Special teams miscues cause Gophers to unravel in third quarter

by Brian Hall

Minnesota’s football team entered halftime Saturday on the wrong end of a 14-point deficit against Michigan.

At halftime, Gophers assistant coach Greg Hudson attempted to inspire the squad by giving a halftime speech.

“He said, ‘Our M’s are the M’s that should win this game,’ ” running back Terry Jackson II said. “He said, ‘We’re the helmets that should be playing better. Come out and play well. Don’t make mistakes.’ “

The talk seemed to work, as Minnesota started the second half with consecutive scoring drives to tie the score in fewer than nine minutes at 17-17.

That is when the inspiration suddenly seemed to lose its effect.

The Wolverines promptly regained the advantage by driving downfield on their next possession, connecting on a 24-yard field goal, the start to a string of 24 straight points in the span of 7:16.

“When coach Hud did that at half, it really fired us up, especially the offense,” receiver Antoine Burns said. “But, we fell asleep. It’s as simple as that.”

A season-high Metrodome crowd of 53,773 watched as an efficient Michigan offense used the Gophers’ mistakes to create a 41-24 Wolverine victory.

Last week, Minnesota coach Glen Mason warned of Michigan’s offense diversity. On Saturday, the Wolverines proved Mason’s point.

Michigan (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) held the ball for 34:28, went six for 15 on third down conversions and only had two three-and-out possessions in the game. Michigan posted 478 total yards, 225 passing and 253 rushing.

Despite the Wolverines’ offensive explosion, mistakes ultimately doomed the Gophers (7-3, 3-3).

Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq threw three interceptions, and Minnesota suffered two breakdowns in the kicking game.

In the first quarter, freshman Mark Losli snapped the ball over punter Preston Gruening’s head. Gruening covered up the ball at the Minnesota 14-yard line for a 38-yard loss.

Three plays later, Michigan quarterback John Navarre hit Ronald Bellamy in the end zone for the Wolverines’ first score of the game.

In the third quarter, Gruening went back to punt again, and Michigan defensive lineman Pierre Woods busted through the line and blocked the punt. The Wolverines’ Calvin Bell fell on the ball at the Minnesota 10-yard line.

One play later, Navarre connected with receiver Braylon Edwards for a touchdown and a lead Michigan would not relinquish.

“Some mistakes we are making in the kicking game are really doing us in,” Mason said. “I don’t understand it or like it. To compete, we have to fix that in a hurry.

“It’s field position. You can’t play Michigan on a short field, they are too good.”

Following the blocked punt, the Wolverines scored three unanswered touchdowns to turn the contest into a rout.

“It was definitely the biggest play of the game for us,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “There are always some plays that change the momentum for a team, and that block did so in many ways for us. It was very influential for us, especially as late in the game as it was.”

The Wolverines are now 9-0 all-time at the Metrodome and have retained possession of the Little Brown Jug for the 14th consecutive time.

Meanwhile, things don’t get any easier for the Gophers as No. 5 Iowa comes to town Saturday.

Brian Hall covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]