Reliving one fateful night in Gophers football

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2013 - 11:58 AM

Fifteen minutes from a program-changing victory in 2003, Gophers players are still haunted by a sudden collapse against Michigan.

A group of Gophers football alumni returned to campus for the spring game in April. They shared laughs and stories and memories of their time together until, inevitably, the conversation turned to a familiar topic.

Michigan, 2003.

“The conversation always ends with the Michigan game,” former quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said.

Ten years later, the events of that Friday night inside a sold-out and rowdy Metrodome still resonate with Gophers players, coaches and fans. The program and its followers went from unbridled ecstasy to unrelenting agony in a span of one unforgettable fourth-quarter meltdown.

That 38-35 loss left such an indelible mark on Gophers football that several players believe the program would look dramatically different today had the Gophers not squandered a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter by allowing Michigan to score 31 points.

Many of those involved say they still think about what happened that night, as the 100th meeting in the rivalry takes place Saturday in Ann Arbor.

“All the time,” former tight end Ben Utecht said. “I don’t know if I choose to think about it. It’s more of a nightmare than anything else.”

Undefeated and ranked 17th at the time, the Gophers pummeled No. 20 Michigan for three quarters, legitimizing the belief that their program was primed to reach new heights under coach Glen Mason. A victory would have improved the Gophers’ record to 7-0, possibly moved them into the top 10 nationally and injected the program — and its fan base — with the kind of confidence and momentum that had been absent for decades.

“If we win that game, the program is 100 percent different, no doubt about it,” said former quarterback Bryan Cupito, a freshman in ’03. “If we win that game, I would say the next five years of Minnesota football is completely different. I think that would have changed things in a big way.”

How much so is pure speculation, but with a manageable closing schedule, it’s not unrealistic to think that a victory would have propelled the Gophers into the Rose Bowl and possibly even the national championship picture.

Instead, they looked like zombies in a loss to No. 15 Michigan State the following week, losing 44-38, and finished the season 10-3 after defeating Oregon in the Sun Bowl, giving the program its first 10-victory season since 1905.

And yet …

“I really think that if we win that game, we end up at least 12-1,” Utecht said. “I think what happens then is ‘Mase’ goes out and probably has two to three really solid recruiting years where he keeps Minnesota kids and brings in some of those who were maybe walking the fence. The next thing you know, maybe we’ve got three BCS [bowl games in a row] and this becomes a whole different conversation.”

Instead, the Gophers absorbed the kind of heartbreak that defined Mason’s career as much as his rebuilding job. Mason inherited a conference bottom-feeder and turned it into a respectable operation that made annual trips to bowl games and set NCAA rushing records. His teams were typically solid, occasionally quite good, but gut-wrenching losses prevented the Gophers from becoming a consistent Big Ten challenger.

The Gophers never finished higher than fourth place in the conference or played in a New Year’s Day game under Mason. His 10-year tenure looks better in retrospect, considering the struggles the program has endured since his firing following the 2006 season. His résumé included a few milestone upsets, notably at No. 2 Penn State in 1999, at No. 6 Ohio State in 2000 and at Michigan in 2005.

Understandably, Mason prefers to look at the totality of his tenure rather than the sting of one loss or dissect all the “what-might-have-been” scenarios.

“You’re assuming we would have beat Michigan State the next week,” he said. “I don’t know.”

•••

A Gophers official distributed laminated business cards to players at the start of the 2003 season with a motto that defined their internal optimism.

“2004 Rose Bowl. Why Not Us?!”

The Gophers knew they had talent. They had seven players who later became NFL draft picks, including three running backs — Thomas Tapeh, Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney.

Their roster featured a future Super Bowl champion (Utecht), an Outland Trophy winner (Greg Eslinger), an All-America offensive guard (Mark Setterstrom), the John Mackey Award winner (Matt Spaeth) and two defensive linemen who played in the NFL (Darrell Reid and Anthony Montgomery).

“It was almost like for the first time, being a Gopher, everybody believed that we could do it,” Utecht said. “It was no longer trying to provide false hope to beat the Ohio States and Michigans.”

Their confidence soared after opening the Big Ten season with back-to-back road victories against Penn State and Northwestern.

“We felt like nobody in the Big Ten can beat us,” said Abdul-Khaliq, their senior quarterback. “We were riding high. Even with Michigan coming in, we felt we were better.”

As usual, Michigan was loaded with talent, especially on offense. Minnesota had not defeated the Wolverines since 1986, nor had the Gophers started a season 7-0 since 1960.

This situation felt different, though. At the Friday walk-through, defensive coordinator Greg Hudson gathered his players while the offense met on another part of the field. Earlier that day, Hudson had sent a graduate assistant to a grocery store to buy a gallon of chocolate milk — the closest thing he could find to resemble the Little Brown Jug.

Hudson told his players that when they won the game — not if, he noted — they needed to know how to properly celebrate. Then he pointed to the gallon of milk on the sideline.

“They grabbed that gallon of chocolate milk and ran around our end of the field like it was the U.S. Open trophy,” Hudson recalled.

•••

The buzz on campus and throughout the Twin Cities that week was unusual for Gophers football, as if everyone understood the magnitude of the game. It felt like an event, in part because the game was televised nationally after being moved to Friday night in order to rectify scheduling conflicts with Twins postseason games in the Dome.

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr initially balked at that idea, saying his team would not play on Friday night because that day is traditionally reserved for high school football. Carr and Michigan ultimately conceded.

“Television won,” Carr joked recently.

Gophers players felt the excitement building on campus.

“In my classes that week, people were talking about going to the game, which you never heard [before],” Cupito said. “Everyone was buying jerseys. I remember Maroney and Barber jerseys were everywhere.”

The entire student section was full by the time the players walked onto the field for warmups an hour before kickoff. Cupito turned to Abdul-Khaliq and said, “Wow.”

“Usually you go out for warmups and there’s like 10 people in the student section,” Cupito said. “It was crazy.”

The official announced attendance was 62,374, making it the largest crowd for an opponent other than Iowa or Wisconsin since 1985.

“That was the first game where I felt like this is what college football is about,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “It was like we had arrived.”

•••

The Gophers took their opening drive of the game 80 yards on 12 plays and scored on Barber’s 20-yard touchdown run. That set the tone for how they intended to attack Michigan: by pounding the Wolverines on the ground.

The Wolverines had no answer for the Gophers running game, especially Barber, who finished with 197 yards on 21 carries. Maroney added 81 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Abdul-Khaliq contributed 106 rushing yards on nine carries.

In all, the Gophers’ 424 yards rushing were the most ever by a Michigan opponent, a performance Carr still finds “unbelievable.”

“If you did a survey of coaches and showed them that statistic and asked them who won the game, there would be no one who would think you can give up that many yards and win,” Carr said.

The Gophers led 14-0 at halftime and 28-7 after three quarters. The Gophers defense did its part, too, limiting a Michigan offense that featured running back Chris Perry and receivers Braylon Edwards, Steve Breaston and Jason Avant.

In fact, Michigan’s only touchdown until that point came on a 36-yard throwback pass from Breaston to quarterback John Navarre in the third quarter. The Gophers viewed that as a sign of desperation.

“That’s when I really knew that Michigan was worried about Minnesota,” Hudson said.

•••

The Gophers began the fourth quarter with a 28-7 lead. The Dome pulsated with energy as fans celebrated with the hope that those final 15 minutes on the clock would painlessly pass.

The mood turned nervous after Michigan scored in the first minute of the quarter on a 10-yard pass from Navarre to Perry. Panic set in on the Gophers’ ensuing possession when Abdul-Khaliq attempted a pass to Spaeth while being tackled. Michigan safety Jacob Stewart intercepted it and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown. Gophers 28, Michigan 21.

“I should have never run the play,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “I should have audibled to a run, given the ball to Marion Barber.”

He paused.

“The thing is, you never throw the ball late in the flat,” he continued. “I should have just taken a sack. But this is Michigan, we’re kicking their butt, we want to win, we’ve got confidence. And I threw it and never saw it. It was the longest walk to the sideline of my life.”

Abdul-Khaliq could hear the telephone on the sideline ringing before he even reached the bench. It was co-offensive coordinator Tony Petersen, who was sitting in the coaches’ booth in the press box.

“Have you ever seen a cartoon when the phone rings and it’s jumping off the hook?” Abdul-Khaliq asked. “That’s how it was.”

Abdul-Khaliq redeemed himself on the next possession. The Gophers faced a third-and-1 at their own 48. Mason had installed an option play just for that game, and that was the only time they ran it.

Earlier in the game, Michigan safety Ernest Shazor stung Abdul-Khaliq on a jarring hit. The quarterback swallowed hard when he saw Shazor walk up close to the line before the snap on that third down.

“I’m like, ‘Shoot, it’s just my luck,’ ” Abdul-Khaliq said. “I saw Ernest coming and I kind of ducked my head and closed my eyes to brace for the hit.”

However, a Gophers lineman blocked Shazor, giving Abdul-Khaliq a clear path to the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown run with 11 minutes, 11 seconds remaining.

“It was one of the most unbelievable plays of my college career,” he said. “As I was running, it put me back in a place where I felt, OK, I’m not the one who let the team down or who lost the game. Not that [the interception] wasn’t a big mistake. But I said, at least we’re back in it now. I made up for my mistake.”

•••

In the ultimate irony, Abdul-Khaliq scored too quickly because it left Michigan plenty of time to come back. A 52-yard touchdown catch by Edwards with 10:18 to play cut the lead to 35-28. The Gophers’ inability to cover Perry on screen passes led to his 10-yard TD run with 5:48 left, tying the score at 35-35.

“Once they started scoring touchdowns,” Utecht said, “that little voice kind of pops into your head like, ‘Oh no, please tell me this is not going to happen again.’ ”

If there is a lasting image of the collapse, it’s of Perry catching passes over and over. He had seven receptions for 76 yards and one touchdown in the fourth quarter alone.

“I think we did a very poor job, and I’m not being critical of our defensive coaches,” Mason said. “If I could do it again, I would have taken the defensive end and said, ‘Don’t rush. Play the screen. Just play the screen.’ ”

The Gophers clung to one last hope during a timeout with 1:05 left and Michigan in field-goal range. Hudson turned to safety Eli Ward and told him to strip the ball out of Perry’s hands. On the opposite sideline, Carr urged his offense to secure the ball because they were in position for a field goal.

On the next play, Ward hit Perry and knocked the ball free. Two Gophers players had a chance to recover it, but Michigan tight end Tim Massaquoi fell on the ball.

“My heart stopped when that ball came out,” Carr said.

Garrett Rivas kicked a 33-yard field goal two plays later.

Michigan 38, Gophers 35.

•••

The Gophers postgame locker room was “similar to a funeral,” according to Ward.

“Nobody talked,” he said. “It was somber, really somber.”

Utecht remembers a feeling of emptiness.

“Try and imagine being in a room filled with 100 people that don’t have any more emotion,” he said. “Everybody had just got the wind knocked out of them.”

Mason tried not to overreact as he consoled his players.

“You’ve got to be careful because your emotions are running high and you may say something you regret in the locker room,” he said.

The Gophers were greeted by a phone message from Carr when they returned to the football complex the next morning. He congratulated them on their performance and encouraged them to finish the season strong.

“To play that well and that hard and to lose in such a difficult way, I think your heart goes out to them,” Carr said this summer.

Mason also received a phone call from legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, who told Mason that he never thought he’d see any team, let alone Minnesota, rush for 424 yards against Michigan. Then he hung up. Mason’s receptionist asked him what Schembechler said.

“I think he paid me a compliment,” Mason replied.

The players said the right things in the aftermath about bouncing back and not allowing that loss to affect the rest of their season. But picking themselves up was not an easy task.

They fumbled the opening kickoff against Michigan State eight days later and trailed 17-0 after one quarter. The Gophers’ home crowd appeared dazed, too. At least those who showed up.

The Gophers drew nearly 24,000 fewer fans than they did for Michigan. That represented the second-largest drop in announced attendance for back-to-back home games since the Gophers began playing in the Metrodome in 1982.

“I think [the Michigan loss] did the same thing to us as it did the fans,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “We were running on jet fuel all the way until the end of the game. Then it was like putting water in the car.”

Michigan went on to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl. The Gophers finished tied for fourth in the conference and went to the Sun Bowl.

A decade later, memories of that wild Friday night at the Metrodome linger.

“I don’t care which side you’re on,” Carr said, “you saw a game that was unforgettable.”









 

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