Hartman: Despite loss to Spartans, Gophers appear ready for next step up

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 1, 2013 - 12:16 AM

Gophers coach Jerry Kill, center, and Tracy Claeys met with Michigan State coach Mike Dantonio before Saturday’s game. Though Dantonio got the best of the Gophers on Saturday, the visitors showed again they are a team on the rise.

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com,

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The Gophers football team finished the season 8-4, a record nobody expected other than maybe Jerry Kill and the coaching staff.

The Gophers lost 14-3 at Michigan State on Saturday, when a Spartans defense that ranked No. 1 in the nation still gave up 101 rushing yards to the Gophers’ David Cobb, who put on a good performance even though he was injured early in the game.

A week ago, three turnovers killed the Gophers’ chances of beating Wisconsin, but the Badgers only won 20-7 in a game many expected to be a rout.

It happened again Saturday. Three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble — killed any chance for the Gophers scoring one of the bigger upsets in program history.

Defensively, the Gophers did well against the Badgers and the Spartans, but they have now gone 10 quarters without a touchdown. One of the reasons for that is a struggling passing game, one the Gophers will have to improve on next year.

Commenting on the opportunities the Gophers had to beat a Michigan State team that went 8-0 in the Big Ten and will play Ohio State next week for the conference title, Kill said: “We had the ball 38 minutes to their 21. We missed a field goal and then we had many opportunities inside their 30-yard line and came away with nothing.

“We did some good things against their defense that a lot of people have not done. And when you are No. 1 in the country in defense you have a chance to win a lot of games.”

A year ago the Gophers went 6-7 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten. It is a different story looking ahead to the 2014 season.

The geniuses won’t be picking the Gophers for last. They have a chance to compete with the best next year.

Bad memories of McCown

Veteran quarterback Josh McCown has filled in for Jay Cutler and beaten the Vikings at Mall of America Field before. He did it in the 2011 season finale, a 17-13 victory on New Year’s Day 2012 that ended a 3-13 Vikings season.

But certainly former Vikings coach Mike Tice will never forget McCown as a 24-year-old quarterback who led the Arizona Cardinals to a last-second victory in 2003, costing the Vikings a playoff spot.

McCown was leading an Arizona team that was 3-12 and not headed anywhere. Meanwhile, the Vikings were 9-6 and leading the Cardinals 17-6 with seven minutes left in the game in Tempe.

The Vikings appeared a cinch to hold on to the victory and make the playoffs. However, McCown led a 60-yard touchdown drive to make it 17-12 with 1 minute, 54 seconds to play — Arizona failed on a two-point conversion attempt — and the Cardinals then recovered an onside kick.

McCown was sacked twice in a row — first by Kevin Williams, then by Lance Johnstone. McCown fumbled on the second sack, but Arizona recovered. Still, it was fourth-and-25 from the Vikings 28-yard line and the clock was running down.

With 4 seconds left, McCown got a snap off. He dropped back, scrambled right and found Nate Poole in the end zone just along the right sideline. Poole jumped to make the catch; he only got one foot inbounds, but the officials ruled he was forced out by Denard Walker, and the 28-yard touchdown catch was upheld by review. They changed the rule in 2008, meaning that same play today would be called an incomplete pass.

Instead, McCown performed a miracle in only his third start and the Packers instead of the Vikings won the NFC North and went to the playoffs.

Williams is the only current Vikings player who was with the team for that Arizona game. He had eight tackles, three sacks and an interception in the final game of his rookie year. The way Williams has looked lately, you wonder if he could have a game like that again against McCown.

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