TEMPE, Ariz. — In a tale of two fumbles, one apparently wasn’t; another clearly was. Both hurt the Gophers; combined they decided the game.
The first: midway through the fourth quarter, at the end of a 26-yard catch by Iowa State running back Alexander Robinson, Gophers safety Kim Royston made his 13th of an Insight Bowl record 15 tackles; the ball popped loose and Minnesota recovered, but after review, Robinson was ruled down.
“It was a big, big play,” Royston said. “It could have gone either way; it didn’t go our way.”
The second: The Cyclones didn’t score after the fumble was overturned; instead, they downed a punt at the Gophers’ 1-yard line. With an entire field to go, Minnesota drove to Iowa State’s 17 in just over three minutes. Well within field goal range, freshman backup quarterback MarQueis Gray ran a keeper and lost the ball as he tried to bounce outside. Cyclones cornerback Ter’ran Benton, playing his first game since suffering a broken leg Oct. 24 against Nebraska, pounced on the ball.
With just over four minutes remaining in the game, three first downs did the trick, and the Cyclones ran out the clock for a 14-13 Insight Bowl triumph Thursday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
Those fumbles; a missed field goal by junior kicker Eric Ellestad; a costly slip in coverage by safety Kyle Theret that put a blemish on the junior’s otherwise outstanding game; they were all pieces that, put together, made an all too familiar picture in Tempe. The Gophers lost their fourth straight bowl game, third straight Insight Bowl and second straight under third-year head coach Tim Brewster.
This one felt especially winnable, though.
“It’s a tough loss,” Brewster said. “We have a locker room full of heartbroken kids.”
Apart from a second quarter lapse, Minnesota’s defense, if not dominant, was certainly opportunistic, forcing four turnovers and making a critical fourth-and-1 stop to end Iowa State’s opening drive. But the pair of touchdowns they allowed within five minutes of halftime proved to be the difference, as the offense again struggled to finish drives.
In five trips to the red zone, Minnesota failed to find the end zone. Its lone touchdown was a well-crafted, 23-yard crossing route from junior quarterback Adam Weber to senior tight end Nick Tow-Arnett that snapped a 10-plus quarter touchdown drought by the offense.
It was never going to be enough.
Much more may not have been expected from an offense that struggled to finish drives throughout the regular season, especially late; certainly unexpected, however, was Ellestad’s 34-yard missed field goal in the third quarter. He hadn’t missed a field goal shorter than 40 yards all season.
“There was some inconsistency [on offense] and I will credit Iowa State,” Brewster said. “They’re a good defensive football team.”
They’re also a good rushing football team. Robinson averaged 6.2 yards per carry while racking up 137 yards and quarterback Austen Arnaud posted 76 yards and a touchdown. In the air, Arnaud proved prone to mistakes; two of his first three incompletions were intercepted by Theret. But as Iowa State’s ground game began to churn, passing lanes opened and Arnaud settled in.
Meanwhile, Weber went 18-of-32 for 261 yards with a touchdown and an interception. On a late second-quarter pass, sophomore receiver Troy Stoudermire lost his footing and could do nothing to stop Cyclones safety David Sims from making an easy pick on his own goal line.
Iowa State quickly drove down the field and, perhaps fittingly, Theret slipped while tracking receiver Jake Williams, who easily hauled in a 38-yard touchdown from Arnaud with just seconds remaining in the first half.
Despite the coverage blunder, Theret was the highlight of the evening for the Gophers. He had two interceptions, made seven tackles and caught a 40-yard pass from punter Blake Haudan on a third-quarter fake, which led to Weber’s touchdown strike.
“This year was kind of a redemption for me,” Theret said, “because last year wasn’t my best game in the Insight Bowl.
“We made some plays and sometimes we didn’t. [Iowa State] just made more than us.”