When things couldn’t get worse, they did

by Luke Middendorf

After starting 1-8 this season, ranking last in Division I-A in nearly every defensive statistical category, and losing the top in-state recruit when the apparent goal was to keep the Minnesota border closed, things didn’t look like they could get any worse for Tim Brewster’s football team.

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what: Football
when: 7 p.m., Saturday
where: Iowa City

But on Saturday the Gophers seemed to take another step back in their mind-numbing loss to Illinois, even when it looked like the only place they could go was up.

In the previous week of preparation, the ever-positive Brewster talked with glee about the “fun” that goes along with homecoming week, a feeling which he said you are never too old to enjoy.

The Bierman practice facility and coaches’ office in Dinkytown were decorated in high school homecoming fashion with all the fixings; a combination of maroon and gold streamers along with window paintings that said every catchy phrase about beating your opponent known to man, or cheerleader at least.

The most notable decoration was a fake tombstone located just outside the press conference room that had engraved a clever obituary line to the likes of: “Illinois football: 1867-2007, it was a good run.”

The only thing dead on Saturday, however, was the Minnesota student section after the Gophers fell behind by 24 points going into halftime.

Surrendering 429 yards of total offense to the Illini before the mid-way point of the game, the Gophers struggled to gain any momentum against what might have been one of the most beatable-teams Minnesota has played in the Big Ten.

After halftime, the Metrodome crowd looked more like one that would be attending a Gophers midnight baseball game than that of a Big Ten football matchup, as there were more band members sitting in the student section than students and the spotty crowd that was patched around the rest of the stadium was reminiscent of a mid-’90s Minnesota Twins game.

Player of the Game

Rashard Mendenhall No. 5 junior running back – The junior back tore up the Gophers’ defense with 203 yards rushing on just 17 carries. He also dashed in for two touchdowns, one coming on a 64-yard scamper through Minnesota’s secondary.

One of the most intriguing aspects going into the game was Brewster coaching against his alma mater, a program that reportedly did not interview him three years ago before it hired current coach Ron Zook for what some thought to be Brewster’s dream job.

Although Brewster all but denied any hard feelings toward Illinois for not receiving an interview, comments continued to swirl all week in local newspapers about what it could mean to Brewster to beat the team he played for from 1982-1983.

“I haven’t thought about me,” Brewster said last Tuesday about playing Illinois. “I’m totally consumed with helping our kids win. That’s the only thing that matters to me.”

Quote of the Game

“Being negative doesn’t help anything,” head coach Tim Brewster said about what he is telling his younger players. “We’re building for the future here. We’re going to accentuate the positive things that those young guys do and help them learn and grow and make sure that they understand that it’s a painful process that we’re going through, but understand that we will see our better day. The Minnesota Golden Gophers will be a great football team again.”

Another twist to this story is that Brewster’s son and current Gophers freshman quarterback, Clint, was originally committed to the Illini but eventually came to Minnesota to play for his dad.

Shortly after that switch, Zook picked up former Gophers in-state quarterback recruit Phil Haig of Henry Sibley, who currently resides on the Illinois sideline while Clint Brewster watches from Minnesota’s.

Although Brewster said that the combination of homecoming festivities and all that came attached with coaching against his former team would not be “a distraction at all,” the final score of 44-17 might say something otherwise.

In giving up a mind-blowing total of 665 yards of total offense and a staggering 448 yards rushing to a mid-level Illinois football team which the Gophers beat handily 45-0 just three years ago, Minnesota solidified its worst performance of the season and sent its ever-decreasing “Gopher Nation” fan-base away with shoulders shrugged and heads held low.

Defining Moment

After a nifty reverse on the opening kickoff, the Gophers were in good position to start the game off with the first points on the board. But on their first play, quarterback Adam Weber threw an interception, giving the ball back to Illinois in good field position. But shortly later, quarterback Juice Williams fumbled after an option run, potentially giving Minnesota the ball back again. However, the original fumble call on the field was reversed, and Williams threw a 47-yard touchdown pass during the drive to give the Illini the lead they would never relinquish.

“We did not play good tonight without question,” Brewster said following the game. “The numbers we gave up defensively are not acceptable.”

The one glimmer of hope that can be salvaged from Saturday’s sluggish performance is taking a hard look at what Zook has gone through at Illinois and comparing it to where the Gophers are at now.

Zook struggled mightily in his first two seasons with the Illini, winning just four games combined in two seasons, but now has them bowl eligible for the first time since 2001.

Brewster said that the hurt from this loss is something that is almost unexplainable to someone outside the program, but also that he sees hope in the system that is installed.

“It’s a painful process that we’re going through right now,” Brewster said after the game. “But it’s a process that we believe 100 percent that we are going to get where we want to go.”