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Minnesota Football: Building the Perfect Season - Week 6

“Russell down the sideline!”

Minnesota v Michigan Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Big Ten football returns Oct. 24, but we are forging ahead with our quest to build a perfect season of Minnesota Golden Gophers football over 13 weeks, inviting readers to choose from three nominees for each week of the season dating back to 2000. For example, for Week 5 I selected the three “best” — and the specific criteria for “best” is going to vary week to week, depending on what I have to work with — Week 5 games from the Gophers’ last 20 seasons.

Your selections so far:

Week 1: ‘16 vs Oregon State
Week 2: ‘19 vs Fresno State
Week 3: ‘19 vs Georgia Southern
Week 4: ‘05 vs Purdue
Week 5: ‘14 vs Michigan

Week 6 is our “bye week.” No nominees. No voting. Because every team needs a bye week in a 13-week season, and our perfect season is no exception. And when I was reviewing our Week 6 candidates, I found that one game towered above the rest. No competition.

That game is ‘05 vs Michigan.

The Wolverines started the season ranked as high as No. 3 in the polls, but stumbled in Week 2 with a 17-10 loss to Notre Dame at home. Two weeks later, Michigan suffered another close loss, falling at Wisconsin, 23-20, on a last-second touchdown. The Wolverines seemed to right the ship the following week, triumphing over No. 11-ranked Michigan State in overtime. So when the Gophers showed up for their date at the Big House, Michigan was 3-2.

Minnesota had started the season 4-0, capped by a 42-35 upset of No. 11-ranked Purdue in overtime. But a road trip to Happy Valley served as a wake-up call, as the Nittany Lions trounced the Gophers 44-14 to deliver their first loss of the season. It cost them a spot in both polls.

Michigan struck first, marching down the Minnesota 7-yard line on the opening drive of the game. The Gopher defense held up in the red zone, holding them to a field goal. Minnesota attempted to respond with a scoring drive of their own, but stalled at the Michigan 39 when Bryan Cupito could not connect with Ernie Wheelwright on fourth down. Fortunately the Gophers were able to tie it up, 3-3, on their next possession, thanks to a 29-yard field goal from Jason Giannini.

Both offenses struggled to sustain drives for most of the first half. Then the dam broke when Chad Henne found Steve Breaston for 18 yards, tacking on an extra 15 due to a roughing the passer penalty. The Wolverines didn’t gain another yard on their next three plays, but that one play and penalty had set them up at the Minnesota 30-yard line. Garrett Rivas’ 47-yard field goal put them ahead, 6-3. Gopher running back Laurence Maroney fumbled on the first play of the next drive, and the Wolverines recovered. Taking over at the Minnesota 23, the Michigan offense went to work, and Mike Hart punched it on 4th & Goal at the one-yard line.

Trailing 13-3 with three minutes left in the half, Cupito led the Minnesota offense down the field on a 7-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, keyed by a 36-yard completion to Jared Ellerson. Cupito’s 21-yard touchdown pass to Wheelwright cut the Wolverines’ halftime lead to 13-10.

In the second half, Minnesota wide receiver Jakari Wallace returned the opening kickoff 60 yards to the Michigan 40, setting up a 26-yard field goal to knot the score at 13-13. But the stalemate did not last long, as Steve Breaston returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. The Gophers countered by riding Maroney and Gary Russell — and two pass interference penalties — to a 13-play, 61-yard touchdown drive to even it up again at 20-20.

It became a defensive struggle from there, although Michigan had a chance to pull ahead midway through the fourth quarter but missed a 34-yard field goal attempt. The game-winning drive for Minnesota started at their own 13-yard line, with 2:40 left in regulation. Facing 3rd & 10 at their own 26, the Gophers opted to run the ball, and Russell made a mad dash down the sideline for 60 yards before the Wolverines could bring him down. Now set up at the Michigan 13-yard line, Minnesota ran don the clock and as time expired Jason Giannini kicked a 30-yard field goal to win.

It was Minnesota’s first win over Michigan since 1986, and Maroney described the Big House crowd as “quieter than a church mouse” during the Gophers’ post-game celebration as they seized the Little Brown Jug on their opponent’s sideline.

We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week, with three nominees for Week 7. But for now, relive one of the most memorable wins of the Glen Mason era.