Ohio State sneaks away with victory

Michael Dougherty

Two conference home games. Two ranked opponents. Two fourth quarter leads. Two heart-breaking 20-17 Minnesota losses.
Saturday’s loss to Ohio State left the Gophers shaking their heads, wondering how they let the No. 22 Buckeyes steal a game Minnesota had dominated. It was all too similar to the 20-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin two weeks ago.
“I’m a little baffled this week,” defensive end Karon Riley said.
Baffled because the defense he anchors held Ohio State (5-3, 2-2 in the Big Ten) to just two first downs and 46 total yards in the first half and still lost.
Baffled because Buckeyes’ tailback Michael Wiley ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns after running for only 121 in three previous conference games.
Baffled because Wiley would later complete a 28-yard pass to quarterback Steve Bellisari on the drive that tied the game at 17.
“Close but no cigar,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said.
And once again, teams in the upper echelon of the Big Ten were puffing on the victory cigar while the Gophers (5-2, 2-2 in the Big Ten) were left sucking air.
“It hurts man, it really does,” Minnesota running back Thomas Hamner said. “But you can’t let it beat you down. We still have games to play and goals to set.”
The main goal Hamner talked about is the six-win mark and the bowl bid that will follow. And Saturday’s loss left that ultimate goal just out of Minnesota’s reach yet again, even though the Gophers had the victory well within reach.
The way the game started out for Minnesota, it seemed like the same old Gophers. Quarterback Billy Cockerham was picked off by Buckeyes’ cornerback Nate Clements on the third play from scrimmage. Clements returned the ball to the Minnesota 5-yard line, and Wiley rumbled in two plays later for a 7-0 lead before most of the 50,842 fans had even hunkered down in the sea of blue plastic seats.
But Cockerham would redeem himself with the help of Hamner and an option attack that kept the Buckeyes on their heels, while chewing up yards like a Lawn Boy.
By halftime Minnesota was up 10-7 and had outgained Ohio State on the ground 114-12. Hamner had 73 yards and Cockerham 41 yards to go with his nine-yard touchdown scamper.
But in the second half the offense sputtered. The passing game had failed and the option was no longer an option.
“In the second half we couldn’t get any consistency on offense,” Mason said. “We kept coming up with fourth-and-one or two, and then we had to punt the ball away.”
Minnesota rolled up a meager 94 yards of offense in the second half, while the Buckeyes steamrolled to 226. Cockerham was only 1-of-2 for 17 yards after intermission.
With Ohio State moving up and down the field late in the game, the Gophers defense started to tire. And the Buckeyes took advantage with a 44-yard Wiley touchdown run and two Dan Stultz field goals, the winner coming from 40 yards out with 1:15 left in the game.
Still, Minnesota had a chance to mount a comeback after Stultz’s field goal. But strong safety Tyrone Carter fumbled the kickoff when he was hit by Jerry Westbrooks. Buckeyes linebacker Matt Wilhelm fell on the ball and the Gophers’ chance for a sixth win was over. At least for now.
Carter’s fumble, Cockerham’s interception, a Willie Middlebrooks pass interference penalty (his fourth in three games) and two illegal blocks on kick returns all combined to doom Minnesota. But Mason refused to point fingers after the game.
He called this the “year of the penalty on kick returns.” And called the interference penalty a “judgment call.” But talk of Carter’s fumble was what really got Mason going.
“Tyrone Carter — does anybody in the country play harder than that guy?” Mason asked. “Do you think I’m going to sit here and be critical of that guy fumbling?
“I mean, I don’t like fumbles, but I want to tell you something. If I’ve got the game on the line and have a chance to win, is there a guy that I want to have his hands on the ball more than Tyrone Carter? He’d die for the University of Minnesota. He tried as hard as he can. He’s trying to win the game by himself.”
A dejected Carter was the last player to leave the field after the loss, holding his helmet in both hands and asking, “Why? Why? Why?”
While Carter was searching for answers, Cockerham provided some.
“We’re not going to fold up the tents and call it a year,” he said.”That sixth win guarantees a winning season and your turnaround is complete. We’re going to come out here next week with the same mind frame, going for our sixth win. So, then maybe the stories will be different.”

Michael Dougherty covers football and can be reached at [email protected]