Gophers shock Michigan St.

by Michael Dougherty

With the Gophers football team’s dramatic Homecoming win over Michigan State, Minnesota coach Glen Mason erased three problematic streaks — and warned of another.
The Gophers (4-3, 1-3 in the Big Ten) stopped a 17-game losing streak to Michigan State (3-4, 1-2), a four-game Homecoming losing streak and an overall three-game losing streak. But Mason seemed to be more worried about a possible streak by his mother Helen, who was in town from New Jersey for the game.
Mason was asked about the rumor that his mother would sing the Minnesota Rouser at a campus bar if the Gophers won.
“There might be some truth to that, there might be,” Mason said. “But if she takes her clothes off she’s going to get in some trouble, I’m telling you right now.”
Mason’s mom never did sing, but Minnesota did strip a victory away from Michigan State.
Gophers kicker Adam Bailey atoned for an earlier missed 37-yard field goal — which would have narrowed the score to 16-13 — with a well-placed onside kick and the subsequent game-winning 37-yard field goal with 13 seconds left.
“I was trying to leave the missed field goal out of my mind and just kick through the ball,” Bailey said. “I just took a deep breath and relaxed.”
Bailey’s winning kick was just one of several big-time plays made by the Gophers’ special teams.
With a minute left in the first quarter, Minnesota wide receiver Luke Leverson took a 53-yard punt and returned it 68 yards for a touchdown. He was sprung upfield by a Craig Scruggs block, but made a clever cutback at the Spartans 35-yard line before rambling into the end zone to give Minnesota a 10-3 lead.
“Wasn’t that return something?” Mason asked. “I looked at it I don’t how many times up on the replay screen.”
Spartans coach Nick Saban was clearly upset with the loss, saying his team gave the game away. Michigan State had numerous opportunities to put the game away at the end of the fourth quarter but failed.
“When you play on the road and give the other team momentum in the game, bad things are bound to happen,” Saban said. “Our special teams hurt us badly. I’m very disappointed.”
Along with Leverson’s return heroics, the junior also pulled down 10 catches for 137 yards and a fourth quarter touchdown pass that brought the Gophers to within 18-16. Leverson has 35 receptions for 442 yards and five touchdowns in four Big Ten games.
“People have been kicking away from us, but we finally got one set up perfectly and I made the play,” Leverson said.
But Michigan State pulled back in front with a touchdown, two field goals and a safety. Sophomore quarterback Andy Persby, who completed only 13-of-37 passes for 169 yards, gave up the safety when he fumbled after a clumsy scramble. Gophers lineman Pat Hau prevented a touchdown by recovering the fumble.
“I was upset, but at the same time I’m not the guy out there playing,” Mason said of the Persby fumble and safety. “There isn’t anybody who feels worse about it than Andy Persby.”
After the Persby gaffe, Mason told running backs coach Reggie Mitchell to get quarterback Billy Cockerham ready.
Cockerham responded to the challenge on his second possession at the helm, hitting Leverson with a 24-yard touchdown with 1:47 left in the game and bringing Minnesota within two at 18-16.
On the ensuing two-point conversion play, Cockerham overthrew Leverson in the corner of the end zone and the ball glanced off the end of Leverson’s fingers.
The near-miss seemed to kill the Gophers rally. But Bailey’s onside kick was almost a replay of the one against Penn State two weeks ago, both of which were recovered by cornerback Craig Scruggs.
“It was a good kick and I just kept my eye on it and tried to stay in bounds,” Scruggs said. “It happened just how we practice it.”
Cockerham almost stymied the comeback when he fumbled a snap near midfield. But two plays later, Cockerham scrambled for 25 yards and a Minnesota first down to set up Bailey’s game winner.
The Gophers’ fourth win, with the toughest part of the schedule already played, puts Minnesota squarely in contention for its first bowl bid since 1986.
“I think there are a lot of upsets there,” linebacker Parc Williams said of the schedule that finishes up with Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa. “We can compete with all of them. I think we’re becoming a better team, and we’ve got a shot.”