With eight seconds left in the game and Northern Illinois threatening on the 30-yard line, the Minnesota men’s football team found itself in an unfamiliar place — the victory formation.
Trying to protect a four-point lead, the Gophers fielded eight defensive backs, including junior wide receiver Eric Decker playing what head coach Tim Brewster called “center field.”
With the victory formation on the field, two of Minnesota’s senior leaders could only act as nervous sideline observers.
“Me and [linebacker] Steve Davis were sitting on the sideline, just looking at the time on the clock,” senior linebacker Deon Hightower said.
Hightower and Davis knew how close they were to their first win in almost a full calendar year; they also knew that the Gophers’ secondary had already given up two lengthy touchdown passes.
And coming off a 2007 season in which the Gophers ranked dead last in the country in total defense, a certain amount of anxiety exists every time Minnesota doesn’t have the football.
Two batted balls later, however, those eight seconds had ticked away and Minnesota had secured that elusive win.
But batting balls away was not something the Gophers had a lot of success with for most of the evening.
Northern Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback Chandler Harnish threaded the Minnesota secondary with regularity, racking up 326 yards and two touchdowns.
Apart from junior Marcus Sherels’ impressive debut at cornerback, the Gophers’ inexperienced defensive backs seemed a bit tentative.
Sophomore cornerback Ryan Collado had a nightmarish game, getting burned for 91 and then 52 yards on Harnish’s touchdown strikes, both of which went to Huskies freshman wide receiver Nathan Palmer.
Brewster refused to speak negatively of his defensive back, however.
“You know, we just hug [Collado’s] neck and tell him, ‘Hey it’s one play at a time,’ ” Brewster said. “You’ve got to have a short memory, particularly as a cornerback, and you just live to fight another day. That’s all you can do.”
While Minnesota’s secondary may be trying to forget about Saturday’s performance, the Gophers’ front seven have a lot to be happy with.
Northern Illinois managed only 72 yards on the ground, and Huskies starting running back Justin Anderson averaged just 2.6 yards per carry.
In addition, junior tackle Barrett Moen got to the quarterback for his first career sack and teamed up with junior linebacker Lee Campbell for another.
Still, Brewster couldn’t help but come back to the big plays Minnesota allowed.
“I thought we got around the quarterback decently tonight but, again, we’ve got to eliminate the big plays,” Brewster said.
Without the two mammoth touchdown passes, the Gophers put away the Huskies with ease and the story is about the defense’s solid play.
Instead, the performance seemed spotty and the game was in question until the final seconds; it took breaking up two jump balls in the end zone before the Gophers could finally sing the rouser in the locker room.
But after 51 winless weeks, Minnesota is focusing on the fact that it is 1-0.
“The day’s over, and a ‘W’ is a ‘W,’ ” Decker said. “Doesn’t matter how you get the job done.”
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