U snaps

Murali Balaji

Maybe it was the aura of Homecoming. Or maybe the football gods decided it was time 22 years of Michigan State domination came to an end.
Either way, Minnesota escaped Saturday with an exhilarating 19-18 victory, thanks to the offensive spark provided by backup quarterback Billy Cockerham and a shell-shocked Spartans defense.
“We had a lot of missed opportunities today,” said Spartans’ coach Nick Saban after the game. “We let them back in and we just didn’t do what we needed to do.”
If Saban was implying that the Spartans had shot themselves in the foot, then the Gophers handed them the loaded gun. Minnesota played its most inspired football game of the season, and somehow managed to stay with the Spartans when it looked as if the game was locked up.
Running back Sedrick Irvin, who finished with 101 yards on 25 carries, was visibly upset at his team’s inability to take advantage of the Gophers’ offensive ineptitude through the first three quarters.
“We had them down like that and we had to finish them,” Irvin said. “We didn’t. We were put in a situation to put the game away. We just didn’t.”
Aside from a first-quarter Luke Leverson punt return for a touchdown, the Gophers simply could not move the ball effectively against the Spartans for most of the afternoon.
Enter Cockerham. The confident starter-turned-supportive backup must have learned something from his benching three weeks ago, because when he entered the game late in the fourth quarter to replace an ineffective Andy Persby (13-for-37, 169 yards, one interception), the offense began to click.
With 4:43 remaining, Cockerham moved the chains with his scrambling ability. Unlike the immobile Persby, Cockerham’s ability to use his speed to turn the corner brought an added dimension to the offense.
“We knew (Cockerham) was a speed-option guy,” Michigan State linebacker Josh Thornhill said. “We didn’t expect him to throw the ball as well as he did.”
Against Persby, the Spartans were able to send their linebackers on blitzes and gamble that he would not be able to evade the pressure. They tried to do the same against Cockerham, and he made them pay.
His 25-yard scramble on third-and-15 with less than a minute remaining turned the game around. Michigan State players on the field and on the sidelines looked dumbfounded after the play, which suddenly put the Gophers well within senior kicker Adam Bailey’s range.
“Everything just fell apart,” said quarterback Ryan Van Dyke, who remained visibly stunned after the game.
While Cockerham and the offense received the praise after the game, the defense proved to be the key. The Gophers played their best all-around defensive game, shutting down the Spartans offense during the game’s critical moments.
After starter Bill Burke left the game with a head injury, Van Dyke came in and did an efficient job of moving the offense. But the Gophers, using five-and-six man rush schemes, harassed Van Dyke for the latter part of the second half and threw the young quarterback off his rhythm.
“If I was their coach, I would blitz the heck out of me, too,” Van Dyke said.
The Gophers were able to stay with their defensive game plan because of tight coverage from starting corners Willie Middlebrooks and Craig Scruggs.
Middlebrooks was able to keep 6-foot-6 wide receiver Plaxico Burress from going deep, while Scruggs cut off flanker Gari Scott from the deep slant patterns.
When the Spartans would line up in spread formations with Scott running in motion, the Gophers would counter with two-deep coverage. These schemes essentially prevented Burress and Scott from using their size and speed against the Minnesota secondary.
Irvin, who broke out in the second half, was able to get some nice runs by running away from the strong side. However, the Gophers adjusted late in the game by moving Middlebrooks closer to the inside, making him more of a run-support safety.
“They respect the run,” Irvin said. “I was able to make some nice runs, but they kept making it more difficult by closing the inside (of the field).”
In the end, the Gophers did what it took to win their first Homecoming game in five years. But not everybody shared in their celebration.
“It sucks,” Thornhill said. “We should’ve won this one.”