Minnesota Meltdown in Insight Bowl Costs Mason His Job
Friday, December 29, 2006

A stunning record-setting bowl game loss suffered by the University of Minnesota Gophers in Tempe, Arizona, was followed by the even more shocking firing of head coach Glen Mason.

As the Gophers trudged to the locker room after surrendering a 38-7 lead over the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Insight Bowl (and losing in overtime 44-41), little did they suspect that coach Mason’s neck was being measured for a noose by athletic director Joel Maturi. The Red Raider comeback was the biggest in NCAA bowl history. On Friday night, December 29, the Gophers made history. On Sunday, December 31, Glen Mason was history.

Maturi made the announcement at 5:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. “This was an extremely difficult decision,” Maturi said, “but after consulting with the president [Robert Bruininks], I felt it was in the best interest of the football program to make a coaching change. I believe the program needs a new vision to reignite the fan enthusiasm for Gopher football. Coach Mason brought respectability to the program, and I want to thank him.

“Many factors go into a decision like this, and I felt we needed a new vision, a new voice, and new leadership to bring a football championship to the University of Minnesota.”

When asked if the outcome of the Texas Tech game was one of the “factors” in Mason’s dismissal, Maturi responded: “If we had not lost in the way we lost, we probably wouldn’t be here today.” In other words, if a 22–year-old kid from Friendswood, Texas, had missed a 52-yard field goal with no time left on the clock in the Insight Bowl, Mason would still be on the University of Minnesota payroll.

The 22-year-old kid, Alex Trlica, hit from 52 yards out to tie the game at 38-38, climaxing a 31-0 run by Texas Tech in the last 22 minutes of regulation time.

Here is how the remarkable Red Raider comeback unfolded:

Trlica’s 52-yard field goal to tie the game was a career long for him and tied the Insight Bowl (formerly the Copper Bowl) record for longest kick.

“It was a game of two different halves,” Mason said after the game. “The breaks went our way in the first half, but in the second half we struggled. When we needed to make a play we couldn’t do it. We missed tackles and allowed them to get out of bounds.” When asked if his players were wearing down in the fourth quarter, Mason responded: “I didn’t sense fatigue.”

The Gophers entered the game as seven-point underdogs to the 7-5 Red Raiders, a team that during the Big 12 Conference schedule had vanquished Texas A&M, Iowa State, Baylor, and Oklahoma State. But Minnesota was the team with the momentum in the first half. Texas Tech took the opening kickoff but turned the ball over when Harrell was stopped on a sneak on fourth down at the Red Raiders 45 yard line.

The Gophers converted a fourth-down play of their own as they took six plays to move into the end zone, the score coming on a two-yard pass from Cupito to backup tight end Jack Simmons, playing in place of injured All-American Matt Spaeth.

Minnesota then capitalized on turnovers by Harrell, who underthrew a pass that was picked off by linebacker Mike Sherels and then lost the ball while being sacked by Willie VanDeSteeg. Minnesota turned these into touchdowns on runs by Amir Pinnix and Justin Valentine for a 21-0 lead.

Things were going so well for the Gophers that even their own turnovers were productive for them. Backed up on their own 2 yard line after a Texas Tech punt, Cupito tried to pass, but it was intercepted by Antonio Huffman at the 20. Huffman returned it to the 6, where he was hit by Pinnix. The ball popped loose and squirted into the end zone, where it was recovered by the Gophers for a touchback. The strange double-turnover gave Minnesota the ball on its 20, essentially an 18-yard gain for the Gophers on the play. From here, the Gophers marched across the field with Ernie Wheelwright taking a pass on the left-sideline, dancing to stay inbounds and then turning toward the end zone and covering the final distance for a 14-yard touchdown reception. With the conversion, the Gophers were ahead, 28-0.

Texas Tech finally got on the board as tailback Shannon Woods scored on a one-yard run with four-and-a-half minutes to play in the half. However, the Gophers came back with another scoring drive, capped by a three-yard pass from Cupito to a leaping Logan Payne in the back of the end zone with 32 seconds to play.

Minnesota extended its 35-7 lead with a 16-play drive to open the second half that not only netted a 20-yard field goal from Joel Monroe but that also chewed up 7 minutes and 13 seconds, leaving the Red Raiders with barely a quarter-and-a-half for an improbable comeback.

It was then, as Texas Tech coach Mike Leach observed, that the Red Raider offensive line began to “take care of the line of scrimmage. At halftime, we recommitted ourselves. A handful of doubters could have fouled it up.” Instead, a “collective effort” led the comeback. “It was the greatest playing together experience I have ever been a part of.”

Texas Tech expertly executed a no-huddle, shotgun-style spread offense not seen in the Big 10, or anywhere else in college football for that matter. The befuddled Gophers were playing on their heels.

“We don’t see that kind of team in the Big 10,” said Sherels, who acknowledged that the Gophers might have been “playing not to lose instead of playing to win” in the second half. “We maybe started playing a little lackadaisical. By the time we got our heads on right, it was too late.”

Texas Tech won the toss in overtime and, as expected, elected to play defense. Cupito completed a nine-yard pass to Payne, and Pinnix picked up a first down on the next play. Next, Pinnix was trapped for a two-yard loss and a pair of unsuccessful passes by Cupito set up a 32-yard Monroe field goal.

The Red Raiders roared back. After an incomplete pass, Harrell hit Filani for a first down on the Minnesota 13-yard line. Another Harrell-to-Filani connection advanced the ball to the seven-yard line. Minnesota defensive end Steve Davis wandered into Texas Tech territory and was called for encroachment. The second of two Woods rushes resulted in a touchdown and the final score: Texas Tech 44, Minnesota 41.

The game, according to Leach, “became a body punch kind of deal. We were lucky enough to make them collapse.”

Mason, on the other hand, proved to be the unlucky one, as the Gopher collapse cost him his job. Perhaps, in its search for his successor, university officials should look no further than the body-punching style of Mike Leach.

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