MarQueis Gray enjoyed his best day as Gophers quarterback, and Duane Bennett was the workhorse back the team needs. Mike Rallis halted Iowa ball carriers 10 times, and Brandon Kirksey scooped up a fumble and charged upfield for 23 yards. Da'Jon McKnight made more catches than any other Gopher, and Kim Royston made more tackles than anyone in either uniform.
Yes, the 22-21 upset of Iowa on Saturday was the product of experienced veterans and high-profile leaders, as most Big Ten victories are. But the Gophers, perhaps more than any team in the conference, must also rely on walk-on volunteers and callow freshmen. And as Jerry Kill noted after his first Big Ten victory, Floyd of Rosedale would be on display 250 miles south of Minneapolis today if not for the contributions of those unlikely heroes.
"As this goes on, you start believing in everybody. It's a beautiful thing when that happens," Kill said. "You could pretty much write a story today about how many people stepped up who were kids that haven't been talked about a lot."
Consider it done.
Start with cornerback Kyle Henderson, an Armstrong High School grad who decided after two undistinguished seasons at Minnesota State Mankato -- including one as a tailback -- to walk on with the Gophers. He made perhaps the biggest defensive play of the day, jarring the ball loose from Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg with a crushing sack. It ended the Hawkeyes' apparent scoring drive in the third quarter -- Iowa was on the 14 -- and gave the Gophers their first takeaway in six weeks.
"We just put him on scholarship this year, and he makes a huge play in the football game," Kill said. "There's a lot of lessons here, that you can do a lot of things if you believe in yourself."
Same thing on the very next play, when Gray found 18-year-old receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts open 39 yards downfield. The Edina graduate dived for the pass and sold the catch to officials, though photos showed the ball hitting the ground.
"That youngster is a great kid, No. 1, and he made some great plays right here in the great state of Minnesota," said Kill, delighted that the freshman has improved his catching technique as the season has gone along. "He's gotten better each week."
With the video evidence to overturn the catch inconclusive, the Gophers were in position for their second field goal in four Big Ten games, a 28-yarder that closed Iowa's lead to four. And who made that kick, the first points of his football career?
Jordan Wettstein, a high school soccer player from De Pere, Wis., who walked on a year ago. He was thrust into the spotlight Saturday by scholarship kicker Chris Hawthorne's leg injury.
"I walked out early and watched him kick," Kill said. "Here's a youngster, you know he's got a great feeling. His feet probably haven't hit the ground yet."
That's because of what Wettstein did a quarter later. He hit an onside kick exactly as diagrammed, bouncing the ball high in the air and dropping it a foot or two beyond the 10-yard neutral zone, where Gophers players -- including do-it-all redshirt freshman Lamonte Edwards -- were clearing out the Hawkeyes coverage, making room for Royston to fall on the ball.
That gave the Gophers, down 21-16 at the time, a chance to put together a game-winning drive, and Gray and Bennett engineered it, behind an offensive line that included one unexpected blocker. Caleb Bak, a Concordia Academy graduate who never had appeared in a college game before, was summoned when freshman left guard Tommy Olson was injured.
Even Kill wasn't sure the 19-year-old walk-on was ready.
"He didn't even practice this spring. I told him he's screwed more drills up, driving me crazy -- he had all the reason in the world to say, 'I'm tired of this old man.' But he's hung in there ... and he did a heck of a job," Kill said. "[Offensive coordinator Matt] Limegrover, he said, 'Put Bak in. He knows what to do, I believe in him.' ... He played pretty hard. Give the kid credit."
The Gophers eventually scored on Gray's hustling dash to the corner of the end zone, and the defense made the lead hold up, with Henderson -- yep, the walk-on again -- tackling Vandenberg on Iowa's last-ditch fourth-down play. Then the Gophers could celebrate, veterans and freshmen, walk-ons and top recruits.
"It probably taught me a lot today. You can accomplish a lot of things if you've got want-to, if you believe," Kill said. "Some of those kids who were put in those duties, those things that happened to them today, they'll take with them for the rest of their lives. It'll make them better men, because they stayed with something and had success."
Phil Miller • firstname.lastname@example.org