It wasn't always pretty, and it was more exciting than it may have needed to be at the end of the day, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers got their first victory of the 2011 season on Saturday afternoon, holding off a very game squad from the University of Miami (Ohio) by a final score of 29-23 at TCF Bank Stadium.
It looked like it might be more of the same for the Gophers early on, as Redhawks' quarterback Zac Dysert hit receiver Nick Harwell for a 66-yard gain on Miami (Ohio)'s third play from scrimmage, moving the ball down to the Gophers' 9-yard line. However, the Gopher defense stiffened up, and the Redhawks had to settle for a field goal to take an early 3-0 lead. Minnesota came up with a big play of their own on their first drive, as MarQueis Gray hit Malcolm Mouton with a swing pass on Minnesota's second play for a 55-yard gain down to the Redhawks' 25. The drive stalled, however, and the Gophers also had to settle for a field goal, tying the game at three.
The Gopher defense continued to impress, forcing the Redhawks to go three-and-out on three consecutive drives, yielding a total of just 11 yards in those three Miami (Ohio) possessions. In a drive that stretched from the first quarter into the second, redshirt freshman Donnell Kirkwood capped off a ten-play, 80-yard drive with his first career touchdown, a rushing score from four yards out to make the score 10-3 in favor of Minnesota.
The Gophers would get another Chris Hawthorne field goal on their next drive to extend the lead to 13-3, and an interception by Troy Stoudermire thwarted the Redhawks' next drive. The Gophers could do nothing with it, however, and the Redhawks got the ball back, getting a big completion from Dysert to Chris Givens for a 31-yard gain to put the Redhawks deep into Minnesota territory. Miami (Ohio) got a huge fourth down conversion on a 4th-and-1 at the Minnesota 5-yard line, and a couple of plays later Erik Finklea powered into the end zone from a yard out to make the score 13-10 going into the locker room.
Minnesota turned their first drive of the second half into another Hawthorne field goal to make the score 16-10, but the Redhawks answered back, marching 77 yards for a score. Dysert and Harwell were the key components again, as they connected for a 32-yard gain to move the Redhawks inside the Minnesota 10-yard line. Two plays later, Dysert hit Givens for a 7-yard score to tie the game at 16. The Redhawks then proceeded to botch the snap on the extra point attempt, and the game remained tied.
The Redhawks put the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, and that's when the MarQueis Gray show kicked into high gear. Gray was almost completely responsible for the first 55 yards of the drive, with 47 of them coming on the ground and 8 coming on a completion to Da'Jon McKnight. With the Gophers at the Miami (Ohio) 5-yard line, Duane Bennett picked up three yards on first and goal to move Minnesota to the 2, and Kirkwood picked up another yard. On third and goal and the Gophers in a "stacked-I" formation (with two blocking backs in front of Kirkwood), Gray faked a handoff to Kirkwood and hit tight end John Rabe in the end zone for a touchdown and a 23-16 Minnesota lead.
After the two teams exchanged punts, the Gophers' special teams came up huge. The Redhawks were punting away from their own 30-yard line, and Bennett got a free release towards Redhawks' punter Zac Murphy. Bennett blocked the punt, sending it high into the air, and the Gophers waited for it to come down. It went off the hands of another Gopher player and into Bennett's hands, who walked into the end zone for the score. It was the first blocked punt for the Gophers since their game against Illinois on November 7, 2009. . .a block that also went for a touchdown. Unfortunately, Hawthorne missed the extra point, making the lead 29-16 in favor of the Gophers.
The Redhawks wasted no time in answering, however, going 80 yards in 8 plays in just 2:34 on the ensuing possession. Dysert was 6-for-8 on the drive, eventually hitting Dawan Scott for a 26-yard touchdown pass to slice the Minnesota lead to 29-23.
The Gophers next. . .and final. . .possession was interesting. Starting at their own 33 with just a shade under eight minutes to play, Minnesota took nearly five minutes off the clock, but eventually faced a 4th-and-9 from the Miami (Ohio) 34-yard line. Gray took a shotgun snap and looked to pass, but didn't have much of a chance in the face of the Redhawks' pass rush. Though he did manage to throw the ball away, the Gophers turned it over on downs, and gave Miami (Ohio) a chance to steal the victory with 2:58 remaining.
Dysert, who was under relentless pressure from the Gophers' pass rush on the entire final drive, managed to move the Redhawks downfield. Miami (Ohio) got to the Minnesota 20-yard line, but on a fourth down play with time running out, Dysert tried to hit Givens in double coverage in the end zone, but Kim Royston broke up the pass to preserve the victory for Minnesota.
Gray had a record day for the Gophers running the football, as he broke the record set by the legendary Sandy Stephens on October 28, 1961 for the most rushing yards for a quarterback in a single game. Stephens' old record was 160 yards, and Gray finished the day with 171 yards on 25 carries. Gray also generated 163 yards and a touchdown through the air. . .and, more importantly, he and the rest of the Gophers did not turn the ball over once against the Redhawks.
The win was the first as Gophers' coach for Jerry Kill, who suffered a seizure a week ago on this same field in Minnesota's loss to New Mexico State.
The Gophers will resume play next weekend at TCF Bank Stadium, as they will host the North Dakota State University Bison.