Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
HOUSTON -- If field goals come into play at the Meineke Car Care Bowl tonight, don't be surprised if someone sets a new career high. The roof is closed at Reliant Stadium, the brand-new artificial turf is bouncy and forgiving, and the field-goal kickers may be able to take advantage.
A 50-yard field goal is easily in play. I just watched Gophers senior Jordan Wettstein, whose career high is a 51-yard kick during the 2011 season, drill a 52-yarder with plenty to spare, so it wouldn't surprise me if Jerry Kill extended his normal range to consider a kick. Similarly, Texas Tech kicker Ryan Bustin has a 50-yard field goal this year, so he's got the range, too.
The Gophers were promised a warm-weather site when they accepted their bowl invitation. That may be the only thing the Meineke Car Care Bowl committee didn't deliver.
Minnesota's coaches and players have raved about how well they've been treated while in Houston, but the 80-degree weather ended on Christmas afternoon. It rained last night, and as kickoff approaches, it's 45 degrees and blustery outside, not ideal for the Gophers' tailgating party under way just outside the stadium.
None of that will affect the game, however, as the Reliant Stadium roof will be closed. The game will be the first collegiate game played on the new artificial turf inside the stadium; the NFL's Houston Texans play on a natural grass field, but it is removed and replaced with the artificial stuff for high school and college games. (The fake turf is, somewhat ironically, stored next door in the Astrodome -- the first pro-sports stadium to use artificial turf -- when it's not being used.)
The Gophers, hoping to break their four-bowl losing streak and finish with a winning record for the first time since 2008, are wearing maroon pants and white jerseys as they warm up, though a press-box rumor has it that they will switch to gold-on-gold for the game. UPDATE: Nope, it's white-on-maroon. Just a rumor, I guess.
UPDATE: Gophers coach Jerry Kill did not join his team on the sidelines for the second half. The university has not yet released any information about his whereabouts or condition.
The Gophers' offense has yet to penetrate more than three yards deep into Michigan State territory. Yet Minnesota has led most of the first half, and heads to halftime trailing by only six points, 13-7.
That's because the Gopher defense has intercepted Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell twice, including one for a defensive touchdown, and mostly bottled up the Spartans' offense.
Minnesota linbacker Aaron Hill grabbed one Maxwell pass at the Michigan State 33 and picked his way down the sideline for a touchdown, giving the Gophers a first-quarter lead that they held until the final 90 seconds of the half. Michigan State has nearly five times as much yardage as the Gophers -- it's 248-53 at the half -- yet was limited to a pair of Dan Conroy field goals until its final possession.
Maxwell finally connected with receiver Bennie Fowler for a 41-yard touchdown with 1:28 to play, but even that score was a fluke -- Maxwell's pass was tipped by intended receiver Tony LIppett, and bounced into the arms of Fowler, who ran the final 25 yards for the score. The play was originally rule out of bounds at the 2-yard line, but a video review overturned the call.
Minnesota has used two quarterbacks, giving senior MarQueis Gray a half-dozen snaps along with starter Philip Nelson, but neither quarterback has moved the ball. Nelson is 8-for-6 for 31 yards and two interceptions, while Gray's lone pass was knocked down. No Gopher has more than 13 yards on the ground, and Minnesota's rushing total is 22 yards at the half. Only once have the Gophers reached the Spartans' half of the field, on a drive that died at the 47.
There weren't many high points to the Gophers' 2010 season, but this was definitely one: With three minutes to play in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and the Gophers holding a 24-17 opening night lead, a freshman special teams player knocked the ball away from Middle Tennessee State's kick returner, and Jon Hoese pounced on the fumble, capping a bittersweet night for the Gophers' fullback.
Hoese understandably got the attention that night, but it was 19-year-old Kenny Watkins who provided that capper, making the hit that clinched the game. It seemed like the beginning of big things for the Detroit native, an all-conference defensive back at Brother Rice High who had sat out the 2009 season as a redshirt.
Those big things never happened.
Now 22, Watkins says good-bye this afternoon, his failed career a testament to the destructive power of a concussion. Watkins hasn't played since suffering the injury early in the 2011 season, and with his degree nearing completion, he has decided to leave the Gophers' football program. Watkins will be honored before today's game with Michigan State, a fourth-year junior alongside the 15 Gopher seniors who will be saluted by the university and its fans shortly before kickoff.
It's going to be a cold ceremony, of course -- the thermometer reads 22 degrees at the moment, though at least there is little wind. Minnesota, trying to finish the regular season with a winning record for the first time since 2009, is wearing all-gold, jerseys and pants, while Michigan State -- which at 5-6 needs a victory to quality for a bowl game -- is in all white, with green shoulders.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Cornhuskers' video board read "Big Time" during pregame ceremonies. Then their football team lived up to it.
Nebraska appears well on its way to its 16th consecutive victory over the Gophers, racing out to a 24-0 lead at halftime.
In a game that has fit in well with the team's recent history -- the Gophers have been outscored 239-14 on their last six visits to sold-out Memorial Stadium -- Minnesota has had to punt away all six of its first-half possessions, gaining only four first downs in the half.
The 16th-ranked Huskers, on the other hand, have rolled down the field with ease. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez has thrown a 36-yard scoring strike to Kenny Bell, and set up the other two Husker scores with a pair of 29-yard completions to move the ball inside the Gophers' 5. On both occasions, fullback Imani Cross did the honors of carrying the ball across the goal line, one from 3 yards out and the other from the 1.
Nebraska also ran an effective two-minute drill, moving 64 yards in the final 90 seconds to reach Minnesota's 1, but Cross was stuffed at the goal line as the clock ran out.
Along with a 39-yard field goal from Brett Maher to open the scoring, the Cornhuskers have spent most of the afternoon in Gopher territory.
Minnesota has crossed midfield only once, a drive that died on the Nebraska 46.
The Gophers have only 60 yards of total offense; the Huskers have a pair of scoring drives longer than that, and have rolled up 306 yards in all, including 19 first downs. Martinez has thrown for 221 yards through the air.
Memorial Stadium is different than some of the other huge stadiums I've visited; somehow it just seems more massive. From my vantage point, the field looks 150 yards long, and there is definitely room to fit most of the Nebraska citizenry in here. (Not sure if you necessarily would want to, though -- from the looks of the tailgating and the partying going on in downtown Lincoln, just a few blocks from here, game day is a holiday whether you have tickets or not.)
Here's a statistic that surprised me: The Cornhuskers are trying to finish off a perfect 7-0 season at home today -- their first since 2001. Hard to believe they've had a solid decade with at least one loss in this place.
Jerry Kill is out on the field, talking to his kickers and watching them practice, gauging the wind as he did last week. The wind looks similar to last week's at Illinois -- blowing from the south end zone to the north, though not quite as strong as it was in Champaign.
The Gophers are in gold pants with white jerseys, while the Huskers will wear their traditional red and white. And the pregame should be interesting -- there is a rumor going around that rather than being led out of the tunnel by coach Bo Pelini, as traditional, the Huskers will be led by Tom Osborne, who is attending his 500th game as a Cornhusker employee (assistant coach, head coach and athletic director) -- and his last home game. Osborne retires at the end of the year. I saw several fans outside the stadium carrying signs honoring Osborne, so it figures to be an emotional day here.
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