The Minnesota Golden Gophers were 1-2 going into the game with Northern Illinois Huskies. While it is generally hyperbole to label a September game as a must win game for a team that has no National Championship aspirations, the Gophers game against the Huskies was nonetheless a must win game.
Minnesota had been embarrassed two weeks ago when South Dakota, a Football Championship Subdivision team, beat the Gophers 41-38 on their home field. The Gophers were not upset, they were embarrassed.
The South Dakota Coyotes quarterback Dante Warren simply had his way with Minnesota passing for 352 yards and rushing for 81 yards on his way to accounting for five touchdowns. A top-tier quality program does not lose such games on its home field to teams such as South Dakota.
Minnesota needed to beat Northern Illinois to reassure themselves that the game against South Dakota was an aberration. The Gophers needed the win over the Huskies to get to 2-2 and keep their slim bowl hopes alive.
Maybe most importantly, Minnesota needed to beat Northern Illinois to give their fans hope that there was a reason to believe that the program is on the right track and that coming to home games and supporting the home town team is worthwhile.
Unfortunately, Northern Illinois was not a cupcake game for Minnesota in that the Huskies are favored to win the West Division of the Mid-American Conference.
Northern Illinois was also not going to come into TCF Bank and be awed by the surroundings as the Huskies had given the fighting Illini the previous week all they could handle in Champaign before falling 28-22.
Minnesota kept the game close early but as a result of Northern Illinois blocking a punt deep in Minnesota territory and capitalizing on the short field before the end of the half the Huskies led 20-13 going into halftime.
Three things happened in the second half which epitomize why coach Tim Brewster’s coaching era at Minnesota is officially over.
First, Coach Brewster is gambling in situations in the game which suggest desperation.
On the very first drive of the second half and down by a touchdown, Coach Brewster gambled on his own 40-yard line. The specific down and distance was fourth down and slightly more than a yard.
The play call was a dive to fullback Jon Hoese. Hoese was met at the line for no gain.
The Huskies now had a short field and were in a great position to put the Gophers into a very deep hole by going up by two touchdowns. The Gophers defense, however, rose to the occasion and forced Northern Illinois to punt after only three plays.
One could attempt to justify Coach Brewster’s decision in that Hoese has reportedly never had a negative loss from scrimmage and that Coach Brewster was trying to fire up his troops coming out halftime.
However, the potential reward for going for the first down in that situation was not worth the risk of surrendering such great field position.
Second, Minnesota’s quarterback Adam Weber continues to make really bad decisions at crucial moments in the game.
Early in the fourth quarter with the score 27-16, Minnesota had a third down and six yards to go with the ball on the Northern Illinois 45-yard line.
Under pressure, Weber attempted an awkward shovel pass off of his back foot which was intercepted by Northern Illinois.
If Weber was a redshirt freshman, you could possibly understand the young man making such a bad decision. However, Weber has started more games at quarterback than any other player in Minnesota history.
As a four-year Big Ten starter, Weber has to know that you throw that ball into the ground has hard as you can or at the very least take the sack and live for another day as opposed to throwing the ball up for grabs to the defense.
Minnesota was fortunately bailed out on the play by a penalty by a Northern Illinois player who needlessly launching himself onto Weber after the ball had clearly left Weber’s hand.
Weber was also bailed out early in the third quarter. Weber threw a pass which hit a Northern Illinois defensive back between his numbers that should have been an interception touchdown instead of just an incomplete pass.
Finally, Minnesota could not stop Northern Illinois from running the ball. Northern Illinois had nearly 300 yards on the ground and a rushing average for the game of 10.6 yards a carry.
Minnesota’s defensive line was pushed around by Northern Illinois. The Huskies created running lanes for their running backs all night long and rarely did they meet a Gopher defender in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage.
When the Gophers did put themselves in a position to tackle a Northern Illinois running back, Minnesota failed to wrap up the runner.
Northern Illinois running back Chad Spann broke so many tackles that the Gophers had to wonder if he was channeling the ghost of Bronco Nagurski who was career at Minnesota was being honored on the night.
Spann had 223 yards on 15 carries on his way to averaging 14.9 yards per carry. Spann’s 61-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was painful to watch as Spann’s run illustrated either the lack of speed or lack of stamina among the players in Gopher secondary.
Minnesota’s loss to Northern Illinois leaves little doubt that the loss to South Dakota was an aberration. The Huskies dominated Minnesota by running the ball down the Gophers throat.
Any team that plays the Gophers has to have confidence that they move ball effectively and can put up 35 or more points against them.
Minnesota’s slim bowl chances appear to have completely disappeared on Saturday night as they play five ranked teams among the top 25 and only play three non-ranked teams during the rest of the season.
Minnesota may not win another game this season.
The Gophers play No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 25 Michigan State on the road and host No. 2 Ohio State, No. 18 Iowa and No. 23 Penn State. Minnesota may not be able to stay within 21 points of any of these teams.
Of the non-ranked teams left on the schedule, Minnesota has to travel to Purdue and Illinois which means they will not be favored in either of those games.
The first non-ranked team the Gophers play is 4-0 Northwestern. If the Gophers had trouble containing Dante Warren what is going to happen when the Gophers defense has to try and contain the Wildcats Quarterback Dan Persa?
Persa has 10 touchdowns on the season as well as 1,000 passing yards and 150 rushing yards. The Northwestern game could get ugly.
Of course, it is likely there will be very few fans in the stands to witness a loss to Northwestern.
Very few fans stayed to the final whistle in the Northern Illinois game apparently resigned to the fact that their team would be unable to mount a comeback against the Huskies.
On several occasions a very loud and audible chant could be heard Saturday night at TCF Bank. The crowd was repeatedly chanting, “Fire Brewster” during the game.
There are likely some Gophers fans that still have hope that Coach Brewster can turn the team around this season. However, those Gopher fans are now clearly the silent minority.
Most Gopher fans have come to the realization that Tim Brewster’s era as the head coach of Minnesota is over. As fans stop coming to games, the University’s administration will also come to the same realization if they have not already done so.
The only question remaining concerning Coach Brewster’s tenure at Minnesota is whether it will officially end upon the conclusion of the final game of the season or whether it will end with an interim coach being put in place during the course of the season.