Evanston, Ill. – The conversation probably began in the tiny Ryan Field locker room after the game. It might continue for a lifetime or two.
James Manuel and Ra’Shede Hageman are roommates. They are defensive starters for the Gophers who occasionally caught passes in high school.
Each caught a pass Saturday, providing two of the key moments in a 20-17 victory over Northwestern.
Each caught a pass Saturday, and that will give them so much to talk about, for so long.
“Which one was better?” Manuel asked, underneath the bleachers after the game. “You know what? I’m going to have to give it to Ra’Shede.”
“You know what?” Hageman said. “James is my roommate. We’re going to have to discuss that.”
For weeks, Gophers football players haven’t known which of their coaches would run the program or which of their quarterbacks would take snaps during games.
Saturday, neither seemed to matter much to the Gophers defense.
Saturday, neither seemed to matter much because of the Gophers defense.
In the second quarter, Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian whipped a pass, and Hageman caught it with one hand, the way an adult might catch a Wiffle Ball thrown by a child.
Hageman returned it 7 yards before Siemian tripped him. “I’m 315 [pounds],” Hageman said. “Jumping over him, man, those days are over.”
In the third quarter, Manuel intercepted a Siemian pass and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown, giving the Gophers their first lead. “That’s what you think about the night before a game,” Manuel said. “You just ask them to give you one like that.”
Both plays proved strategic and nostalgic.
All week, Gophers defensive coordinator and acting head coach Tracy Claeys instructed his linemen to put their hands up when stymied, to block passes. Hageman blocked three, and caught one.
“The fact that James got a pick-six, I’m proud of him, but everybody doesn’t know I used to play tight end,” Hageman said. “So when I snagged that, that just brought me back to my high school days. I’m 310, and I could tell that it’s not like I used to be, because I was real heavy running.
“James getting the pick and scoring, I’ll give him the style points. But don’t tell him I said that.”
Manuel, too, was responding to instructions when he made the biggest play of the game.
He had noticed while watching game film that when Northwestern lined up with three receivers on one side, the Wildcats usually ran a bubble screen. “So I said, I’m going to get outside a little farther than I usually do,” Manuel said. “They didn’t throw the bubble screen, but they threw a slant, and I was happy to be right there to make the play.”
Manuel, like Hageman, caught passes in high school. “I played a little receiver,” he said. “But my last touchdown came on a pick-six, my senior year. They threw a pass to the flat and I jumped it, and made the house call.”
Claeys admitted that he expected his defense to dominate Saturday. Two weeks earlier, Northwestern looked dynamic in a 40-30 loss to Ohio State. After injuries to starting quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, Northwestern lost 35-6 at Wisconsin.
As Saturday’s game wore on, the Gophers defensive front wore down Northwestern, limiting the Wildcats to 94 rushing yards.
With the running game stifled, the slow-footed Siemian was a stationary target for Hageman and company, who sacked him three times and hassled him constantly.
That’s not what Hageman and Manuel will be talking about all week and maybe for decades. They will be talking about their dueling interceptions, and how Hageman might have been able to get his roommate another touchdown.
“The funny thing about Ra’Shede’s interception?” Manuel said. “I was on a blitz on that play, and then I wound up behind Ra’Shede, and I’m telling him to pitch it. Even though he had the one-hand interception, I felt like, ‘I’m faster, get it to me, I can take it to the house.’
“I guess he didn’t hear me.”
He’ll be hearing about it, all week and maybe for the rest of his life.