The Gophers practice a lot of things every week that came in handy on Saturday -- bootleg runs, blindside blitzes, a game-changing onside kick -- but they never game-plan celebrations. Apparently they should start.
"I think it was the right ear," Brandon Kirksey said after the 98-pound bronze Floyd of Rosedale trophy fell on him, raising a welt under his eye, during a raucous midfield party once the Gophers' 22-21 victory over Iowa was complete. "Those ears are sharp."
So were the Gophers in the fourth quarter Saturday, holding the ball for all but 95 seconds of the final period, marching 80 and 59 yards for touchdowns, and pulling off an onside kick so perfectly executed it might as well have come out of an academic dissertation.
Come to think of it, it did. "I actually wrote a paper about how we teach it," coach Jerry Kill said with a broad smile after the first Big Ten victory of his career. "We've been doing that particular onside kick for 13 years. We've practiced it every day since I got here."
It looked like it. The Gophers had just put together a remarkable 80-yard, 11-play touchdown march, perhaps the most impressive of the season. They converted a fourth down on a MarQueis Gray keeper, reeled off first downs on four consecutive plays, moved into Iowa territory on a leaping, tiptoe-along-the-sideline grab by Da'Jon McKnight, and scored on Duane Bennett's 1-yard crash into the end zone.
But when the two-point conversion failed, the Gophers still trailed by five, and Kill didn't like the looks of his defense's energy level. Forced to spend the afternoon grabbing for tailback Marcus Coker as he rumbled past -- the Hawkeyes tailback churned his way to 252 yards on 32 carries -- the defense "had been on the field way too much," Kill said. "I said, 'I think the defensive kids are tired. I don't want to give the ball back.'"
The defense had made some big plays, and even stopped an Iowa drive in the red zone when cornerback Kyle Henderson hammered quarterback James Vandenberg from behind on a roll-the-dice blitz, forcing a fumble that Kirksey recovered and ran with. But Kill didn't want to count on another big stop, not with Iowa rolling up 446 yards of total offense.
He consulted with his coaches, who agreed the gamble made sense -- "'We're with you, Coach,' that's all I needed to hear. I want someone with me in case it doesn't work," Kill joked -- and made the call once he saw Iowa's coverage unit wasn't hugging the 40-yard line.
Jordan Wettstein, a walk-on kicker filling in for injured starter Chris Hawthorne, approached the ball normally, then suddenly veered sharply to his right. He kicked the ball hard into the turf, and it bounced high toward the sideline. As it crossed the 40, making it legal for the Gophers to recover, freshman Lamonte Edwards and senior Kim Royston knocked Iowa defenders out of the way, a perfect clear-out where the ball landed.
Edwards reached for the ball but couldn't corral it. But Royston was right behind him, and smothered it.
"We've been practicing that since fall camp. I knew there was going to be a moment where we called it," Royston said. "I had no doubt that I was going to get the ball."
And the Gophers, despite three disastrous confidence-draining Big Ten defeats this month, had few doubts they were going to score once he did. It took a dozen plays to manage it, and the touchdown came on a critical fourth down from the 3 -- Gray, who threw for 193 yards and ran for 62 more, rolled to his right, then suddenly sprinted full speed to the pylon at the goal line, reaching it a split-second before linebacker James Morris -- but they made it, taking their first lead in a game since the first quarter against North Dakota State.
Iowa still had 2:48 to work with, but James Vandenberg, 16-for-21 for 177 yards and a touchdown to that point, threw three incompletions into an energized Minnesota defense, then came up short on a fourth-down scramble. Moments later, the Gophers were hoisting that bronze pig, reminded once more that all their preparation isn't always in vain.
"It was ecstatic," Kirksey said, and well worth the minor porcine injury. "To play a big-time team like Iowa, and to keep Floyd here, that was something great."