Gophers get past Wildcats, 33-14

by Michael Dougherty

Evanston, Ill. — The highlights from the No. 25 Minnesota football team’s 33-14 win at Northwestern could fill a season-long video montage.
Conversely, the lowlights from the game could be edited together for an episode of sports bloopers and blunders.
On the upside are wide receiver Antoine Henderson’s 63-yard reverse, Thomas Hamner’s 64-yard touchdown reception, the defense’s 18 tackles for losses and six turnovers which gave Minnesota its first Big Ten road win since Oct. 22, 1994 (17-14 at Wisconsin).
Four false starts by the Gophers offensive line, 11 penalties overall, a blocked field goal, a field goal that hit the right upright and a botched fake field goal attempt compounded to put Minnesota’s lead in jeopardy.
But forget the flags, false starts and the faltering field goals. No matter how people looked at Minnesota’s victory, the outcome was another step towards validation for coach Glen Mason and his undefeated squad.
At 4-0, 1-0 in the Big Ten, Minnesota has jumped out to its best start since 1987 when the Gophers started out 5-0.
“There was some good news and some bad news,” Mason said after the game. “Obviously, the good news is that we won the football game — that’s the ultimate goal — but I’m a little concerned about all the mistakes that were made.”
The good news/bad news summation was a running theme for a roller coaster ride that began with the opening kickoff. Gophers strong safety Tyrone Carter returned the kickoff to the Wildcats’ 43-yard line, but the play was called back because of an illegal block by redshirt freshman Eric Lee.
Bad news: starting on its own 16, Minnesota stumbled through three plays before punter Ryan Rindels shanked a 22-yarder to give Northwestern the ball on the Minnesota 38.
Good news: after an incompletion on first down, Northwestern quarterback Nick Kreinbrink was picked off by cornerback Jimmy Wyrick, who returned it 54 yards to Northwestern’s 16-yard line.
Quarterback Billy Cockerham would score on a two-yard bootleg five plays later to give Minnesota a 7-0 lead.
Later in the first quarter, Henderson’s 63-yard scamper that had more cuts than a Stanley Kubrick film edit, and set up a seven-yard touchdown run by Hamner.
Three minutes later Wyrick — a hero just a few drives earlier — was beaten deep by Wildcats receiver Teddy Johnson for a 49-yard touchdown.
Wyrick got his first start since 1997 because regular starter Willie Middlebrooks was scratched from the lineup just before game time because of a strained hamstring. Wyrick, who missed last season due to foot surgery, was asked about the ups and downs cornerbacks go through.
“That’s the life of a DB — sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said. “But playing DB, you’ve got to get it out of your mind and play the next down.”
More bad news: Minnesota responded to the Wildcats touchdown with a 14 play drive that started at its own nine. On third and eight from Northwestern’s 29, Cockerham hit wide receiver Luke Leverson across the middle with a pass that bounced off of his hands and took away a sure touchdown.
“I am so used to catching passes like that, I just let down my guard and didn’t concentrate,” a regretful Leverson said of the drop.
Enter Gophers kicker Dan Nystrom to attempt a 46-yard field goal that would give his team a 17-7 lead. Instead, Mason made the call for a fake field goal and ended up with egg on his face.
“It was a gamble — a crap shoot but you know what?” Mason queried when asked about calling for the fake. “If you never swing for the fence, you never hit a home run. It’s my call. It’s my play. It didn’t work.”
Nystrom would later kick a 27-yard field goal to give Minnesota a 17-7 lead heading into the locker room for halftime.
Northwestern came out for the second half with renewed vigor and struck immediately. Quarterback Zak Kustok, who replaced Kreinbrink in the first quarter, ran in from 11 yards out after he hit wide receiver Sam Simmons with a 46-yard pass to set up the score.
Then the sloppy play of the first half continued — after the two teams traded fumbles, the Wildcats got the ball on their own 27 and marched 61 yards in 14 plays, but kicker Tim Long was wide left on a 29-yard chip shot. Northwestern coach Randy Walker called the miss the turning point of the game.
“You knock down a 29-yard field goal and it’s a tie ball game and we run off the field hooting and hollering and life is good — momentum is on our side,” Walker said. “You miss a 29-yard field goal and they run off the field hooting and hollering. The game changed dramatically from that point on.”
Although the missed field goal hurt Northwestern, Hamner’s long touchdown pass from Cockerham, a John Schlecht fumble recovery forced by a Ben Mezera sack, and the following Luke Leverson 16-yard touchdown on a reverse slammed the door on the Wildcats.
“We felt like we had to answer,” Cockerham said when asked about Northwestern’s early second-half surge. “We knew we had to keep our composure. That’s how our football team is — teams go on runs, and it’s all about how the other team responds.”
Cockerham finished 17-of-38 for 222 yards and one touchdown. Hamner ran for 122 yards on 22 carries with one touchdown and caught the one pass for 64 yards and a score.
The Gophers are among four undefeated teams left in the Big Ten, and the company at the top is rather accomplished.
Michigan (5-0, 2-0 and ranked third by the AP), Michigan State (5-0, 2-0, No. 11) and Penn State (5-0, 1-0, No. 2) join Minnesota in the unbeaten ranks.
The Northwestern win returns Minnesota to the top 25 for the first time since a 5-1 start in 1985 put them at No. 20.
But does Mason think his team belongs in the top 25?
“No, they’re crazy,” Mason said of the pollsters. “I told my mother not to vote for us, but she doesn’t listen to me.”

Michael Dougherty covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]