Seniors say goodbye to dome, hello to bowl bid

Michael Dougherty

and Mark Heller
Saturday’s 44-20 win over Indiana assures the Gophers football team will play beyond the month of November for the first time since 1986.
But even with a bowl game to play next month, Saturday’s game served as a home farewell to another group of seniors. They’re a contingent who made good on every athlete’s pledge to turn around a fledgling team.
“That’s the story line of the season,” coach Glen Mason said, holding up a picture of all the seniors on the team. “That’s what our team is about. I’m not just saying that now because we have a winning season. I’ve said for a long time if you go back and check your notes. That picture tells it all.”
The players inherited by Mason three years ago took center stage for the final home game of their collegiate careers. In front of a small but supportive crowd of 47,852 in the Metrodome, those seniors who have carried this year’s team fittingly carried the team in Saturday’s win.
Senior quarterback Billy Cockerham had 234 (111 rushing, 123 passing) total yards. Many fans who once referred to him as the “O-for-Gopher” after going 0-for-12 passing during the ’98 spring game, roared with approval after he threw a perfect 39-yard strike to Ron Johnson for Minnesota’s first touchdown. The fans roared much more as Cockerham ran for two other scores.
“It feels great,” Cockerham said. “(Mason) has said all week that the seniors have the most invested in this season for the fact that we were here for the rough times.
“I think my first two years here we were 3-8 and 4-7. We were talking at the dinner table last night. I told (the younger players) they don’t understand how good they have it now.”
Senior running back Thomas Hamner, who Mason thinks is having one of the best years in the conference, carried the ball 34 times for 174 yards.
Early in the fourth quarter, senior cornerback Jimmy Wyrick intercepted a pass from Antwaan Randle El and bolted 61 yards for a touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, senior Luke Braaten forced and recovered a fumble by the Hoosiers’ Adam Braucher. A field goal made it 37-20, and all but guaranteed the win.
The seniors, who persevered through some of the worst football in school history, can tell the story to those down the line that all of their on-the-field accomplishments finally kept them on the field when it matters — in late December.
“It was just like a dream come true,” senior strong safety Tyrone Carter said. “You dream it’s your last game and you’re winning, and it feels great. I appreciate everything that comes to me, and that’s the same thing I tell my teammates. You have to be appreciative, because there are a lot of people that haven’t gotten the opportunity to do it.”

Bored with bowl babbling
Mason said it’s too early to talk about the various bowl possibilities for his team. He has given Tim Allen, the assistant athletics director for football operations, the responsibility of sorting out the mayhem that is involved with bowl games.
Mason made it clear any further questions regarding the postseason be directed to Allen.
“If you want to get any insight, call Tim, but you’re not going to get it from me,” Mason said. “I’m very nice to the bowl people that were here, but that’s about it. I asked my players and my coaches to block it out, and when I ask them to do it then I’ve got to do it.”
One of the bowl people Mason was nice to on Saturday was Derrick Fox, the executive director of the Alamo Bowl. The Alamo Bowl will be played on Dec. 28 in San Antonio, and it owns the third pick from the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences after the Bowl Championship Series chooses its participants.
With Wisconsin already headed to the Rose Bowl as part of the BCS, and assuming Michigan State beats Penn State and Minnesota beats Iowa, the Gophers would finish tied for fourth in the Big Ten with Penn State.
Typically, the Alamo Bowl would pick the fourth-place team from the Big Ten, but it’s not a guarantee.
“We’ve got the fourth choice, and it’s not necessarily fourth place,” Fox said on Saturday.
Fox said there are many factors involved in the selection process, with drawing power for fans and television viewers at the top of the list.
A third Penn State loss in a row this weekend could cause some interference for the Gophers and their Alamo Bowl hopes.
Penn State draws more fans and has a better national reputation. Fox said the selection will be made after the final BCS rankings are released on Dec. 5.
Until then, Mason said, there’s nothing he can do except prepare for the team’s final game.
“I can sit around all this week and worry about that and do all these things, but that’s not going to help us beat Iowa one bit,” Mason said.

Nystrom earns honor
For the second-straight week Gophers kicker Dan Nystrom shared the conference’s special teams player of the week honor — this time with Illinois kicker Neil Rackers.
Nystrom hit three field goals (51, 25, 24) and broke the team record for points in a season with 79. The old record of 78 was held by four people, including Thomas Hamner this season.
Nystrom also broke the freshman record for field goals in a season (14) and longest field goal by a freshman (51). It’s the first time a Minnesota player has won the honor two weeks in a row.

— David La Vaque contributed to this report.
Michael Dougherty covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]
Mark Heller welcomes comments at [email protected]