Gophers Defeat Arkansas in Music City Bowl


Michael Lehan, Dan Nystrom, and Asad Abdul-Khaliq with the Music City Bowl TrophyThe University of Minnesota Golden Gophers scored one of the most siginificant victories in recent team history by defeating the Arkansas Razorbacks, 29 to 14, in the 2002 Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee, on December 30.

Minnesota won the pre-game coin toss but deferred the choice, giving Arkansas the first possession of the game and the chance for a quick lead, which they established with an eight-play drive consisting of six runs flanked by a pass at both ends. Sophomore quarterback Matt Jones, on the first play from scrimmage, connected with Richard Smith for a 29-yard gain to the Minnesota 45. On the next play, senior tailback Fred Talley burst through the line for 25 yards. The Razorbacks stayed on the ground and worked their way down to the 2 yard line before going to the air again with Jones hitting George Wilson in the end zone for a touchdown. David Carroll’s point-after made the score 7-0.

In his post-game press conference, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said he hoped to get the ball back quickly, confident that his offense could maintain its momentum and produce another score. He almost got his wish. Minnesota faked a reverse on its kickoff return, Jermaine Mays keeping the ball and being dropped at his own 9 yard line. Asad Abdul-Khaliq’s missed with a pass on the first play from scrimmage. Then Terry Jackson, who battled illness and showed up at the stadium just as the Gophers were about to take the field, was stopped after a two-yard run. On third-and-eight, however, Abdul-Khaliq hit Tony Patterson for 15 yards and a first down, keeping the drive alive. On the next play, Danny Upchurch took a handoff and fired a pass downfield to a wide-open Aaron Hosack, who would have easily run for a touchdown if he hadn’t pulled a hamstring on the play. Instead, he was pulled down by Bo Mosley at the Arkansas 24 for a 50-yard gain. A run and then a reception by Thomas Tapeh produced another first down, but the Minnesota drive finally halted inside the 10 yard line and Dan Nystrom was called upon to kick a 24-yard field goal.

The kicking game played a key role in Minnesota’s next score, starting with the Gophers’ kickoff, which was returned by Decori Birmingham to the Arkansas 24. Minnesota was offside on the kickoff, however, and Arkansas accepted the penalty, hoping that they could get farther with on the ensuing return. Instead, Cedric Cobbs was able to get Nystrom’s kickoff only back to the 16 yard line before being tackled by Mays. Playing its safeties closer to the line, Minnesota this time thwarted the Arkansas passing game while also demonstrating success in shutting down the Razorbacks’ running attack. Talley’s two carries for three yards, sandwiched around an incomplete pass, forced Arkansas to punt from its own 19.

Richie Butler got off a short punt, and referee Dan Blum threw his flag when Mays and Jared Ellerson crashed into Butler. However, Blum then ruled there was no penalty on the play as Butler’s kick had been partially blocked. Ellerson was credited with the block, and the Gophers had the ball on the Arkansas 33. The Gophers could move only five yards, on an Arkansas offside penalty, but it advanced the ball close enough for Nystrom, with the wind at his back, to kick a 45-yard field goal, leaving the Gophers trailing, 7-6.

Arkansas got a first down on its first play of the next drive, but then bogged down again and had to give it up. Minnesota took over at its 34 and converted on three third-down plays on the next drive. A pass interference penalty gave Minnesota another first down at the Arkansas 12, but Minnesota was again unable to penetrate the goal line. Nystrom was called upon for a 21-yard field goal, one that put Minnesota ahead, 9-7, and also gave Nystrom the Big Ten career record for field goals.

The diminutive Minnesota kicker was not done yet, however. After the Minnesota defense forced Arkansas to punt again, the Gophers came out with a big play, Abdul-Khaliq finding Antoine Burns for 49 yards to the Arkansas 34. Minnesota moved farther downfield and had a first-and-goal at the 6 yard line. From that, all it could come up with was another Nystrom field goal, this one from 22 yards out, good for a 12-7 lead that the Gophers carried into the locker room.

Abdul-Khaliq had completed half his passes in the first half for 110 yards (to go with Upchurch’s 50-yard completion on the flea flicker) while Jackson and Tapeh combined for 48 yards on the ground. In addition to Nystrom’s steady leg, the story of the first half was Minnesota’s defense. Talley, after his initial run of 25 yards, was held to eight yards on eight more carries in the half.

The second half began with the Gophers again faking a reverse on the kickoff. This time, Jermaine Mays was able to run for 44 yards to the Minnesota 49. However, Minnesota wasn’t able to move the ball and Preston Gruening had to punt to the first time. Neither team could mount a drive, Arkansas being thwarted by an interception by Michael Lehan, the second of the game for the senior cornerback, who, like Jackson, had been ill before the game. Minnesota had to relinquish possession after failing to convert on a fourth-down play from the Arkansas 33. The Razorbacks quickly punted the ball back and the Gophers started a drive from their own 30.

Upchurch had runs of nine and eight yards, and Abdul-Khaliq had a 15-yard completion to Burns. Combined with a few other rushes and an Arkansas holding penalty, Minnesota faced a second-and-six at the Razorbacks’ 19 yard line. Arkansas blitzed on the next play. Abdul-Khaliq calmly fired over the middle to his tight end, Ben Utecht, who caught the pass at the 5 and ran into the end zone for Minnesota’s first touchdown of the game. Nystrom’s kick put Minnesota up, 19-7, with 2:44 to play in the third quarter.

Coach Glen Mason in the post-game press conferenceNystrom kicked his fifth field goal of the game early in the fourth quarter on a drive that featured a 37-yard pass from Abdul-Khaliq to Utecht. Down 22-7, Nutt made a move at quarterback, replacing Jones with Ryan Sorahan, who completed two of his first three passes for a first down. Talley, on his next carry, was stopped and compounded the problem by making an ill-advised lateral attempt to Sorahan. Minnesota fell on the loose ball and took over at Arkansas’s 49 yard line.

The Gophers were forced to punt but then retained possession when the Razorbacks were flagged for a substitution infraction. From there, Tapeh carried the ball, the first time for no gain and the next for six yards. Then, from the Arkansas 33, Tapeh made a spectacular run, breaking a tackle, maintaining his balance, and evading defenders as he headed for the right corner, shooting into the end zone for a touchdown, which, combined with Nystrom’s point-after, capped the scoring for Minnesota.

Arkansas scored on its next possession but failed in its attempt on an onside kick. Minnesota moved down to the Arkansas 25, facing a fourth-and-six. Minnesota coach Glen Mason eschewed the idea of sending Nystrom out for his sixth field goal of the game, instead opting for a pass from Abdul-Khaliq, which sailed over Utecht’s head in the end zone. Justin Isom ended Arkansas’s final drive, intercepting a pass in the end zone, and Abdul-Khaliq then took a pair of knees to run out the clock and give Minnesota a 29-14 win, its first bowl win since 1985.

A jubilant Mason led the Gophers’ band in the Minnesota Rouser, before being tossed in the shower by equally jubilant players in the locker room.

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