Overlooked offense does well in loss

David La

Chapter 109 in the longest running Division I-A football rivalry had more than its share of plot twists.
Minnesota’s (4-1, 1-1 in the Big Ten) 20-17 overtime loss to No. 17 Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1) on Saturday could easily be shelved in the suspense/thriller section.
And it was the surprise play of the Gophers offense that made this read hard to put down.
Heisman candidate Ron Dayne’s impending matchup with the Minnesota defense made the pre-game headlines and left the Gophers offense out of the spotlight.
But the disregarded Gophers offensive unit went out and announced their presence in resounding fashion. When Billy Cockerham hit receiver Arland Bruce with a 24-yard touchdown pass, it capped a six-play, 86-yard drive that had Wisconsin defenders scrambling like schoolchildren during a fire drill.
“That first drive that we had offensively was about as good a drive execution-wise that I’ve seen from anybody in a long time,” coach Glen Mason said.
Running back Thomas Hamner ran for 24 yards and caught a 21-yard pass during the drive to set the tone for what was a busy day. Hamner ended the day as the game’s leading rusher with 144 yards, as well as the game’s leading receiver with 92 yards and one touchdown.
“I think Thomas Hamner is having an excellent senior year, it’s not just today,” Mason said. “He’s been playing pretty darn well. He carried the ball 27 times, had seven receptions, held onto the football; he’s doing a good job.”
Hamner’s second consecutive 100-yard performance gives him three this season. Hamner ran for 118 yards last weekend at Northwestern.
Quarterback Billy Cockerham also played one of his better games against the Badgers. The same Cockerham who was intercepted four times last year at Camp Randall Stadium was picked-off only once on Saturday.
Cockerham made successful audibles despite the roaring Wisconsin fans, and kept the Badgers defense off balance with his ball fakes and bootlegs.
“(Cockerham’s) playing great,” center Ben Hamilton said. “He’s not turning the ball over, he’s making plays happen and that’s what we need from our quarterback. He’s doing a great job of being a playmaker.”
The two teams played to a 14-14 tie at the half, but as Cockerham said, “We knew that down the road it was going to be tough.”
Wisconsin regrouped in a big way defensively, allowing Cockerham a meager 68 yards of total offense the rest of the way. Unfortunately for Minnesota, things actually got worse in overtime.
“We started the overtime defensively like we wanted to start the football game,” Badgers coach John Palermo said.
The Wisconsin defense allowed Minnesota minus-5 yards in the overtime, and watched as the Gophers backed themselves up another 15 yards.
A holding penalty — the only one of the entire game — and a delay of the game infraction put the Gophers in a fourth-and-30 situation.
Cockerham lofted a pass toward the end zone, but Badgers cornerback Jamar Fletcher intercepted the pass, closing the book on the Gophers offense for the day.
Overall, Minnesota’s offense played to the level of their better-known defense and the result was a near upset of Wisconsin. After the game, voices and heads were pitched a little lower, but confidence remained.
“We know we can play with anybody in the Big Ten,” Hamilton said. “We’re going to bounce back, be ready for Illinois next week and start winning again.”

Note
ù Saturday’s game drew 63,108 fans, and unofficial estimates put the crowd at half Gophers and half Badgers.

David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]