U ponders lost opportunities

by Murali Balaji

Moments after the Gophers’ 20-19 loss, coach Glen Mason put his hands over his face in dejection. He, like his players, was at a loss for words over what had just happened.
As the team bus was boarding to leave, Gophers players hugged well-wishers and family members, most of whom were crying and sharing the pain of a loss that eliminated the team from bowl consideration. And a red-faced Adam Bailey was at a loss on how to explain his two missed field goals (35,29), as well as two missed extra points.
“The first one was off to the right, but I thought that I kicked it pretty solid. I wasn’t really upset with that one,” he said of his first missed field goal, a 29-yarder. “With the extra points, the first one I also thought I hit good, but it went right.”
As Bailey was mobbed by reporters and television cameras, senior linebacker Parc Williams leaned against a wall nearby, glancing up to the sky for answers. Williams, playing on final road game, held back tears as he spoke about the loss.
“Their quarterback made plays,” Williams said, referring to game-breaking play of Indiana freshman Antwaan Randle El. “He made plays for them and we screwed up too much for them, I guess.”
Holding a 19-14 edge into halftime, the Gophers may have played their most balanced game. In the end, the Hoosiers capitalized on the Gophers’ self-destruction.
“I think we just missed some opportunities,” a somber Mason said in his post-game press conference. Mason also scoffed at the notion that the field conditions played into the Gophers inability to build offensive consistency in the second half.
“(Indiana) played on the same field as us, and it didn’t hurt them,” he said. “It’s a terrible field, but it can’t be used as an excuse.”
The ultimate irony seemed to be that the offense kept the Gophers in the game, while the defense and special teams let the team down when the game was on the line. In terms of confidence and rhythm, the offense may well have played its best overall game against Big Ten competition.
Gophers quarterback Billy Cockerham’s passing performance (16-for-21, 176 yards, two touchdowns) compared favorably to Randle El (4-for-17, 39 yards), but his two interceptions killed opportunities for the team to build any offensive momentum.
Running back Thomas Hamner, playing in front of friends and family who made the trip from Hamilton, Ohio, ran with confidence throughout much of the game. The Gophers used him constantly on pitch-outs, allowing him to utilize his outside speed to beat the Hoosiers’ defenders.
However, Indiana spread its defense to adjust to the Gophers’ rushing attack and bottled Hamner up in the fourth quarter. The Hoosiers also mixed up their zone packages to keep Cockerham and the passing game guessing on the defense’s next move.
And as the Gophers’ offense finally began to sputter in the second half, it was the special teams and defense’s inability to provide a balance that finished Minnesota off.
Bailey’s missed kicks cost the team eight points, and punt returner Luke Leverson’s fumbled punt return in third quarter led to the go-ahead Indiana touchdown. With the score 20-19, the Gophers’ defense became mere spectators as Randle El spent the remainder of the game gaining chunks of yardage against them.
Williams, struggling to overcome his sense of dejection and loss, spoke about coping with the defeat.
“It’s tough,” he said. “But we just have to take it in and get ready for Iowa.”