After 1,892 plays, spanning 12 football games, a season’s nuances blur together. But the Gophers have a few moments singed in their brains as they prepare for the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl against Washington State.
Two months ago, receiver Drew Wolitarsky brought up mathematics’ notion of “the butterfly effect” — the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in one place can cause a storm halfway around the world.
“Basically, you change one thing, some small thing, and it can change something drastically,” Wolitarsky said.
The Gophers made enough plays to go 8-4. A lot went their way, including Emmit Carpenter’s 28-yard, last-minute field goal in their 34-32 squeaker over Rutgers.
But if four other plays had gone differently, the California-bound Gophers might be headed to Pasadena instead of San Diego.
Oct. 1, State College, Pa.
With the Gophers leading 13-3, Penn State’s entire season seemed to be teetering. The Nittany Lions had a 2-2 record and were 0-for-8 on third down against a Gophers defense that could seem to do no wrong.
Facing third-and-10 in the third quarter, Penn State’s Trace McSorley hit receiver Irvin Charles over the middle at midfield. The play then turned to disaster, when Charles slipped a tackle from Gophers safety Adekunle Ayinde and sprinted the rest of the way for an 80-yard touchdown.
“You’ve got to keep the ball in front of you,” coach Tracy Claeys said.
Penn State won 29-26 in overtime and used it as a springboard for a Big Ten title and trip to the Rose Bowl.
Oct. 8, Minneapolis
It had been a hard, frustrating day for both offenses. Iowa trailed 7-6 with less than six minutes remaining.
After a short punt, the Hawkeyes took over near midfield and bunched three receivers in a triangle on the right side. Akrum Wadley took the handoff going left and broke free for a 54-yard touchdown that proved the difference in a 14-7 win. Linebacker Jack Lynn and safety Jacob Huff both missed tackles.
“If we make the tackle, we’re good,” Claeys said. “But defensively, we played well enough to win the football game.”
Nov. 12, Lincoln, Neb.
The Gophers squandered a seven-point, second-half lead in their 24-17 loss to Nebraska, so it would be easy to point at their defense again. But their offense got blanked in the second half.
It was 17-17 early in the fourth quarter, when the Gophers had second-and-1 at the Nebraska 44. The Gophers tried two running plays — one each for Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith — and each lost a yard. At a key moment in the game, their beat-up offensive line simply couldn’t generate enough push.
“We weren’t very consistent with the running game the whole second half, so that kind of summed it up,” Claeys said.
Nov. 26, Madison, Wis.
Mitch Leidner threw critical red-zone interceptions in the losses at Penn State and Nebraska, and the Gophers senior quarterback got stung again at Wisconsin.
The Gophers led 17-10 with 6:22 left in the third quarter. On third-and-9 at the Wisconsin 14, they were well within field-goal range, threatening to make it a two-score game again.
Leidner faked a handoff to Smith and looked for Rashad Still along the right sideline. For a split second, it looked as if Still would be open in the end zone. That’s exactly what the Badgers wanted Leidner to think.
Safety Leo Musso started the play in the middle of the field and darted toward the corner, stepping in front of Still for the pick. A Badgers team that led the Big Ten with 1.6 interceptions per game had struck again.
“I felt like I knew what they were doing every single play the entire game,” Leidner said. “And then they disguise one coverage, and I slip and mess up.”
Wisconsin made it hurt in an eventual 31-17 victory.