3 Homecomings Spoiled
Saturday, November 1, 2008

For its third 2008 game in succession, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team was involved in homecoming activity ruined by the visiting team. Against Illinois and Purdue, it was the Gophers that did the spoiling, knocking off the Illini and the Boilermakers. On Saturday in the Metrodome, however, it was Minnesota’s homecoming celebration that was undone, as the Gophers fell to those pesky Wildcats from Northwestern University, 24-17.

With the game all but certain to go into overtime tied at 17, a Halloween ghost from the night before laid his icy hand on the throwing arm of Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber as he uncorked a pass with less than 30 seconds left in the game. The ball slipped through the hands of receiver Eric Decker, bounced off Northwestern cornerback David Oredugba, and landed in the waiting hands of Wildcat Brendan Smith. Smith took off for the Gopher goal line, weaving through the Minnesota offense (now turned would-be tacklers) in some sort of Halloween dance macabre that saw him, seemingly in slow motion, elude all attempts to stop him. When he finally crossed the goal line, the clock showed 12 seconds remaining in the game. After the ensuing kickoff, Minnesota had time for one more shot at the Northwestern end zone, but the play, replete with laterals, ended when the Wildcats’ Kevin Mims recovered a fumble at the Gopher 39-yard line.

After the game, coach Tim Brewster quoted 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche when he told St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Charley Walters that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Walters scratched his head while he pondered the coach’s remark, possibly thinking that Brewster meant: (1) the Gophers had forgotten last season’s 1-11 won-loss record and were now doomed to repeat it, or (2) Minnesota’s sorry football history in close games during the last decade will end next week; or (3) if we don’t watch out, we’ll be in the Insight Bowl again. Whatever the coach meant, he would have done better to look into the works of another German writer whose career overlapped that of Nietzche, Franz Kafka. For it was Kafka’s works, not Neitzche’s philosopy, that doomed the Gophers on November 1. No, this wasn’t Franz Kafka on display at the Metrodome (he died in 1924). This was Wildcat junior quarterback Mike Kafka, out of St. Rita High School in Chicago.

Kafka spent the 2007 season as the back-up to the heralded C.J. Bacher. In fact, despite being described as a “tremendous athlete” in the Northwestern media guide, Kafka’s main contribution to the Wildcats came that season when he mopped up for Bacher in the fourth quarter against Northeastern, a 27-0 victory. Against the Gophers, however, it was a totally different story. Using Northwestern’s spread offense to his advantage, Kafka ran over, around, and through the Minnesota defense for a net gain on the ground of 217 yards. He also was 12-for-16 in passing for 143 yards.

Kafka’s performance was reminiscent of recently-uncovered grainy footage of Minnesota’s great All-American Paul Giel taking direct snaps from center in Wes Fesler’s double-wing offense and dismantling Iowa’s defense byconsistently avoiding Hawkeye tacklers using guile, finesse, and power running on November 3, 1951. In keeping with the Haloween theme of this year’s Northwestern game, it was if the ghost of Giel had returned to Minnesota, only this time in the guise of the Wildcat quarterback. Instead of wearing Giel’s No. 10, Kafka was wearing (“lucky?”) No. 13. So dominant a runner was Kafka that he gained all but three of Northwestern’s rushing total for the day.

With Kafka leading the way, Northwestern took the game’s opening kickoff and promptly jumped off to a 7-0 lead after a seven-play, 78-yard drive that took 3:11 off the clock. The touchdown was the result of a Kafka pass to another player with a literary last name, Jeremy Ebert. (The media guide did not indicate if Jeremy and Illinois native Roger are related.)

The Gophers went three-and-out, and Justin Kucek launched a 46-yard punt that was downed at the Northwestern 31-yard line. Kafka methodically marched the Wildcats into field goal range where placekicker Amado Villarreal connected from 34 yards out, and Northwestern led 10-0. Kafka was executing an efficient hurry-up offense that left Minnesota defenders in a funk. Gopher supporters expecting a grand homecoming celebration were seen muttering to themselves, apparently forgetting that Northwestern is not the same team that stumbled through its hapless Denny Green era. In the last five years, the Wildcats own the sixth-best Big Ten record. Where does Minnesota rank during that period? Eighth. No longer is Northwestern forced to compete with undersized linemen. The Wildcats’ offensive line from tackle-to-tackle weighs 295, 290, 285, 300, and 290 pounds, respectively.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was thrust into that role in 2006 after the tragic death of Randy Walker. As a linebacker, Fitzgerald was the glue that held together Northwestern’s “Purple to Pasadena” drive to the Rose Bowl in 1995, the only legitimate miracle this writer has ever witnessed. At 33 years of age, Fitzgerald is the youngest football coach in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. He was named by Sports Illustrated as one of college football’s top recruiters. “Our players fight, scratch, and claw for 60 minutes,” Fitzgerald said after the game. “If you keep doing that, good things will happen to you.”

It must be noted that after moping around the field for a quarter, the slumbering Gopher offense woke up. The ace combo of quarterback Adam Weber and receiver Eric Decker worked magic at the start of the second quarter with a touchdown pass and reception, and Minnesota was within 10-7. The Gophers even took the lead when Traye Simmons ran an errant Kafka pass into the end zone. This, however, served only to energize Kafka, who took off on a 53-yard scamper to the Minnesota two-yard line before hitting Josh Rooks with a touchdown pass. Minnesota tied the score with a Joel Monroe field goal, and the teams went into their respective locker rooms with the score tied at 17.

A look at Kafka’s performance reveals that he ran for 54 yards in the first quarter and, at halftime, had accumulated 97 yards of net rushing. In the third quarter, his running accounted for another 52 net yards. His total for the game was 217 net yards in 27 rushing attempts for an average of eight yards per run.

Minnesota’s best opportunity to score in the second half was squandered when, after a 16-play, 92-yard drive to the Wildcat three-yard line, Monroe shanked (wide right) a field goal attempt from the 20.

“We didn’t play well enough in all three phases of the game,” Brewster told the media after the game’s conclusion. He lamented the defense’s inability to tackle Kafka. As for the offense: “For whatever reason, we didn’t get off our blocks well. We didn’t run the ball with any consistency. We must find more guys for our running game. We need to be more physical to run the ball better.” (Running back DeLeone Eskridge rushed for only 21 yards in nine carries. He and Weber were the only Gophers to carry the ball on running plays.)

As for the play that gave Northwestern the win, Brewster said, “Tipped balls in the middle of the field get intercepted. People who know football understand this.”

At Minnesota and Northwestern, the two Big Ten universities ranking highest in academic standards, we would like to think that football players are not talking about tipped balls today. One would like to imagine they are focused in deep discussions regarding the philosophy of Nietzche and the writings of Franz Kafka. And maybe even the insights of Roger Ebert.

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