In retrospect, maybe the Gophers would have preferred facing Denard Robinson. That way, they could have sent the blame for Saturday's disappointment back to Michigan with the Little Brown Jug.
The jug is headed back to its usual spot in Ann Arbor, but the responsibility for the Gophers' 35-13 loss remains here. They missed chance after chance to bleed the Wolverines, opportunity after opportunity to bog down a Michigan offense that picked a receiver to fill in for Robinson at quarterback. But in the end, the result was as predictable as the Gophers' short-yardage game.
"Really, the game was pretty simple," said Gophers coach Jerry Kill, whose 5-4 team (1-4 Big Ten) remains one victory short of bowl eligibility. "The University of Michigan made some plays to win the game, and we couldn't make a play."
No, but they had so many chances. The Gophers took their first lead against the Wolverines since 2007, and had Michigan bottled up at midfield before allowing a long touchdown strike. They twice faced first-and-goal from inside the Michigan 3, drives that would have kept he game tight, and neither time could reach the end zone. They forced eight third-down situations during four Michigan drives in the second and third quarters, and surrendered first-down yardage on seven of them. Matter of fact, four of Michigan's five touchdowns came on third or fourth down.
In a so-called rivalry that stands 29-2 since 1977, in a matchup that was as lopsided as 58-0 just 13 months ago, staying competitive into the second half could be considered progress. But it sure felt hollow to the Gophers.
"To lose in that fashion is going to hurt bad. There's no sense of satisfaction," said junior safety Brock Vereen, a victim in that historic rout a year ago. "Is there an embarrassment level [this year]? No. But there's nothing to be happy about."
Funny, there was a giddy feeling among the medium-sized crowd at TCF Bank Stadium, announced at 48,801, when Michigan coach Brady Hoke's public diagnosis -- that Robinson would play despite nerve damage in his throwing elbow -- proved too optimistic. The Big Ten's third-leading rusher determined during warmups that he couldn't go, leaving the quarterbacking chores to Devin Gardner, a junior who backed up Robinson for two years before switching to wide receiver this fall.
No recent experience was no big problem for Gardner. Once he settled down after a jumpy first quarter, the backup was as elusive as Robinson, and probably more trustworthy as a passer. He completed 12 of 18 passes, two of them for touchdowns, and ran for another score.
And his biggest role was as a momentum-buster.
The Gophers led 7-0 midway through the second quarter, having scored their first offensive touchdown against Michigan since 2006 when quarterback Philip Nelson hit tight end John Rabe with a 10-yard pass. Michigan (6-3, 4-1 Big Ten) responded by moving the ball to just across midfield, but a Roland Johnson sack backed the Wolverines into third-and-17. The Gophers were about to have the lead, the ball, and a growing sense of destiny.
Gardner changed all that. He rolled to his right, but the Gophers defense was there. He scrambled back to his left and turned the corner, seemingly ready to run. But just before crossing the line of scrimmage, Gardner spotted junior receiver Drew Dileo alone in the end zone, 45 yards away. The rainbow pass arrived just before safety Derrick Wells.
Touchdown, Michigan. Normalcy restored.
"It's always difficult to guard a receiver for about 20 seconds while a guy is scrambling around," cornerback Troy Stoudermire said. "It just so happened a receiver got open and he made a play."
"That was definitely a turning point of the game," Vereen added. "It was on us to get the juice back, get the energy back, and we just weren't able to do that."
Touchdowns might have done it, but the red zone was the dead zone for the home team. The Gophers reached the 13 on their first drive in the second half, but they tried a fake field goal, a pass from holder Peter Mortell to Nelson, that was stopped far short. They reached the 3 on their next drive, and went: run for no gain, run for no gain, false start, incompletion, field goal. They got to the 2 on their next drive and went: run for no gain, incomplete, incomplete, field goal.
"We got down there plenty of times and couldn't capitalize," Nelson said. "We had opportunities to put way more points up there."
Gardner made sure Michigan did. While Minnesota stalled, the Wolverines drove to three consecutive touchdowns in the second half, on a 10-yard leaping catch by receiver Jeremy Gallon, a 2-yard scramble by Gardner, and Fitzgerald Toussaint's 41-yard romp to close the scoring.
"We were so close to bringing [the Little Brown Jug] home," said Gophers receiver MarQueis Gray. "But they started making more plays than we did."