The Gophers had played four games in their new stadium and not turned it into an obvious advantage. They had two victories that were anticipated, over Air Force and Purdue, and losses to California, overrated at the time, and Wisconsin, which was underrated.

On Saturday night, the Gophers were back home after two dreadful Saturdays on the road against strong teams, and this would be a chance to find some magic inside the modern brickyard and to give coach Tim Brewster a victory at the most important moment of his Minnesota career.

The Gophers were so futile offensively at Penn State and Ohio State that Brewster's future was becoming a topic of public conversation a mere 33 games into his career as a head coach.

This also had been a week that Eric Decker, the wide receiver that Brewster inherited and was his best player for three seasons, would not play again as a Gopher because of an injury to his left foot.

And there was one more potential distraction: The absolute conviction with which the small but deluded Gophers' fan base was stating that Brewster had to bench junior Adam Weber, a three-year starter at quarterback, and replace him with freshman MarQueis Gray.

This was based primarily on Gray's impressive work against Ohio State scrubs in leading the Gophers to a consolation touchdown in the previous week's 38-7 loss.

Michigan State arrived as a 3 1/2-point favorite but also was a team dealing with emotional damage. The Spartans allowed Iowa to beat them on the game's last play a week earlier -- a fourth late loss in seven games.

A quick start by the Gophers had the potential to put the lads from Spartyland in a funk.

Troy Stoudermire, proven to be feisty on returns and on the sideline, brought back the opening kick to the 38. And on the first play, Weber circled to his left and hit running back Duane Bennett. Bennett did a sideline tightrope for the ages and the Gophers led 7-0 after 20 seconds.

Michigan State's Edwin Baker fumbled the kickoff, Weber dropped a splendid pass to Brandon Green for a 37-yard touchdown, and it was 14-0 with 1:47 gone and with the visitors not yet running a play.

This was the start of an evening for Weber that proved two things: A) No coach should listen to his public when it comes to choosing a quarterback; and B) there can be life after Decker.

Weber was a combined 20-for-45 for 213 yards (and three interceptions) in the losses at Penn State and Ohio State. This caused a drumbeat -- Weber isn't a Big Ten-caliber quarterback, Brewster had to switch to Gray -- that was silenced by the best effort in Weber's 34 consecutive starts as a college quarterback.

Weber required resilience to keep the Gophers in this shootout as his team faced an avalanche of penalties, and he required good fortune on a final, stunning touchdown. But when it was over, some magic indeed had showed up in the new stadium.

It started with the opening strike to Bennett that included his remarkable 20-yard dance along the left sideline. Weber was asked when he found out that pass would be the Gophers' first play from scrimmage.

"Sunday or Monday," he said. "We saw [on tape] that on play action they kind of leave the running back. We were hoping that they would line up in the same defense.

"I saw that they were in that defense when I came to the line and knew we had a chance to make a play."

Weber completed 19 passes for five touchdowns and a career-high 416 yards. The key was getting protection after spending the previous two weeks on his back in State College, Pa., and Columbus, Ohio.

"The offensive line did an outstanding job,'' Weber said. "Any time you go back there and can look at three receivers and check down, you have a chance to make some plays.''

Weber followed the big play to Bennett with plenty more to the post-Decker wide receiver corps of Da'Jon McKnight, Green and Stoudermire, as well as the ever-present tight end, Nick Tow-Arnett.

When it was over, the Gophers had won a 42-34 shootout and came away with a victory needed by everyone ... particularly the quarterback and the head coach.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. •