Gophers Undefeated in New Stadium
September 12, 2009

When athletic director Joel Maturi wanted a suitable inaugural opponent for the dedication football game at the University of Minnesota’s new TCF Stadium on University Avenue, Minneapolis, he arrived at the conclusion that he would seek one of the NCAA Division I service academies. Neither Army or Navy was available, so Maturi turned to the Air Force Academy (AFA), located north of Colorado Springs, Colo., and an agreement was reached.

AFA is by far the newest of the three major U.S. military academies. Its existence grew out of World War II and the resultant growth of air power. At first it was thought that Air Force requirements could be met by expanding either West Point or the Naval Academy. West Point declined, and the Navy already housed the fourth branch of the service (the Marines). Accordingly, a special board of leading civilian and military educators recommended creation of a new academy. However, Washington, D.C., bureaucracy moves slowly. it took six more years before President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized creation of the United States Air Force Academy. According to the AFA, 580 sites in 45 states were recommended. Finally, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott selected a site near Colorado Springs. (The State of Colorado helped the decision by throwing $1 million into the pot.)

It was announced that the primary factor for the location was the proximity of Colorado Springs to Lowry Air Force Base, and, indeed the first AFA class entered interim facilities at that base. It wasn’t until 1958 that the academy was able to move into its new quarters. The football team, however, traces its origins to 1955 when the academy with a non-varsity squad. Home games were played at high school stadiums in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. The first varsity schedule was played the following year. And, in 1958, AFA shocked the college football world by scheduling UCLA. The Falcons lost that game 47-0 but started an ascendancy that would see them going undefeated in 1958 and playing in the Cotton Bowl. Since then AFA has played in 18 bowl games. (During the same stretch, Minnesota was invited to 13 bowls.)

As may be expected AFA teams play disciplined football with military precision. The Falcons proved to be more than a worthy opponent for the Gophers’ Back to the Future event at TCF Bank Stadium. It was only through a unexpected gift from Falcon quarterback Tim Jefferson that Minnesota was able to take control of the game en route to a 20-13 win.

Jefferson’s fourth quarter fumble was scooped up by Gopher linebacker Nate Triplett who motored 52 yards untouched into the end zone. An Eric Ellestad point after made the score Minnesota 17, Air Force 13 with five minutes remaining in the contest.

Afterward, Triplett told reporters that he thought he was running in slow motion. “I thought I should be moving faster,“ he said. He was, however, speedy enough to reach the end zone. “I knew this game was going to be big,“ the linebacker from Delano, Minn., high school said. “ I think that in a couple of years, I’ll realize just how special this game was.“

The extensive pre-game hoopla surrounding the new stadium culminated with the opening kickoff. Fittingly enough, the kicker was an AFA cadet from Eden Prairie, Minn., Erik Soderberg. The Falcon roster lists five more Minnesotans Wylie Wickstrom, St. Paul; Steve Larson, Lakeville; Alex Means, Mankato; Jordan Waiwaiole, Spring Lake Park; and Nick Smith, Eden Prairie. The Minnesota theme continued throughout, and the three Gopher stars of the game were natives Triplett, quarterback Adam Weber (Mounds View) and receiver Eric Decker (Cold Spring).

Triplett was all over the field on defense, making big play after big play. The senior linebacker finished with 17 tackles, a dozen of them unassisted. (Last week against Syracuse, he registered 10 tackles.) “He played lights out defense for us,“ said coach Tim Brewster. “Right now, he’s playing at an extremely high level.“

Triplett’s effort was crucial to offset mistakes committed by the Gophers. For the game, Minnesota drew eight penalties for 69 yards, and half of them negated first-down yardage. Not surprisingly, the Falcons regimented style of play yielded only a pair of penalties. What AFA lacked was a consistent passing game, with the exception of a 37-yard touchdown bomb from Jefferson to Kevin Fogler.

Weber’s passing game improved dramatically in the fourth quarter. After the third period ended with a key 25-yard completion to Nick Tow-Arnett for a first down (it was third and 25 at the time), the Gophers were able to march to the AFA seven-yard-line where Deleon Eskridge rambled in for the score on first down. Later, Weber pass completions to Decker and Troy Stoudermire set up a 39-yard Ellestad field goal.

“I was very frustrated with my play in the first half,“ Weber said later. “But in the second half we came out with confidence and got the job done.“ Brewster added that the Gopher motto is “no flinching. We just kept digging. We have tremendous resolve.“

The first half was uneventful, even boring. So much so that the capacity crowd of 50,805, so energetic at the opening kickoff, became solemn and lethargic. This lasted until Triplett’s fumble recovery when the home crowd exploded with a frenzy of emotion that lasted until the game’s conclusion.

Scoring Summary:
First quarter Minnesota, Ellestad 34-yard field goal.
Second quarter Air Force, Soderberg, 20-yard field goal.
Third quarter Air Force, Fogler, 37-yard pass from Jefferson, Soderberg PAT
Fourth quarter Minnesota, Eskridge, seven-yard run, Ellestad PAT
Fourth quarter Minnesota, Triplett, 52-yard fumble recovery, Ellestad PAT
Fourth quarter Minnesota, Ellestad, 39-yard field goal.
Fourth quarter Air Force, Soderberg, 31-yard field goal.

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