By Mike Gallagher
Minnesota football hadn’t beaten a top 10 opponent at home since 1977 (#1 Michigan.) California had lost eight of its last nine road games dating back two years. Some of those losses were to teams that were riding a low in 2007 (Stanford and Washington.)
Something had to give in this Pac 10-Big Ten clash, and both programs were soaring with confidence and emotion going into the weekend. Cal had scored more than 50 points and gained more than 500 yards in their first two games, granted against far from serviceable competition (Maryland and Eastern Washington), but they played nearly flawlessly. They had not turned the ball over, given up only 20 points combined, and scored touchdowns on 64% of their drives.
On the other side of the coin, the Gophers’ high was more about emotion than how they performed on the field. While they had two wins and a brand new stadium, they also had only 21 points a game and had won by three and seven points respectively against opponents that had no business being in a game with a Big Ten program. Their offense had looked lackluster and their running game, which in previous seasons had carried them through tough times, had been practically non-existent.
More importantly than the problems in their running game was on the other side of the ball. Their rush defense got gashed for 261 yards against Air Force and it was clearly exposed as the way to move the ball on the Gophers. That may not have been such an issue if the man in the backfield for Cal wasn’t Jahvid Best, an early Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the most dangerous weapons in college football. He also was the reason that people around town were calling it a success if the Gophers were within shouting distance at halftime.
But the Gophers did the critics one better, going into the fourth quarter Saturday afternoon tied and with the ball with the chance to move ahead of the west coast powerhouse. But the Gophers drive stalled, Cal seized the opportunity and matriculated the ball down the field for a score. The gophers still had life, with a kick return out to the 40, but Adam Weber threw a costly INT and Cal again grabbed the bull by the horns and punched in another TD. Oh, and that Jahvid Best guy, he accounted for all five of the Golden Bear touchdowns (tying a school record for rush TD’s) to go along with 131 yards on the ground.
Plain and simple, California is the better team. The Golden Bears are right up there with the best conference foes/future opponents of the Gophers: Penn State and Ohio State. Whenever you have a running back like Best and a rush defense the caliber of Cal’s, which has allowed less than 40 yards in two of their three games, you have a formula for winning. I haven’t even gotten to QB Kevin Riley, who threw four touchdowns against Maryland and STILL has not turned the ball over. They are a legitimate top-10 program with all the tools they need to grab a BCS bowl bid.
As for the Gophers, the end result is disappointing considering the position they were in heading to the fourth quarter. But considering the chance they were given and their history against programs like Cal, I think there has been a lot of progress made and it really showed in the first three quarters of this game.
Now they have to learn to play a complete game, because if you look at their first three games, none of them have been 60-minute efforts. Against Syracuse, the offense put up points the first half, but was awful in the second half. In the game against Air Force they were horrible the first three quarters, but got it together in time for a win. Today, they gave Jahvid Best and Co. all they could handle through three, but games are won and lost in the fourth quarter. That’s the difference between programs such as California, and programs like the U of M. Cal played a complete, well rounded game. They capitalized on opportunities given to them, and when the chance presented itself for them to seal the game, they did.
Just because it’s a loss for Brewster’s club doesn’t mean it’s a horrible thing. If you would’ve told anyone in the Gophers locker room they would go into the fourth tied against the 8th ranked team in the country, any one of them would’ve jumped at the opportunity. A year ago, this game would’ve been an embarrassment and an exhibition. Now, they can keep their heads up because there are actually positive things you can find in this loss. They need to look at the first three quarters and use them as a blueprint for success. They also need to look at the fourth quarter and correct the mistakes and mental lapses so they don’t let them creep back into their mind.
If they can put those two things together, they’ll start out what has potential to be a successful conference season, on the right foot in Evanston next week.