Discombobulated: Blocked Kick Prevents Bison from Bamboozling Gophers
Saturday, October 21, 2006

“We don't believe in moral victories.”
      —Craig Bohl, head football coach, North Dakota State University (NDSU)

Whether he believes in them or not, coach Bohl and his NDSU Bison easily achieved such a victory at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Relatively new to NCAA Divison I-AA, NDSU came within a blocked field goal attempt of defeating Division I-A Minnesota. The Gophers won 10-9.

“It would have been the end of my career.”
      —Glen Mason, head football coach, University of Minnesota

“They took it to us in every way, shape, and form,” Mason told reporters after the game. “We nearly lost it,” he said. “It was one of those games where you have been outcoached and outplayed, but you win the football game.”

Thus, for the second Saturday afternoon in succession, Mason openly admitted coaching failure. He made a similar remark to media members in the bowels of Camp Randall Stadium in Madison after falling, 48-12, to the Wisconsin Badgers. Such admissions of inadequacy typically don’t enhance career longevity.

A former powerhouse in the Division II North Central Conference (NCC), North Dakota State University tired of being the big fish in a small pond and coerced fellow NCC member South Dakota State to join in opting for Division I-AA status. NDSU, which opened the season with a 66-7 win over Concordia-St. Paul, was unbeaten and ranked No. 9 among Division I-AA teams in the fifth season Sports Network Top 25 Poll prior to its game against Minnesota.

NDSU looks back on a storied football past in Division II, appearing in six straight NCAA playoffs from 1981 to 1986 and 15 in a 23-year span. NDSU won the Division II national title in 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988, and 1990. The Bison finished second nationally in 1981 and 1984 and made the semi-finals in 1982 and 2000.

Against the Gophers, the Bison held leads of 3-0 and 6-3 before Amir Pinnix rushed five yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Gophers their first lead.

“We knew it would be a dicey game,” Bohl told reporters on the field following the game. “It was pretty much matched teams. I was pleased with our effort.”

Indeed, Bohl might have emerged victorious had NDSU not shot itself in the foot in three key situations. Driving, and with a 3-0 first quarter lead, NDSU quarterback Steve Walker’s pass was intercepted by Jamal Harris at the Minnesota 20-yard line. Minnesota failed to capitalize but, on the ensuing punt, Travis White of the Bison returned to the NDSU 18 yard line but was hit hard by Deon Hightower and fumbled. Willie VanDeSteeg recovered for the Gophers. In the second quarter, a Walker touchdown pass was negated by a personal foul for tripping by NDSU freshman guard Ryan Foster. The Bison had to settle for a field goal.

It should be noted that Minnesota failed to gain more than three points off NDSU turnovers. The Gophers simply underestimated the strength of their opponents. After all, the last time the two teams were matched was in 1937, and Minnesota won by 69 to 7.

It did not help the cause that Gopher senior quarterback Bryan Cupito played with all the savvy and poise of a true freshman. To be fair, Cupito’s bad-hands receivers treated his passes with all the respect normally accorded to live grenades. “The last two weeks we’ve just fallen apart,” he admitted afterwards.

The receivers weren’t alone. Special teams players, with the exception of Hightower, took the day off. Then too, the phantom pass defense shown by the Gopher secondary frequently left Bison receivers wide open. In fact, the blocking schemes employed by the entire NDSU offense baffled Gopher players and coaches alike. And, as usual, Gopher place kicker Jason Giannini (two missed field-goal attempts) proved as dependable as Mel Gibson on speed.

Worse, the Gophers easily lost the battle of the line of scrimmage to a Division I-AA team. “We did not control the line of scrimmage,” Mason admitted. “We were out of synch.” The offense had become so stagnant that the coach switched to a no-huddle, shotgun offense in the fourth quarter. “I was tired,” he said, “of watching the crap I was watching.” In a variation of the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” cliché, Mason suggested, “If it ain’t broke, break it!”

There are many things a head football coach needs to accomplish to become successful. He must successfully recruit talented players, be a motivator, provide winning strategy for success on the field, promote the program, be a teacher of men, and keep squad members eligible for competition. Some of these coach Mason does well. Others not so well. For example, Mason has proved that he can recruit some quality players for the team’s first units. After that (second string and below), talent drops noticeably. Mason’s teams have never displayed significant bench strength. The NDSU game is a case in point. Division I-AA teams throughout the land, when confronted with a Division I-A opponent, are often able to stay close until they tire, usually some time in the third quarter. Against NDSU (the smaller school with fewer scholarships), it was the Gophers who tended to wear out because, beyond its starters, this team is thin. NDSU, on the other hand, appeared to be as fresh as daisies at the conclusion of the game.

As for motivation, Mason admitted that he tried everything, including reaming the team out in his halftime speech. “I gave them a verbal thrashing at halftime,” he announced. The results of the Mason tirade? NDSU took the kickoff and methodically marched down the field only to see place kicker Shawn Bibeau, from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, hit the left upright and fail to convert. As for the Gophers’ first offensive series of the second half, they started at the Minnesota 20 yard line and ended at the Minnesota 29-yard line. So much for motivational skills.

In the end, it was another Bibeau failure that cost his team the game. Showing no signs of wear and tear, NDSU marched down the field and was on its way to a 12-10 victory as the Bison lined up for a 42-yard field goal with one second left on the clock. This time, however, Bibeau wasn’t allowed to get anywhere near the goal post. His kick was blocked at the line of scrimmage. Oddly, no Gopher was willing to take the credit for the block.

The crowd count was announced as 62,845, a large number of whom were Bison boosters. Judging by the noise level, it seemed as if the entire state of North Dakota had been emptied, not a particularly difficult feat.

Despite upgrading the program to Division I-AA, the Bison retained a Division II look with helmet insignias that, at a distance, resembled jellyfish and jerseys that looked to be stained with egg yolks. NDSU’s performance against the Gophers, however, was anything but bush league. NDSU outgained Minnesota, 380 yards to 249 yards. The Bison had 23 first downs to 12 for the Gophers. Passing yardage was 237 to 150 in favor of NDSU. Minnesota went 4 of 13 on third down.

In the media room following the game, coach Mason described his players as “lethargic” and said he told them, “They have to get better.”

The game was marked by the introduction of “throwback” uniforms and helmets for Minnesota. The look achieved, while not authentic, was designed to rekindle memories of the Gophers’ 1960 national champions, several of whom were in attendance. Mason, who has never been known to respect Gopher traditions, said the throwbacks served only to “distract” his players.

Blame it on the uniforms.

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