Night of Infamy
Saturday, August 30, 2008

In one game, the season opener, the University of Minnesota football team equaled its victory total for the previous year. However, the manner in which this win, a narrow 31-27 triumph over lowly Northern Illinois, was accomplished only gives reasonable assurance that the Gophers should double their victory total and nothing more this season. (It is reasonable to assume Minnesota will be favored over Montana State when the Bobcats visit on September 13.)

For a good portion of the Northern Illinois game, Minnesota players stumbled around the field and did their best imitation of last year’s squad, owners of an abysmal 1-11 record, the worst in the history of Golden Gopher football. Coach Tim Brewster’s 2007 team was particularly adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, owing to the fact he, week after week, sent out the worst defensive team in major college football. The Gophers nearly duplicated their antics of last season, when the team fell behind the Huskies, 27-24, in the fourth quarter.

Northern Illinois, formerly the Northern Illinois State Normal School at DeKalb, has a fine football tradition, but in 2007 fell to the bottom of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) with an overall record of 2-10. There is little evidence to suggest that Northern Illinois will be greatly improved in 2008. Yet, against Minnesota, the Huskies were sitting on a 27-24 lead with five minutes left to play in the fourth quarter.

In typical Gopher fashion, Minnesota had taken what seemed to be a commanding 24-13 lead on a 61-yard run by Duane Bennett and Joel Monroe’s point after touchdown. Unable to stomach the prosperity, the Gopher defense allowed NIU to convert a third-and-10 situation at the nine-yard-line into a 91-yard touchdown romp by freshman receiver Nathan Palmer on a pass from another freshman, quarterback Chandler Harnish. It was the first reception of Palmer’s college football career, and the Gophers made sure he will remember it.

Even before Brewster’s hiring, Minnesota’s pass defense had been, to say the least, erratic. Both Jim Wacker and Glen Mason were known to stand helplessly by as the Gophers gave opponents one long pass completion after another through the years. In fact, the total collapse of the Gopher secondary was a chief reason for the Insight Bowl loss to Texas Tech that cost Mason his job.

One press box observer flashed back to that Insight Bowl game in Tempe, Ariz., when Harnish faded back to pass with eight minutes left in the game, and, once again, the Gophers paper-thin defense allowed him to hook up with Palmer for a long touchdown, this one covering 52 yards. An audible shudder came forth from the veteran scribe. Perhaps he realized that Northern Illinois’ uniforms were nearly the mirror image of those worn by the Texas Tech Red Raiders. History, he feared, was about to repeat.

To their credit, the Gophers did come back to grab the lead on Bennett’s one-yard plunge. “Our kids showed a lot of heart,” Brewster said. “This team has tremendous character.”

After Monroe’s successful point-after conversion, the clock showed 22 seconds remaining in the game, plenty of time for even a freshman quarterback to shred the Minnesota defense, especially when given the ball at the 40-yard-line as the result of an ill-advised squib kick that squibbed out of bounds. Once again, the specter of the Texas Tech game (and countless others like it) rose its head. Harnish completed a pass to Ricky Crider for an 18-yard gain. Then it was Harnish flinging a hail-Mary pass into the end zone, only to see it batted down by the Gophers’ Eric Decker as time expired.

Apparently, it is only when an offensive player is added to the defensive secondary that success can be achieved. “Decker’s a pretty good centerfielder,” Brewster joked after the game. Indeed, Decker, during the off-season, is a member of John Anderson’s Golden Gopher baseball team.

At the start of the game, Decker was on the receiving end of six of quarterback Adam Weber’s passes in the opening drive. The drive took 13 plays and used up nearly nine minutes, marking to some what appeared to be a new era in Gopher football. (This subsequently proved to be illusionary.) The opening drive ended with a seven-yard touchdown pass from Weber to Decker. It was his 13th career reception. The drive marked the 10th time Weber and Decker have hooked up for a passing touchdown.

NIU coach Jerry Kill chose to keep the ball on the turf, completely ignoring the passing game in the first quarter. This somewhat surprising move allowed the Minnesota offense to stay on the field for 10 minutes and 21 seconds of the period.

Kill unleashed Harnish in the second period, and the quarterback responded by completing seven of nine passes. What looked like a Gopher rout suddenly turned into a 10-10 halftime deadlock.

In the third quarter, Weber’s 53-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jack Simmons was the third longest connection of the quarterback’s career and gave Minnesota a 17-10 lead that was increased to 11 points on Bennett’s touchdown run. Then the Huskies scored 14 unanswered points to set up the thrilling finish.

Bennett’s one-yard touchdown plunge with 22 seconds left marked the first time the Gophers scored a fourth-quarter game-winning touchdown since November 18, 2000, a long time. That win came at the expense of the Iowa Hawkeyes at the Metrodome. Further, the Gophers won a game that had been tied at halftime for the first time since September 13, 2002 when Minnesota’s victim was Ball State.

After the Gophers’ pass defense dissolved, and the team fell behind against Northern Illinois in the fourth quarter, a sizeable portion of fans sitting in the lower bowl at the Metrodome headed for the exits, in anticipation of the worst. Somewhat surprisingly, 44,029 had shown up expecting something better than last year’s 1-11 record. Stadium advertisers, however, appear to have lost enthusiasm, as Metrodome sign space was allotted to such unfamiliar institutions as Kruger Seeds, Marsh Heating and Air Conditioning, and something called Securian. Had the Gophers lost this one, purchasing Metrodome signage space would have fallen within the means of Osseo Meats and Lance’s Prop Shop.

Oh well, at least the band has a baton twirler this year.

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