Jim Souhan: Decker holds his own in Gophers' jaw-to-jaw battle

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 20, 2009 - 9:21 AM

The wide receiver accounted for all his team's scores -- and survived a couple of injuries in the process.

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Gophers receiver Eric Decker was knocked unconscious and suffered a cut lip requiring stitches after being hit on his first touchdown catch Saturday.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Minneapolis Star Tribune

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When Eric Decker leaped from the FieldTurf covering TCF Bank Stadium early in the second quarter on Saturday, the Gophers were getting thumped by California, the joint was quiet as a university library, Cal's Jahvid Best had separated himself from the pack like Usain Bolt, and Decker's jaw appeared symmetrical.

By the time Decker landed, the game was on, the joint was stereophonic, Best found himself a duel with another one of the best players in the country, and Decker's jaw looked bigger than Jay Leno's.

Gophers quarterback Adam Weber had scrambled right, and lobbed a pass toward the goal line. Decker had stretched to catch the ball overhead. As he pulled it down, Cal safety Sean Cattouse smashed into his face.

Decker held onto the ball for a touchdown, then, as his teammates tried to congratulate him, he rolled to the side of the end zone, bleeding from his face, momentarily unable to breathe, incapable of recalling the details of the greatest catch of his record-setting career.

That catch made it 14-7 Cal. The Gophers would take a 21-21 tie into the fourth quarter before losing 35-21 to the eighth-ranked team in the country.

By the end of the day, Decker had felt blood on his chin, stitches in his skin, ice on his ankle and his feet in the end zone.

Decker had set Minnesota receiving records and produced three touchdowns, Best had scored five times, and the Gophers' willingness to take on a national power had produced a winning atmosphere if not a signature victory.

"Hey, that's why I love this game," Decker said. "I tell myself, looking in the mirror, 'Why do I play this game?' But it's just Saturdays, and having the opportunity we had today -- those are memories that can't be filled in any other arena."

There is no shame in losing to a good team, and there is glory in performing the way Decker did against one. While facing Cal standout cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, Decker caught eight passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, and he threw another touchdown pass to MarQueis Gray, accounting for all of the Gophers' scores.

The catch he barely remembers was the 198th of his career, tying Ron Johnson's school record. His second touchdown catch, also in the second quarter, broke the record. He reached 204 by game's end.

"Ron mentioned something, that I broke his record, and I said, 'Hey, it's going to happen to me, too,' " Decker said. "It's good to see that this program is building and going in the right direction, we're getting the right athletes in, and in 10 years my record will probably be broken. That's what I'm hoping."

Decker was speaking carefully. His chin had required "four or five" stitches to close the gash. "I'll take the touchdown," he said, "with the stitches."

Weber said, under the circumstances, the catch that led to Decker's battered chin ranked as the best in his career. "Yeah, especially under the circumstance," Weber said. "With the shot he took, and the stitches in his face right now ... that he hung on to the ball, that's very impressive. I was just happy that I didn't kill him on that play.

"I was happy that he came down with the ball, but more so that he got back up and kept on playing."

Decker sprained his ankle near the end of the game, and his left arm was covered in tape and gauze afterward. The FieldTurf at TCF Bank is now padded with crushed rubber and pieces of Decker.

Did he feel like he was dueling with Best? "A little bit," Decker said. "He's a great athlete and an obvious Heisman candidate, and he had three or four touchdowns."

Corrected, he said: "Five? Wow. I thought when he scored a touchdown it was my turn to answer back and try to put up a score for my team."

The U unwittingly built the stadium just in time to feature the best receiver in Gophers history during his senior year.

Decker has five games left at "the Bank," five games to leave his footprints in the end zones and his blood on the turf.

Jim Souhan can be heard at 10-noon Sunday, and 6:40 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday on AM-1500. His twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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