The homecoming crowd at TCF Bank Stadium could hardly believe it had come to this against Rutgers, but there Emmit Carpenter was Saturday, lining up the first game-winning kick — or game-losing kick — of his life.
Carpenter, in his first year as Gophers kicker, needed this 28-yarder to prevent what would have been, arguably, the worst loss of the Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys era.
Rutgers had been outscored 160-7 in its three previous games. The Gophers had grabbed an 18-point, first-quarter lead and frittered it away. With 10 seconds remaining, and the Gophers trailing by two, in stepped Carpenter, who had already missed once from 34 yards.
“We kind of have a rule with specialists,” Carpenter said. “We’re only short memory.”
Carpenter nailed this kick, giving the Gophers a 34-32 victory that allowed Claeys to heave a huge sigh of relief.
So many things had gone wrong after the first quarter, but at least the announced crowd of 46,096 wasn’t left to digest a loss.
“I guess we thought if we got up that big that [Rutgers] would get on the bus and go home,” Claeys said. “That was disappointing, obviously, to give up that big of a lead. But at the same time, we did find a way to get back and win.”
With Mitch Leidner back from his concussion, the Gophers offense reeled off three first-quarter touchdowns on runs from Shannon Brooks, Rodney Smith and Leidner for a 21-3 lead.
Coming off last week’s 31-10 victory at Maryland, the Gophers (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) were making it look easy.
But the Scarlet Knights trimmed their deficit to 11 by halftime and outgained the Gophers 299-229 over the final three quarters.
“They went out and took Minnesota’s best punch in the first quarter,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said. “If you don’t have good character kids, you fold in that situation.”
Rutgers (2-6, 0-5) pulled within one point midway through the third quarter, when Damon Hayes intercepted Leidner and raced 55 yards for a touchdown. Gophers receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Brian Smith ran crossing patterns on the play and collided. With pressure coming, Leidner threw the ball toward where Smith was headed, but it was right to Hayes.
“It’s a bad decision,” Claeys said. “I’d like for Mitch to see the wrong color standing there.”
Rutgers would have tied it there, but kicker David Bonagura missed the extra point off the left upright.
The stadium was still shellshocked, though. The Gophers desperately needed a spark, and one of their best players gave it to them.
Rodney Smith took the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. He sped through a big crease up the middle, veered to the right sideline and scampered to the end zone right in front of the student section.
“They brought everybody to the left boundary and only had two guys over to the right side,” the sophomore tailback said. “All I had to do was beat the kicker. I didn’t have to do much; it was blocked well.”
The Gophers could have made it a two-possession game on their next possession, but Rutgers stopped Leidner short on a fourth-and-1 run from the Rutgers 10-yard line.
With his defense struggling, Claeys authorized going for it on fourth-and-short two more times. Colton Beebe squandered the first of those chances when he drew a false-start penalty. And midway through the fourth quarter, Rutgers stuffed Brooks for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1.
“Execution,” Rodney Smith said. “We just have to execute.”
If missed short-yardage attempts were a theme for the Gophers, missed conversion attempts helped derail Rutgers. Jawuan Harris’ 18-yard touchdown reception trimmed Minnesota’s lead to two points early in the fourth quarter. The Scarlet Knights went for two, but Giovanni Rescigno’s pass fell incomplete.
Rutgers took advantage, though, when Wolitarsky muffed a punt at the Gophers 23-yard line. Bonagura’s 39-yard field goal gave Rutgers its first lead at 32-31 with 4:01 remaining.
“I had a ton of confidence in the offense, and Rodney, that they were going to get downfield and either get a touchdown or get into field goal range,” Carpenter said.
Rodney Smith led the charge, rushing seven times for 42 yards, as the Gophers drove to the Rutgers 10-yard line. The Scarlet Knights took a timeout, trying to ice Carpenter, to no avail.
“That was my first [game-winner] to date,” Carpenter said. “It’s an exciting experience, and one that I’ll definitely not be forgetting any time soon.”
Short memory only? Well, with certain exceptions.