.”

When Minnesota’s offense did not capitalize on the early momentum, the Wolverines took advantage by knocking in a field goal.

Then Michigan’s defense stepped up, forcing a Weber fumble which led to another field goal.

“That fumble had really killed some of the momentum in our sails,” Weber said.

After a Gophers punt and the score at 10-6, the Wolverines were in a third-and-goal situation. Freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett threw what looked to be an incomplete pass, but was called a pass interference by one of the three true freshman defensive backs that started for Minnesota on Saturday, Curtis Thomas.

What could have been another field goal turned into a first down for Michigan, which they soon after converted into a touchdown, giving them their first lead of the game.

The score was 13-10 Michigan going into halftime and the Gophers looked like they were in line to have a good chance to steal back the jug, just like they did in their 2005 upset of the Wolverines.

Many of the players said after the game that the silence of the crowd in the first half of the game was similar to the hushed Michigan crowd in 2005 when Minnesota ran across the field to grab the jug.

“Coach (Brewster) said the best thing to hear on the road is silence,” junior linebacker Deon Hightower said.

Fellow junior linebacker Steve Davis added: “Two years ago when we were here and we were dominating, the crowd got quiet. That’s a good thing. It started off like that today.”

The Gophers were able to keep the faithful Michigan fans in the “Big House” quiet for most of the third quarter, but after the Wolverines’ offense exploded with a Mallet pass to junior wide receiver Mario Manningham for 48 yards, followed by a touchdown run to bring the score to 20-10, there was not a quiet moment for the rest of the game.

“The explosive plays are what determine wins and losses,” Brewster said. “We’re still giving up too many explosive plays to win a big game like this.”

The fourth quarter was filled with such plays, but only from the maize and blue, not the maroon and gold.

On their first possession of the final quarter, Mallet rifled a 40-yard strike to the speedy Manningham for another huge connection, this time a touchdown.

Michigan’s offense showed its fire power to finish the game through the air and on the ground, while the Gophers’ defense whittled away one opportunity after another to make the score seem like more of a blowout than a competitive battle.

In the end, Michigan sent the Gophers away without the Little Brown jug, and instead of the 90-year old trophy, all they took with them were more questions and concerns.

“I wasn’t consistent as a quarterback today,” Weber said, noticeably putting some of the blame on himself. “As an offense, we just weren’t able to put everything together. Little things added up, and things like that are going to kill you when you’re on the road, especially against a team like Michigan.”