Gophers relive nightmare
Second straight late-game collapse against mighty Michigan
By Brian Williams
Knight Ridder Newspapers
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The last-gasp, fourth-down pass trickled on the turf incomplete, and the nightmare scenario plunged into cruel, agonizing reality. The weight of it bent quarterback Bryan Cupito over, hands on his knees, head bowed. The absurdity of it froze tailback Laurence Maroney just two yards away, paralyzed by his disbelief.
Nearly one year ago to the day, the University of Minnesota let slip a chance to seize genuine respect and a pole position for a run to Pasadena with an unbelievable collapse against Michigan. Once more Saturday, an unbeaten Gophers squad had a fourth-quarter lead against the hallowed Wolverines. Once more, they were sure this was it, the big arrival, witnessed by 111,518, the largest homecoming crowd ever at Michigan Stadium.
Instead, it became a 27-24 victory for Michigan, fashioned by a true freshman's touchdown pass with just under two minutes to play, sealed by Cupito's errant throw dribbling along four snaps later, the 16th consecutive time the Wolverines left a renewal of this rivalry with the Little Brown Jug trophy in tow.
Nothing so remarkable as last year's squandered three-touchdown lead. Nothing if not as painful, maybe more so.
"It is hard to swallow, really," Gophers senior cornerback Ukee Dozier said. "We just knew coming into this game that we were going to win. Just like last year. We didn't think the plays were going to go the way they went."
Last year, Minnesota was 15 minutes away from making a leap. This time, clinging to a four-point lead, just three minutes and 87 yards stood between the No. 13 Gophers and indisputable national respectability. And while last year a grizzled senior crew led the Wolverines' comeback, this time it fell to freshman Chad Henne to whip up some magic with little time, experience or room for error.
A child shall lead them: Henne completed 5 of 6 passes on the final drive, the last a crossing route to tight end Tyler Ecker that two missed tackles turned into a go-ahead 31-yard touchdown, just 67 seconds after the No. 14 Wolverines (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten Conference) got their hands back on the ball.
In the corner of the end zone, a maize-and-blue mob swallowed Ecker. You could safely argue it spit out the Gophers at the same time.
""I don't think we were out of gas," defensive tackle Mark Losli said, after Minnesota surrendered 518 yards of offense. "We wanted it to come down to us, and we wanted to get the win. But they made more plays than we did."
Henne and fellow true freshman tailback Mike Hart led the way. Henne finished with a career-high 328 yards on 33-of-49 passing. Hart set a school freshman record with 160 yards rushing. But it was Michigan's defense that set the tone.
The Wolverines held Minnesota to 189 yards rushing, only the second time in the past two years that the Gophers (5-1, 2-1) failed to reach the 200-yard plateau. And it was an inconsistent effort. Subtracting scoring jaunts of 80 yards by Maroney and 19 by Marion Barber III, plus a 24-yard Maroney carry, the tandem carried 29 times for 62 yards.
"The coaches put the Brown Jug and the 424 yards rushing (surrendered by Michigan in the 2003 game) in our face the whole week," Michigan defensive tackle Gabe Watson said. "We just tried to prepare for the run and shut it down."
Still, this was the Gophers' game to lose. They weathered 30 first-half passes from Henne to trail 17-14 at halftime. They took the lead on Cupito's 26-yard touchdown pass to Jared Ellerson in the third quarter. Yet it was a badly bungled opportunity two plays into the fourth that proved costly.
Michigan's Leon Hall fumbled a booming 63-yard punt, and Minnesota's Amir Pinnix recovered at the 9-yard line. But Minnesota settled for a field goal and a 24-17 lead, botching a chance for a knockout blow.
"We got the turnovers; we got some field position," Mason said. "And we squandered it away, so to speak."
A Michigan field goal followed and another wicked sucker punch eventually. It is not a death knell for Rose Bowl hopes; teams with one loss or more have won or shared the Big Ten title eight times since 1990.