One win down and only five more wins to go in the Gophers football team’s quest for a bowl game.
Saturday’s 33-7 win against Ohio at the Metrodome was a baby step in Minnesota’s long journey to return to the postseason for the first time since 1986.
But the way things started out for the Gophers, it looked like that journey would last at least another year. After Minnesota won the coin toss and deferred, Ohio took the kickoff, marched 65 yards down the field and took a 7-0 lead on Jamel Patterson’s two-yard touchdown run.
The way Ohio and its wishbone offense tore through the Gophers run defense on the first drive wasn’t at all indicative of a defense that was ranked 13th nationally against the run last season.
“That option is a funny thing to defend because it’s hard to simulate the speed of it in practice, so we kind of got on our heels a little bit,” defensive end Karon Riley said. “But after we buckled down and got adjusted to the speed it was kind of easy.”
After giving up 57 rushing yards on that first drive, the defense — led by Riley and strong safety Tyrone Carter — held the Bobcats (0-1) to just 103 rushing yards the rest of the way.
Riley, a junior transfer from Southern Methodist University, played his first game as a Gopher and was the defensive star. He finished with eight tackles (three for losses) and one sack.
“He’s kind of like a linebacker playing defensive end,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “He’s got excellent quickness, and as you saw, he’s hard to handle off the line.”
Mason said his only complaint about the defense was the fact they gave up that first touchdown, adding they played “extremely well” after being down 7-0.
However, he couldn’t say the same of the offense. Mason used words like “sputtered,” “sloppy” and “sleepy” to describe an offense that rolled up 401 yards.
A handful of motion penalties and offsides calls are the things Mason said upset him the most. He was disappointed the offense was unable to close the door on Ohio earlier.
“We were sloppy and we let them hang around,” Mason said. “We were just too inconsistent. I thought with what (Ohio) was doing defensively and the caliber of their team, we would be able to run the ball better.”
Senior tailback Thomas Hamner carried the ball 17 times for 74 yards and a touchdown, and quarterback Billy Cockerham had 14 carries for 59 yards and two touchdowns. But Mason said the nine times his team was stopped for negative yardage was too much.
Cockerham, meanwhile, performed “OK” according to Mason. Cockerham completed 14 of 23 passes for 212 yards, including an 89-yard touchdown to Antoine Henderson, and no interceptions.
The senior who split time with Andy Persby last season looked more comfortable running the offense from the shotgun for most of the game. Having nine different receivers catch balls also helped Cockerham.
Both Mason and Cockerham credit the team’s depth at receiver with the quarterback’s increasing comfort level. And Cockerham said the shotgun also helps him.
“I’m a short quarterback, so it really helps to be back there in the shotgun,” the 6-foot-1-inch Cockerham said.
Mason said another reason for using the shotgun formation is to give Cockerham a little more time in the pocket.
The team used a number of different formations, some from ex-coach Jim Wacker’s playbook. The Gophers used three, four and even five-receiver sets with fake reverses and short-passing routes.
The play of the game came when the Gophers answered the first Ohio touchdown with a seven-play, 68-yard drive that was capped by a 35-yard bootleg by Cockerham.
After faking a dive to running back Thomas Hamner and a reverse to Henderson, Cockerham hid the ball in his lap and scampered 35 yards untouched for the Gophers’ first score of the season.
“I thought the faking was excellent,” Mason said of Cockerham’s touchdown. “I told him, ‘Billy, you faked out everybody in here who didn’t know what play was called.’ It was excellent.”
This was the third season opener under Mason and his record is now 2-1 after the surprising 17-3 loss to Hawaii in Mason’s first game in 1997 and the 17-14 win against Arkansas State last season.
“I don’t even remember that,” Mason said about last season’s opener. “I know we won 17-14 and this opener was a heck of a lot better than the other ones.”
Rushing — Hamner 17-74 1 TD; Cockerham 14-59 2 TD; Henderson 2-17; Fitzpatrick 4-14; Redmon 3-7; Persby 2-3.
Passing — Cockerham 14-23 212, 1 TD; Persby 3-5 34.
Receiving — Johnson 5-51; Leverson 4-38; Hamner 2-22; Henderson 1-89; Bruce 1-11; Hass 1-11; Dettman 1-10; Mays 1-7; Jones 1-7.
Mike Dougherty covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]