Gophers Blow Lead, Lose to Virginia in Music City Bowl
Friday, December 30, 2005

Minnesota and Virginia battle in the 2005 Music City BowlMinnesota won’t be making any more trips to the Music City Bowl in Nashville.

The third, and final, Gophers appearance in the Country Music capital resulted in the team’s first loss at Nashville’s Coliseum. The underdog Virginia Cavaliers of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) rallied to down Minnesota, 34-31.

Because the Big Ten’s contract with the Music City Bowl was not renewed, the conference will send its sixth seed elsewhere next year. And this is just as well as Nashville officials grew tired of welcoming maroon-and-gold teams coached by Glen Mason. Any novelty of traveling south to view the original Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville wore off last year. And, as a result, fewer than 2,000 Minnesota fans made the trip from the Twin Cities. Nashville’s Smith Travel Research Bureau estimated that hotel reservations downtown for the night preceding the game were down by 30 percent from last year. In the words of bowl game officials through the United States, Minnesota doesn’t “travel well,” meaning the Gophers are failures when it comes to drawing sizable fan support on the road. The noticeable absence of maroon-and-gold-clad fans in Nashville will serve only to reinforce that notion.

Minnesota has previous experience in shutting down Big Ten bowl sites. The last Bowl game featured the Gophers and saw them lose in similar, sad fashion to another ACC opponent, North Carolina State. In both contests, Mason-coached Minnesota teams blew large leads before losing before a sparse gathering of Gophers fans south of the Mason-Dixon line. The Bowl was so embarrassed that it ceased to exist. Fortunately for Nashville, the Music City Bowl will survive safe in the knowledge that bowl officials won’t be faced with having to select Minnesota again.

Five days following Christmas, Mason was visited by the Ghost of Bowl Games Past in Nashville.

The 2000 Bowl game saw the Gophers take a take a 24-0 lead before losing 38-30 to the ACC’s North Carolina State.

The 2005 Music City Bowl had Minnesota leading 21-7 before the Gophers wilted. This time, Mason had the extra burden of a possible contract extension hanging over his head. Nonetheless, he appeared relaxed and jovial before, and after, his Music City finale. One could question how seriously he regards minor bowl appearances, and his 3-3 record in these post-season contests gives no indication of his approach.

This year, the contract thing didn’t seem to bother either Mason or athletic director Joel Maturi as both appeared unworried about coaching contract negotiations on the eve of the Music City Bowl. Subsequent events proved both men were wise to not waste their time in overt displays one way or the other.

The game itself proved to be a microcosm of the Gophers season, featuring a strong beginning and a confused and sour finish. Touchdown passes by Bryan Cupito gave Minnesota a 14-0 lead and had press-box observers predicting a blowout. They should have been listening when, the day before, Virginia coach Al Groh compared his quarterback, Marques Hagans, to one Antwaan Randle El. When he quarterbacked the Indiana Hoosiers, Randle El bedeviled Mason’s Gophers with his elusiveness in crucial Minnesota losses at Bloomington, Indiana. Minnesota was unable to corral the slippery Randle El, and it cost them dearly. Randle El made Gophers defenders look silly and his clone, Hagans, promised to do likewise.

Minnesota coach Glen Mason and Virginia coach Al GrohCoach Groh told the story of how Hagans was to be Randle El’s successor in Bloomington: “The year before I came to Virginia to coach, Marques had committed to Indiana to be the replacement for Randle El.” Fate, however, intervened. Indiana dismissed coach Cam Cameron, and Hagans enrolled at Fort Union Military Academy, from where Groh recruited him. The Big Ten’s loss was the ACC’s gain, and the Gophers were spared the agony of chasing another Randel El, until December 30, 2005.

In the Music City Bowl, Hagans proved to be more elusive than Francis Tarkenton in his hey day and a 21-7 Gophers lead had evaporated. Easily the game’s Most Valuable Player, Hagans also passed for 358 yards, a Virginia record for a bowl game. More significantly, the scrambling Hagans escaped Gopher tacklers in a third-and-six situation at the Gophers 43 yard line and connected with Emmanuel Byers for an 18-yard gain to set up the Cavaliers’ winning field goal by senior placekicker Conner Hughes. Hagans also found the middle open all day and frequently connected with his tight ends.

“I don’t have an answer as to why their tight ends were open down the middle all day,” Mason said. Middle linebacker Kyle McKenzie did. “It was my fault,” he said. “I know I can play better than that. We practiced against tight end down the middle all month. It was just mental errors on my part.”

Minnesota still had a chance to win when it advanced to Virginia’s 48 yard line with 48 seconds left in the game. Inexplicably, Mason gave up on an attempt to set up a game-tying field goal and ordered Cupito to fling a Hail Mary pass into the end zone. Receiver Ernie Wheelwright went up with Virginia defenders, but the result was an interception by cornerback Marcus Hamilton.

“It was a good pass,” recalled Wheelwright. “I went up and caught it, but when I came down, the defender was in position to snatch it away.”

Mason accepted responsibility. “It was my call. I knew we only needed a field goal. I knew a field goal could put us into OT [overtime], but I thought it was a great time to take a shot. Cupito put it up perfectly for a jump ball. More often than not, the receiver gets that ball.”

Mason called it “playing to win,” apparently forgetting he was playing to tie against Michigan earlier in the season when the Gophers fell into a win. Even if the pass had been successful, Virginia would have gotten the ball back and, given Hagan’s mastery over the defense, possibly scored again. It was the wrong call at the wrong time.

Mason reminded reporters that, in the second quarter, against all odds he pulled a fake punt on the Minnesota 15, and John Shevlin rushed for a first down. “You can’t predict anything I’m going to do,” Mason laughed. “Any guy that goes for it on fourth-and-one from his own 15 is unpredictable,” he observed, thus introducing onlookers to a new, wacky, zany Glen Mason, one previously hidden from Gophers followers.

“Sometimes I can’t believe the things I do,” gurgled Mason, who dismissed the Hail Mary pass as his simply “taking a shot, what the heck.” That sort of attitude was appropriate for a man who just lost a bowl game to a team known as the Cavaliers.

The truth was the Gophers ran out of gas in the second half, lacking the depth to sustain them for a full 60 minutes of action, Minnesota simply wore down. The 2005 Gophers featured some outstanding players, notably Outland Trophy winner Greg Eslinger, but lacked the depth to finish in the top five of the Big Ten as the season wore on. Weakness beyond the two-deeps was telling during the season and especially during the 2005 Music City Bowl in Nashville.

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