As the final minutes slowly ticked off the Metrodome clock Saturday night, the Gophers football team found itself in a familiar position — behind.
Iowa’s 43-24 victory was well in hand, and the intensity that jolted the Dome in the third quarter had long since left, along with the usual mass of early-exiting fans. But none of that seemed to matter much on the Gophers sideline, where the scene was anything but typical.
“It’s frustrating that we lost,” defensive captain Jerome Davis said. “But certain things in life you can’t measure.”
There was a head coach whose 37-year career was about to end, and whose mind struggled to remain focused on the final game activity.
There were 15 seniors, who were also soaking up the final moments of their careers. Younger players took turns shaking the seniors’ hands, thanking them and wishing them well in the future.
In fact, everyone from departing band members to graduating cheerleaders shared hugs as the game’s conclusion neared. Although present every season, an especially strong sense of change emanated Saturday along the sideline.
“There were a lot of tears,” senior lineman Gann Brooks said.
The Jim Wacker era ended in fitting fashion, with a loss and an overload of emotion. And just as, according to Wacker, the team is close to turning the corner, Minnesota came close for a while to sneaking out a win.
The Gophers finished the year 4-7 overall, 1-7 in the Big Ten. No. 24 Iowa, now 8-3 and 6-2, clinched a third-place finish in the Big Ten.
Early on it appeared Iowa would make quick work of the Gophers. The Hawkeyes opened up a 17-0 lead. All that prevented Iowa from scoring on all five of its first-half possessions were a pair of missed field goals.
The Gophers did not fold, however. Adam Bailey hit a 20-yard field goal, and Crawford Jordan recovered a fumbled punt return to set up a touchdown with 10 seconds left in the half. The Gophers kept their momentum in the second half by cutting loose a vertical passing game and driving to tie the game at 17.
“Our defensive backs were pressing us and our receivers felt like they could beat them,” quarterback Cory Sauter said. “We just wanted to take a couple shots at some deep ones to get the momentum back to our side.”
And it worked until the game’s key, controversial play gave Iowa a touchdown with 2:53 left in the third quarter.
Hawkeyes running back Michael Burger broke a carry from his own 35-yard line and sprinted untouched toward the goal line. Cornerback Craig Scruggs caught up with him inside the 5-yard line, stripped the ball loose near the 1, and it bounced into the end zone.
This is where the story’s versions start to differ. Jordan dove onto the ball, and it squirted out of his arms. Then several other players, including Iowa’s Richard Willock, jumped into the fray, and the officials ruled that Willock had possession in the middle of the pile. Jordan, however, emerged from the pile with the ball.
“I had it all the way,” said Willock, who was credited with the touchdown. “(Jordan) was trying to strip it away from me, but I just held it tight.”
Jordan was equally adamant that he recovered the ball.
“It bounced out a little bit, but I recovered the ball at the bottom of the pile,” he said. “If anybody had possession, I had possession.”
From there, everything went downhill for the Gophers. On the ensuing possession, Sauter lined up in a shotgun formation and Gregg James snapped the ball over his head and out of the end zone for a safety. Iowa got the ball back and responded with a 53-yard touchdown pass to Dwight.
The game quickly got out of hand, and the focus shifted from the game to the sidelines.
“We didn’t want to end it this way,” Brooks said. “It hurts. It really hurts.”
GAME SUMMARYIowa 10 7 16 10 — 43
Minnesota 0 10 7 7 — 24
First Quarter:Iowa — Shaw 5 run (Bromert kick) 8:54
Iowa — FG Hurley 50, 4:47
Second Quarter:Iowa — Dwight 5 run (Bromert kick) 12:52
Minn — FG Bailey 20, 6:49
Minn — Thelwell 9 pass from Sauter (Bailey kick) 0:10
Third Quarter:Minn — Sauter 1 run (Bailey kick) 8:16
Iowa — Willock recover fumble in end zone (Bromert kick) 2:53
Iowa — Safety (Ball snapped out of end zone) 2:31.
Iowa — Dwight 53 pass from Sherman (Bromert kick) 0:58
Fourth Quarter:Iowa — FG Bromert 25, 11:21
Iowa — Shaw 14 run (Bromert kick) 10:10
Minn — Thelwell 11 pass from Sauter (Bailey kick) 6:50
A — 53,349
T — 3:40
First Downs: Iowa 18, Minn 20. Rushing Yards: Iowa 227, Minn 75. Passing Yards: Iowa 226, Minn 235. Total Yards: Iowa 453, Minn 310. Fumbles Lost: Iowa 2, Minn 1. Possession Time: Iowa 35:59, Minn 24:01.
RUSHING — Iowa, Shaw 27-108, Sherman 12-(-3), Burger 3-68, Dwight 2-21, Banks 5-26, Willock 0-0, Granquist 1-7, Filer 2-0; Minnesota, Hamner 9-30, Evans 12-40, Sauter 3-11, Atwell 1-6.
PASSING — Iowa, Sherman 17-21-0-226; Minn, Sauter 17-47-2-235.
RECEIVING — Iowa, Dwight 7-134, Odems 1-9, Knipper 5-62, Banks 1-11, Gibson 1-12, Shaw 2-(-2); Minnesota, Atwell 4-63, Kratochvil 2-20, Thelwell 8-127, Hamner 1-(-4), Nelson 2-29.