Gophers Finish Winless Big Ten Season with 41-34 Loss to Wisconsin
Saturday, November 17, 2007

When Tim Brewster was introduced as the new head coach of the Minnesota Gophers on January 17, 2007, he said he was “not interested in the rebuilding process,” that his “expectation from Day One is to win the Big Ten championship. . . . We’re going to win the Big Ten championship. We’re going to take the Gopher nation to Pasadena [site of the Rose Bowl].”

Exactly 10 months later, Brewster’s Gophers completed a 1-11 season and a winless conference season as they lost to the Wisconsin Badgers 41-34. The 11 losses are the most ever by a Minnesota football team in a year, and the lost season is reminiscent of 1983, when the Gophers won their opener, a nonconference game against Rice, and then lost their remaining games.

As bad as the team as been in Brewster’s inaugural year, it cannot compare to the depths that the team sunk to in 1983, Joe Salem’s last year as head coach, in which blowout losses were the norm more than the exception, the worst being an 84-13 drubbing by Nebraska. The 2007 Gophers can take some solace in knowing that more than half their losses were by a touchdown or less.

Minnesota at least put up a fight in its loss to Wisconsin, which was coming off a 37-21 upset of Michigan. With top running back P. J. Hill out with a foot injury, Zach Brown ran for 108 yards and two touchdowns against the Wolverines. He did even better against the Gophers, covering 250 yards on 29 carries.

Nevertheless, the Gophers built a 10-point lead in the first half, partly on the fancy footwork of quarterback Adam Weber. With the Gophers down 3-0, Weber had an 18-yard run, followed one play later by a 19-yard run, both after fake handoffs to tailback Duane Bennett. Weber later scrambled for 13 yards, but a pair of false-start penalties kept Minnesota from another first down, and the Gophers had to settle for a game-tying 47-yard field goal from Joel Monroe.

On Minnesota’s next possession, Weber had another 18-yard run, this time after faking a handoff to Amir Pinnix. On the first play of the second quarter, Weber did a good job hanging in against a rush from defensive end Kirk DeCremer and lofting a pass into the end zone to Eric Decker, who had a step on Badgers cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu.

Decker and Ikegwuonu had a running battle throughout the game with Decker usually prevailing as caught six passes for 125 yards, in the process setting a new single-season Minnesota record for receiving yards. Decker apparently beat Ikegwuonu in other ways. At one point, the Badger had to be helped off the field while his coach, Bart Bielema screamed at the officials. After the game, Bielema told reporters that Decker hit Ikegwuonu in the “lower extremities,” a euphemism for a cheap shot to the groin.

After the touchdown, the Gophers got the ball back as Kyle Theret intercepted a pass from Tyler Donovan and returned it 10 yards to Wisconsin’s 28 yard line. Minnesota settled for another field goal from Monroe and a 13-3 lead. Wisconsin closed the gap with a touchdown with under two minutes left in the second quarter and would have had the lead at halftime if not for a pair of missed field goals by Taylor Mehlhaff, who had made 10 straight. Mehlhaff’s misses, including one that bounced off the right upright as the half ended, negated Wisconsin’s two biggest plays, a 64-yard run by Brown and a 51-yard punt return by David Gilreath.

Gilreath, who played at Armstrong High School in the Twin Cities, got the Badgers started in the second half with a 56-yard punt return to the Minnesota 18. It took Brown two tries to reach the end zone, the second coming on a 16-yard run through the left side, helped by a block from tight-end Travis Beckum on safety Dominique Barber. Mehlhaff’s conversion gave Wisconsin a 17-13 lead, and the Badgers made it 20-13 later in the third quarter on a 20-yard field goal by Mehlhaff.

The Gophers came back with a 79-yard drive that featured three catches by Decker for 56 yards. In addition, Decker drew a holding penalty on Ikegwuonu on a third-down play on which Weber overthrew Ralph Spry in the end zone. The penalty kept the drive going, and the Gophers scored the tying touchdown as Bennett bulled through Ikegwuonu from two yards out.

However, the Gophers allowed the Badgers quick access to their end zone. Gilreath returned Monroe’s kickoff for 19 yards and had another 15 added on as Deron Love was penalized for grabbing his facemask. On the first play from scrimmage, Theret was taken out by a block from backup tight-end Graham Garrett, allowing Brown to run for 60 yards to the Minnesota 3. On a third-down play to start the fourth quarter, Bill Rentmeester took Donovan’s handoff and disappeared from view into a goal-line pile up. After the players were unstacked, the officials signaled that Rentmeester had crossed the line. The play survived the scrutiny of a review, and Wisconsin retook the lead, 27-20.

The situation got worse for the Gophers as they tried a fake punt from their 41 yard line. Flags flew as Minnesota’s Kevin Mannion was called for holding, but Wisconsin declined the penalty because they were able to stop Justin Kucek two yards short of a first down and take over in Minnesota territory.

Runs of 16 and 17 yards by Brown brought the ball down to the 16. Donovan then went over the middle to Beckum, who leads the nation’s tight ends in receptions and yardage. Beckum took the pass and extended into the end zone that put the Badgers ahead by two touchdowns.

Minnesota still made a game of it, scoring on a drive on which Ernie Wheelwright picked apart cornerback Aaron Henry, catching four passes for 66 yards, although it was Decker beating Ikegwuonu for a four-yard touchdown reception that pulled the Gophers to within 34-27.

The defense held Wisconsin on the next series of downs. However, Harold Howell misjudged Ken DeBauche’s punt, then tried for an over-the-shoulder catch. He missed the catch, the ball bouncing off his hands and being recovered by Wisconsin on the Minnesota 15. Two plays later, Brown scored from four yards out to pad Wisconsin’s lead to two touchdowns again.

A freak play got the Gophers back in the game. On the third play of the ensuing drive, from the Minnesota 29, Weber’s pass to Marcus Sherels was tipped into the air by Henry. It caromed to Ralph Spry, who turned the play into a 71-yard touchdown with 4:37 to play, one that also gave Weber the new school single-season record for passing yardage.

Back with a touchdown, the Gophers got the ball back with 1:25 to play although they were backed up on their own eight. After a short pass to Spry, Weber had a pass to Jack Simmons tipped and intercepted by cornerback Ben Strickland. The Badgers were able to run out the clock and hang on for a 41-34 win.

Weber finished the game with 352 passing yards and was the team’s leading rusher, with 99 yards. However, it wasn’t enough for the Gophers to avoid their 10th straight loss, setting a team record in that department.

Minnesota’s chance to break the streak will come next August 30 as the Gophers will open their 2008 season against Northern Illinois.

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