Gophers squeeze past Orange

Minnesota comes back to win opener with an overtime victory at Syracuse on Saturday.


Ashley Goetz


by Marco LaNave

SYRACUSE, N.Y. âÄì The outlook was bleak for the Gophers football team in the fourth quarter against Syracuse on Saturday. Trailing 20-17 at the Carrier Dome , Minnesota was four minutes and 45 seconds from losing to a team that tied for last in the Big East a year ago and was in its first game under a new head coach. The Gophers had scored just three points since the first four minutes of the game, and junior quarterback Adam Weber had looked ineffective. The Gophers had driven to the Syracuse 30-yard line each of the last two possessions, but the drives resulted in a lost fumble and a missed field goal. A penalty had pushed Minnesota to its own 12-yard line âÄî the worst starting field position of the game. As if none of that had occurred to the team, the Gophers put together their longest drive of the game, moving 79 yards in 14 plays. Junior kicker Eric Ellestad tied the game on a 26-yard field goal with 57 seconds remaining. Weber, who had completed just 11 of his first 30 passes, found his receivers on 7 of 11 attempts in the drive. âÄúThat two-minute drive allowed us to just keep on going, get up to the line, call a play and go,âÄù Weber said. âÄúThatâÄôs the style of offense, thatâÄôs the tempo of offense that we want to have.âÄù The Gophers defense had held the Orange scoreless in the second half, so they had no problem playing defense first in overtime. âÄúI thought that they felt really confident about their ability at that particular point to stop Syracuse,âÄù third-year head coach Tim Brewster said. After four running plays put Syracuse at the Minnesota 5-yard line, Orange quarterback Greg Paulus escaped pressure by running to his left. Rather than throwing the ball away to set up a short field goal, Paulus threw a pass that was intercepted by senior linebacker Nate Triplett for his first career pick. âÄúAs soon as he threw it I got a good break on it, and [I was] right where I was supposed to be,âÄù said Triplett, who also had a career-high nine tackles in just his second career start. Needing only a field goal to win, the Gophers moved 8 yards in three plays to set up a 35-yard attempt for Ellestad. His kick silenced the crowd of 48,617 at the Carrier Dome and gave the Gophers a 23-20 victory âÄî their first under Brewster after trailing at halftime. âÄúThe thing that IâÄôm most excited about is that we found a way to win the football game,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúI think thereâÄôs tremendous chemistry on our team; thereâÄôs a belief that we can make it happen.âÄù But the first three-and-a-half minutes of the game did not suggest a nail-biter. On the first play from scrimmage, the shotgun snap sailed past Paulus and Gophers senior defensive end Cedric McKinley pounced on the ball at the Syracuse 16-yard line. Minnesota gladly accepted the gift. On the ensuing drive, sophomore running back Duane Bennett took his first carry in nearly a year around the right end for a 16-yard touchdown just 19 seconds into the game. After a 65-yard kickoff return by Syracuse, the Gophers defense held the Orange to a 23-yard field goal. On the next kickoff, Gophers sophomore Troy Stoudermire had a 54-yard return of his own to put the Gophers at the Orange 43-yard line. One minute and 13 seconds later, Stoudermire finished what he started with his first career touchdown reception. He caught a 7-yard pass from Weber to extend the lead to 14-3 with 11:48 remaining in the first quarter. The Syracuse offense arrived later in the quarter with a six-play 63-yard drive. A pump fake by Paulus left senior wide receiver Mike Williams open for a 29-yard touchdown catch with 32 seconds to go in the first quarter. Paulus, a graduate student at Syracuse who was a Duke basketball point guard during the last 4 years, looked comfortable leading the Orange offense. He completed seven of his final eight passes in the first half and completed all four attempts in a 67-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by senior running back Delone Carter . It gave the Orange a 20- 14 lead 1:39 before the half. Meanwhile, the Syracuse defense shut down Minnesota. Weber threw his only interception early in the second quarter, and he was stopped short on a fourth-down quarterback sneak on the next drive. The Gophers went into halftime without a first down since the first play of the second quarter. âÄúWe were just kind of wondering, âÄòwhat are we doing wrong here?âÄôâÄù senior wide receiver Eric Decker said. In the second half, however, the Gophers offense slowly made progress, mustering a field goal midway through the third quarter. âÄúI think we got some of the juice back, and we got that momentum in the second half, and thatâÄôs all we needed,âÄù Decker said. Decker exploded in the fourth quarter, catching 6 passes for 126 yards. He finished with 9 receptions for 183 yards, the second-highest total of his career. âÄú[Decker] obviously played well, made some big plays and he did what we need for him to do,âÄù Brewster said. The Orange defense didnâÄôt break, though. The Gophers second-half defense kept them in the game. After adjusting to SyracuseâÄôs running back direct snap and screen pass plays, the Gophers allowed just three first downs in the second half and kept all six Orange drives under 20 yards. âÄúWe think we have the advantage all the time as a defense if we just do everything weâÄôre supposed to do,âÄù Triplett said. The Gophers appeared to have recovered a fumble in Orange territory with just more than eight minutes remaining, but a review overturned the play and extended the Syracuse drive. The Minnesota defense ultimately forced a punt with less than five minutes remaining, but Stoudermire ran with the ball after signaling for a fair catch. The delay of game penalty cost the Gophers 5 yards, but the Minnesota offense didnâÄôt appear worried. âÄúGoing into that last drive, I donâÄôt think we felt any pressure,âÄù Weber said. âÄúWe just knew that [if we] just keep on moving the ball and just do our job weâÄôll be able to put ourselves in a good position.âÄù After forcing overtime with a field goal, the Gophers found themselves in that good position and returned to Minnesota 1-0.