If you're a Gopher fan, and since yesterday afternoon you've had this overwhelming feeling of joy, happiness, and even positivity, you're probably wondering what it is? I have the answer: that feeling is called "winning." I know, I had forgotten what it felt like too since yesterday's 38-34 victory over Illinois was Minnesota's first since September 2nd... 72 DAYS AGO!!! Yep, it had been far too long. Obviously. You could see on the player's and coaches' faces after the game how much this win meant, and how much it helped. And selfishly, this helped me a lot too.
I've been SO negative for most of this season, I didn't think another victory was possible, and just wanted the season to be over. I hadn't watched the past two games, and had gotten to the point where I wanted to know how much the team would lose by, and to just pick the damn coach already so we can have some hope around here! My feelings going into the Illini game were the same, especially after Illinois piled up 65 points and roughly 7,000 yards in a loss to Michigan last week. Surely, there was no way a Kevin Cosgrove defense could keep them in check...
Thanks to all the slush that fell from the sky yesterday, I missed most of the first half before shoveling my walks and cleaning off the satellite dish. I couldn't believe Minnesota had a halftime lead of 17-7. I absolutely COULD believe Illinois scored two TD's in the first eight minutes of the 3rd to take the lead. The Gophs prolonged an inevitable loss with a Weber TD pass to Da'Jon McKnight, another ridiculous catch over a helpless defender. Honestly- how good could McKnight be if they targeted him more? 5 catches for 70 yards and a score? Shouldn't that be his weekly numbers- AT THE HALF? He destroys single coverage, and is getting to the point where he seems to be able to go over two guys for long catches. Watching Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State, I can't help but wonder if McKnight could do similar things if we'd only throw him the ball more. At the very least, he should be 1st team All-Big Ten this season because there's not a better, more dangerous wideout in the conference right now.
Illinois answered in the fourth with not one, but two TD's, and I thought for sure the second one, Mikel Leshoure's 55 yard romp with 8:14 left, would be the end of it. 34-24 Illini, and even if Weber could rally the troops, Cosgrove's D had proven yet again that when we needed them to stop the run, the run would not be stopped. And then...THE RETURN! Hellloooooooooooooooo Troy Stoudermire!!! A 96 yard kickoff return down to the 4! I wanted him to score SO BADLY because of all the chaos and the position change and everything else, but he was pulled down 4 yards short of glory. After a Weber incompletion, Deleon Eskridge scored his 2nd TD of the day from four yards out to cut the lead to 3 34-31. Illinois gets the ball, runs three times, and instead of picking up three first downs (or three touchdowns) they actually, amazingly don't gain 10 yards and have to punt. What? The other team can punt? This can happen? You mean it's possible to make the other team give you the ball back without giving up a TD or field goal? As Ron Burgandy said to Baxter after he ate an entire wheel of cheese and pooped in the refrigerator "I'm not even mad! That's amazing!"
The Gophers responded with a three-and-out of their own. Annnnnnnd we're right back where we started. 5:45 left, Illinois needs a couple of first downs to end the game. Leshoure busts off a run for 14 yards and that's about it, right? Four beautiful words followed. Flag. On. The. Field. And it's against Illinois! Holding at the end of the run, so instead of 1st and 10 well into Gopher territory, it's 1st and 6. Gary Tinsley stuffs Jason Ford for a 3 yard loss. 2nd and 9 and QB Nate Scheelhaase loses two more. 3rd and 11? Could it be? INCOMPLETE! Illinois does that punting thing again (seriously what would have been more improbable- a Cosgrove defense forcing two straight three-and-outs with the game on the line, or that ridiculously stupid "Skyline" movie being #1 at the box office this weekend? I saw one preview for that craptastic waste of money and said noone in their right mind would see that. And you know what? No one did. Still, I would have put a better chance of that happening that Cosgrove's D making a stand), and the Gophers have the ball down three from their own 20 with 2:44 left.
Ok, remember that "what was more improbable?" question? Let's rephrase that- a Cosgrove D making a stand, or Adam Weber leading a long game-winning drive late in the fourth? Not to pick on Weber, but do you know the last time that happened? August 30, 2008 in the season opener against Northern Illinois. Duane Bennett plunged in from a yard out with :22 seconds left to cap a 76 yard drive that lasted almost six minutes. This time, Weber would have to go 80 yards in less than three minutes. Two incompletions later and facing a third and 10, I was expecting the inevitable game-ending interception. It's what Adam Weber always seemed to do. 3rd and 10, He drops back, gets pressured... but instead of forcing the ball downfield he tucks it and runs for 29 yards to midfield. Suddenly the Gophers are in great position with plenty of time, and only needing a field goal to tie. Go for the TD and a win? Tim Brewster never would have, and maybe Jeff Horton wouldn't have either had Illinois not provided a little help. Bennett runs for three yards, and on second down another short run, which would have set up 3rd and 5 from the 45, but Illini defender Travon Bellamy gave Gopher fans an early Christmas present with a 15 yard personal foul penalty, making it 1st and 10 from the 31. Thank you Travon, thank you.
After a long incompletion to MarQueis Gray (two things here: one, I'm assuming Da'Jon was triple covered? Quadrupled? Otherwise, it should have been Da'Jon running that route. Second- what's happened to MarQueis? He was a monster in his first few games, but has been almost a non-factor at wideout for the better part of two months. Is he hurt? Is he letting the whole QB thing get to him? Whatever it is, he hasn't been the same since the USC game) Thomas Hammock makes a great call for a screen pass, and Duane Bennett showed us the Duane from the first two games of the season (remember that Duane? The one who ran over, around, and through defenders? The one who looked like an all-conference running back? What the hell happened to that guy?) catching the screen and bolting for 25 yards down to the six. 1st and goal from the six. I'm trying not to get my hopes up because, well, look at that past four seasons. That's why. Weber's fade pass for McKnight goes incomplete. Not a great throw, and McKnight couldn't seem to shake loose on his route. Second down and a Weber run for four. Timeout Gophs with :28 seconds left. 3rd and goal from the two. I had just watched Northwestern upset Iowa again moment earlier (at this point, with Northwestern having now beaten the Hawkeyes five of their last six meetings, can we really keep calling it an upset? I don't think so)- could the Gophers cap the best day of the season with a comeback win? An Iowa loss AND a Gopher victory? Too good to be true right?
Thankfully, wrong! Eskridge scored his third TD of the day (really? We couldn't have thrown Bennett a bone here and let him score?), Ellestad nails the extra point, and holy shnikes Minnesota might win the game. A great squib kick that Illinois can't return at the 25, an Illini penalty, and incomplete pass, and then Stoudermire, of all people, seals the win with a pick! Gophers win? Gophers win? GOPHERS WIN!! GOPHERS WIN!
What a day! What a win! For only the second time all year I can feel good about being a Gophers fan (ok for the third time- I felt great the day Brewster was fired). We now have two weeks to feel great about our team, and get ready for the hated Hawkeyes. The losing, hated Hawkeyes. But let's worry about that one later. For now, enjoy the Gopher win. Enjoy that winning feeling. Enjoy being a Gopher football fan. We deserve it.