The difference in speed, strength and overall athletic ability was clear on Saturday night when the Gophers, a 1-11 team from the Big Ten, opened the season against Northern Illinois, a 2-10 team from the Mid-American Conference.

The difference was dramatic on the game's first possession, when the Gophers relentlessly moved 90 yards in 18 plays for a touchdown. They consumed nearly nine minutes, made six first downs and converted four times on third downs.

Eric Decker caught six passes for 42 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown from Adam Weber. Decker finished with 10 catches for 89 yards.

The Gophers' physical advantage also was demonstrated on two quick strikes in the third quarter.

On the first, it was first down at the Gophers 47 and Weber had time to find a receiver. It turned out to be Jack Simmons. The tight end maneuvered open at NIU's 35, took a half-step inside, cut outside and rumbled into the end zone against pursuers confused by his fancy footwork.

More than confused, they were none too fast ... considering the 250-pound Simmons rumbled away from several forlorn Huskies.

The Gophers started at their 39 on the next possession. The first play was a simple handoff out of the spread from Weber to Duane Bennett. The sophomore running back cut through traffic, saw daylight and went 61 yards for the Gophers' longest rushing touchdown since 2005.

That pushed them to a 24-13 lead.

The Huskies were well back in his rearview mirror as he dashed into the end zone.

Decker and the rest of the Gophers were too athletic on that lengthy opening drive. Simmons was too strong and footloose on his long TD. Bennett was too elusive and fast on his long TD.

These were Big Ten athletes making plays that you expect from successful players at this level.

So what were the Gophers doing trailing the smaller, slower, less highly recruited lads from Northern Illinois in the final minute of the 27th and last Metrodome opener?

They had reached this precarious moment with a couple of samples of the atrocious pass defense that has been as much a Gophers trademark over the past two decades as maroon and gold.

After Bennett's touchdown made it an 11-point lead, the Gophers had NIU pushed back and facing third-and-10. Then, a couple of redshirt freshmen -- quarterback Chandler Harnish and receiver Nathan Palmer -- hooked up for a first down at the 30.

And much more.

Ryan Collado, much-burned as a freshman cornerback a year ago, broke toward the ball, didn't get there, and Palmer bounced away to nothing but open field.

If this had been years ago on ABC, Frank Broyles would've been hollering to his colleague: "Keith, where was the safety man?!"

There was not one in sight to take Collado off the hook, and Palmer was on a 91-yard touchdown that was the fifth-longest pass completion ever allowed by the Gophers. That's notable, when you consider our beloved rodents' long-running proficiency at yielding monumental pass plays.

It would appear this bunch will continue to excel in this area, particularly if Collado maintains his status as the nickel back.

The two offenses foundered for a few minutes after Palmer's first touchdown, and then Northern Illinois was operating near midfield.

The Gophers sent extra rushers, the Huskies' blocking held and there was Palmer running past Collado. Harnish fed his classmate in stride and the touchdown went for 52 yards.

Palmer finished with three catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns -- all in all, a fairly typical effort for a wideout making his college debut against the Gophers.

The kid's second touchdown put the underdogs in front 27-24 with eight minutes left.

The Gophers were 23-2-1 all-time against MAC teams before coach Tim Brewster lost his first opener to Bowling Green a year ago. There's no way he could have the start to his second season ruined by another MAC team coming off a second-division finish.


Right. Weber marshaled the Gophers on a winning 74-yard, 10-play drive. Bennett's second effort got him in the end zone from the 1 with 22 seconds left.

Final: Gophers 31, NIU 27.

"It's a 'W,''' said Steve Erban, a Gophers booster, as he exited the Dome.

Yup, a four-point W that would've been four TDs if the recipients of Big Ten scholarships had used fully their advantages in strength, speed and athletic ability.

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and at 4:40 p.m.