Even when it can't run the ball, even when its offense stalls over and over as it has all season, No. 22 Michigan still can rely on one scoring play.
James Hall came up with the now-familiar 2-point play this time, sacking Billy Cockerham in the end zone early in fourth quarter Saturday. That snapped a punchless 10-10 tie and sparked the Wolverines to a 15-10 victory over Minnesota, their 12th consecutive decision in one of the nation's oldest rivalries.
"That was a big play in the game, because it was becoming obvious we were going to have trouble moving the ball," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said.
Hall's game-turning play marked the third time in four games the Wolverines (6-2, 5-0 Big Ten) have had a safety. They won those three -- over Iowa, Northwestern and the Gophers -- by a combined 14 points.
Although the offense still is struggling with ineffectiveness and costly mistakes, the Wolverines have won six consecutive games heading into a brutal three-game stretch. Michigan plays No. 10 Penn State, No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 1 Ohio State before finishing the regular season at Hawaii.
Tai Streets caught six passes for 192 yards -- five short of the school record -- and a touchdown. But Minnesota (4-4, 1-4) held Michigan to minus-23 yards rushing, not far from the school-record low minus-46 the Wolverines managed against the Golden Gophers in 1962.
Four sacks and a 25-yard loss on a botched punt that led to Minnesota's only touchdown contributed to a horrible rushing total. But the Wolverines still got outmuscled at the smash-mouth game that has been their signature for so many years
"We hurt them with some big plays, but unfortunately you can't control the clock when you're always throwing the ball," said quarterback Tom Brady, who was 19-for-27 for a career-best 282 yards and a 76-yard touchdown to Streets. "So we've got to run the ball better."
They didn't have to Saturday, thanks to a defense that recorded five sacks, held Cockerham without a completion in the first half and allowed only six first downs after the Gophers had eight in the first quarter on the way to a 10-7 lead.
| Thomas Hamner breaks away for some extra yardage, but Minnesota's offense could do little else. (AP) |
That sent the Little Brown Jug, the nation's oldest rivalry trophy, back to Ann Arbor. The Gophers haven't beaten Michigan since 1986, and after playing the Wolverines 70 consecutive years they won't get another chance until 2001 because of the Big Ten's rotating schedule.
This is the first decade since the rivalry became an annual fixture that Minnesota failed to beat Michigan at least once.
"It's frustrating," linebacker Parc Williams said. "But at the same time we know we're improving. You can see that and everybody else can see that. Just keep climbing the mountain and try to get better and better."
The Gophers, who scored nine points in the final 1:47 to upset Michigan State last week, were trying for consecutive conference victories for the first time since 1993. They led 10-7 after Trevis Graham recovered a fumbled punt snap for a TD in the first quarter, and they came closer to beating Michigan than any year since their last victory.
But with the game tied 10-10 early in the fourth quarter, two false-start penalties backed the Gophers up to their own 4-yard line. Hall stormed in on the next play to hit Cockerham from the blind side to snap the tie that had stood since Jay Feely kicked a field goal for Michigan with 5:14 left in the first half.
"I think they killed themselves there," Carr said of the Minnesota penalties that preceded Hall's safety.
The safety also came shortly after another key Minnesota mistake.
With Michigan facing a second-and-10 at the Gophers 42, Anthony Thomas fumbled. Defensive end Curtese Poole was all alone with the bouncing ball, but he bobbled it trying to scoop it up, and when he tried to fall on it, Brady dove in to steal it back.
Michigan was forced to punt, but the sequence left Minnesota's offense in dangerous territory and the Wolverines defense capitalized.
Michigan added Feely's 43-yard field goal to make it 15-10 on the ensuing possession. The Wolverines sealed the victory with two late interceptions, the second coming after Minnesoa's Tony Henderson bobbled and dropped what would have been the go-ahead TD with 1:38 remaining.
"I was telling everybody, 'Ye who blinks first, look out,"' Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. "They blinked first. They fumbled the ball. Then we blinked back because we didn't recover it. Then we got our backs against the wall and they got the safety and then the subsequent field goal. And that's the story."
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