Gophers Beat Montana State after Slow Start
Saturday, September 13, 2008

“Our confidence is back,” said Montana State coach Rob Ash after his Bobcats lost to the Minnesota Gophers 35-23. The week before Montana State was destroyed by Kansas State 69-10.

In another room in the bowels of the Metrodome, Gophers coach Tim Brewster tried to emphasize the win, not the relatively slim margin of victory over what was supposed to be another lesser opponent. “I don’t know how many 3-0 teams there are in the country, but we’re one of them.”

The Gophers opened their season with a last-minute victory over Northern Illinois, a team of about the same caliber as Montana State. Minnesota went on the road to Ohio as an underdog to Bowling Green, a team that beat the Gophers in the Metrodome in Brewster’s debut last season. The Gophers responded with a 42-17 win, blowing the game open in the fourth quarter. Beating a favored team is always an achievement, but the fact that the Gophers weren’t favored against the Mid-America Conference is a sign of how far the Gophers had fallen from the decades of mediocrity that preceded it.

While the win over Bowling Green remains as Brewster’s signature game at Minnesota, it was costly as the Gophers lost running-back Duane Bennett for the season with a knee injury. Brewster used the Montana State game as an audition for Bennett’s successor. He started freshman Shady Salamon, who did little. However, DeLeon Eskridge made the most of his opportunity later in the first quarter. Eskridge rushed for 119 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. However, Brewster is still going to evaluate his options in the backfield and indicated that Jay Thomas, who did not get any carries, is still in the picture along with Salamon, saying he would like to “have a guy who is the guy.”

While Eskridge’s running was a big reason for the Minnesota win, it was receiver Eric Decker who provided the biggest spark for the Gophers after the team failed to get a first down in its first three possessions.

Meanwhile, the Bobcats took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter and could have had four points if not for a pair of blocked kicks. Montana State covered 36 yards on its first drive, only to have Jason Cunningham’s 41-yard field-goal attempt blocked by Willie VanDeSteeg. Two possessions later, the Bobcats went 69 yards in four plays for a touchdown, capped by Cody Kempt’s 32-yard pass to DeAndre Green. However, Nathan Triplett blocked Cunningham’s point-after try. Ash said they figured out that it was “one guy and one gap” responsible for the problem, which they fixed.

However, the lost points were costly against a stronger team, and the Bobcats fell behind midway through the second quarter as the Gophers finally mounted a sustained drive. Starting on their own 12, Minnesota faced a third-and-three after a pair of runs by Eskridge. Decker then got beyond cornerback David Taylor and took a pass from Adam Weber with open field ahead. Taylor was able to run down Decker, who covered 41 yards and put the ball into Montana State territory. The Gophers worked the ball for another first down. From the 24 yard line, Weber faked a handoff to Eskridge, then pitched to Decker who ran for a 15-yard gain. Three plays later, Eskridge took it in from the three. Joel Monroe’s point-after gave the Gophers a 7-6 lead, one they did not relinquish.

The Gophers got the ball back quickly as Traye Simmons intercepted a tipped pass and returned it to the Bobcats’ 18. The Gophers covered the distance to the goal line on the ground, Eskridge carrying twice, the final one from three yards out for a touchdown and 14-6 lead.

Special teams proved a challenge for Minnesota in the game, and it showed on the ensuing kickoff as Crawford took it at the goal line, ran up the right sideline, cut inside while avoiding a tackle by Eskridge, and cut in again, evading the remaining tacklers on his way to a 100-yard kickoff return. Cunningham’s extra point cut the Minnesota lead to 14-13.

The Bobcats defense held on the next series, and Montana State got the ball back, at its own seven, with 2:44 remaining in the half. However, after forcing the Bobcats to punt, the Gophers took over with good field position less than a minute later. After Ralph Spry dropped a swing pass, Decker made a great catch in traffic while also drawing an interference penalty on Taylor. The 44-yard gain put the ball at the 3. On the next play, Decker corralled a pass from Weber in the left corner of the end zone, sending the Gophers into intermission with a 21-13 win.

Montana State received the opening kickoff of the second half but could muster only six yards, to its own 25 yard line, on the first three plays. The Bobcats brought out Eric Fisher to punt but instead made a short snap to Bobby Daly, a linebacker, who floated a pass to tight-end Jon Schreibeis for 20 yards. With its drive extended the Bobcats worked the ball down to the Minnesota 32 before stalling again. Cunningham cleared the crossbar with a 49-yard field goal to bring the Bobcats to within 21-16.

From here, the Minnesota superiority showed as the Gophers controlled the ball and got two more short touchdown runs by Eskridge in the third quarter. The Bobcats got a touchdown back early in the fourth quarter, but there was no more scoring in the game.

“We’d love to play them again without giving them the short field,” said Ash, who’s team committed three turnovers.

Brewster noted that the Gophers will have to do better in upcoming games and added that he was “very, very, very disappointed in his special teams,” calling it “inexcusable” that they would allow a fake punt to be turned into a first down and a kickoff return for a touchdown.

Decker led all receivers with 9 catches for 157 yards. “Can a guy play any better?” Brewster asked after the game. “I wouldn’t trade him for any player in America.” Brewster said they tried to keep the defense guessing with Decker, lining him up in different spots and trying “for the match ups that favor us.”

The Gophers will put their unbeaten record on the line at home against Florida Atlantic, a team coached by Howard Schnellenberger that beat Minnesota last year.

Back to Main Page