Mission Accomplished
Saturday, October 4, 2008

In 1951, the University of Minnesota football coach Wes Fesler was in desperate need of his first Gopher victory over a Big 10 rival when the Indiana University football Hoosiers conveniently arrived at Memorial Stadium. A Dad’s Day crowd of 45,986 spectators gathered for the event.

Earlier that season, Indiana had gone to Ohio State and defeated Fesler’s former team by the score of 32 to 10. (The Buckeyes were coached by Fesler’s successor, Woody Hayes.) However, the Ohio State victory proved to be a blip on the radar screen, as the Hoosiers in 1951 were on their way to a fourth consecutive losing season. In other words, Indiana was ripe for the taking.

Fesler’s three-year career as Gopher mentor began and ended with the Winona Phantom, the great Paul Giel, who was a sophomore in 1951 but already had shown All-America brilliance. Fesler also rejected the white home jerseys Minnesota had worn under his predecessor, Bernie Beirman, in favor of maroon ones. (Bernie had switched to white at home from his traditional mustard gold in 1948.) The Gophers took a 7-0 lead after Giel scored on a seven-yard run. Later in the first half, Skip Engel took a screen pass from Giel and raced 26 yards into the end zone. Minnesota had a 14-0 halftime lead. The Gophers added a safety and were up 16-0 before Hoosier all-conference running back Pat Gedman tallied twice on running plays to bring Indiana to within 16-14 in the fourth quarter, but, with time running out, Minnesota took control and launched a time-consuming drive that ended at Indiana’s one-yard line. The final score: Minnesota 16, Indiana 14.

On October 4, 2008, the contemporary version of the Indiana University football team arrived at the Metrodome to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers. As it turned out, they, too, were ripe for the picking. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, like Fesler before him, was looking for his first Big 10 victory. Taking a page from Fesler, he outfitted the Gophers in maroon pants. While Brewster did not have a Paul Giel in his backfield, he had the next best offensive weapon, the homegrown quarterback-receiver combo of Adam Weber and Eric Decker primed to torment the Hoosier defenses. The result was a 16-7 Minnesota win.

The year before, at Bloomington, Ind., the Hoosiers had run over, under, around, and through the Minnesota defense, then coached by Everett Withers. Running back Bryan Payton scored three touchdowns, and quarterback Kellen Lewis went 24-for-36 for 235 yards and added 75 rushing yards in a 40-20 slaughter of the Gophers. Those two returned this season and arrived at the Metrodome intent on wreaking havoc, although Payton had been surpassed on the depth charts by even speedier Hoosier backs. But this year, Withers and his confusing and complicated defensive sets (“posse,” “jet,” and “tank”) were gone. Former Duke head coach Ted Roof is Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, and his systems actually work.

Minnesota’s defense was highly effective in the first half. Indiana could not muster a third-down conversion. Meanwhile, the Gopher offense was shooting itself in the foot. Minnesota took the opening kickoff, and the team’s initial 16-play drive was a thing of beauty, consuming the five minutes and 48 seconds of the game. However, all was for naught as Joel Monroe uncharacteristically missed a 28-yard field goal attempt. The defense took the field and held Indiana to a three-and-out. The entire half was highlighted by a fizzling Gopher offense combined with a strong defensive effort.

Minnesota did get on the board after Weber’s 40-yard completion to Nick Tow-Arnett, followed by Shady Salamon’s one-yard touchdown plunge. It was foolish, however, to think the Gopher defense, improved as it was, could shut out the volatile Hoosiers, who had scored 31, 45, 20, and 29 points in their four previous outings. And so it came to pass that Indiana did use the quick strike to tie the score. Lewis tossed a 77-yard touchdown bomb to Marcus Thigpen. The half ended 7-7, but aside from Thigpen’s score, the Hoosiers had net gains of three yards passing and 21 yards on the ground. Minnesota, on the other hand, had a combined total of 164 yards.

Fortunately for Minnesota, the Gopher defense remained solid in the second half. “I feel like I’ve been through a 15-round heavyweight fight,” said Brewster. “We won it playing spectacular defense.” He saluted the “tremendous preparation” by the Gopher defensive staff under Roof.

After Lee Campbell recovered a Lewis fumble, the Gophers used seven plays to go 64 yards to set up a 29-yard Monroe field goal and a 10-7 advantage. Still, Minnesota was unable to mount a significant ground game. Further, Weber “Indiana got good pressure on us by rushing four down linemen,” Brewster said. “And we did a poor job of pass protection.” (During the course of the game, Weber was sacked four times.)

A 42-yard Monroe field goal with two minutes left on the clock in the third quarter game Minnesota a 13-7 lead, but many of the 40,511 in attendance, aware of Indiana’s alleged offensive prowess, were on edge.

Minnesota had not held a Big 10 opponent to under double figures since a 45-0 victory over Illinois in 2004. Last season, the team had routinely allowed the opposition to score in the 30s and 40s. The uneasy fans knew that Indiana was another quick strike away from victory. But time-after-time, the defense held. In the end, it was ball control on offense that got Minnesota the victory. With 7:43 left in the fourth quarter, Weber initiated a 15-play, 50-yard drive that consumed 7:21 and culminated with a 38-yard Monroe field goal for the final margin of victory.

“Minnesota executed their game plan well, controlled the ball, and kept it away from us,” Indiana coach Bill Lynch mused after the game.

Down the hall from Lynch, Brewster was overhead warning his troops of next Saturday’s meeting with Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Special preparation would be necessary, he said, because “Illinois has much better athletes than Indiana.”

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