Dominique Barber didn’t make any plays during Michigan’s last-second 23-20 loss to Minnesota on Saturday. He didn’t pick off any of Chad Henne’s passes, break up any potential receptions or force any fumbles. Barber – a Minnesota special teamer and backup safety – didn’t even make a tackle against the Wolverines. But the sophomore made a most important grab immediately after the final whistle.
Barber led his teammates in a charge across the field and down the Michigan sideline, where he became the first Gopher in 19 years to touch the Little Brown Jug. Barber swiped the coveted 102-year-old trophy away from the Wolverines’ head equipment manager, Jon Falk, and raised it over his head before handing it to Minnesota’s seniors. Falk, who has acted in the same capacity at Michigan since 1974, watched as the Golden Gophers celebrated with the famed water container for just the third time in his 32 years with the Maize and Blue.
“I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,” Barber said after relinquishing his hold on the Jug. “The feeling I feel right now, it’s unexplainable. I’m speechless.”
How appropriate that Barber’s father, Marion Jr., played running back and scored a touchdown for Minnesota in 1977’s rivalry game. That was the only year, other than 1986, the Gophers had beaten Michigan in the past 38 years.
“My dad talks about (winning the Jug) every day,” the younger Barber said, the Minnesota block ‘M’ emblazoned on his eye-black. “So it feels good that I get to go home and talk about something.”
The 21st-ranked Wolverines suffered the third defeat of their disappointing season because of offensive ineptitude, defensive breakdowns and special-teams mistakes.
“We didn’t block very well, we didn’t protect very well, we had a couple of receivers open and we didn’t hit them,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “We dropped balls. You name it – we need to work on it.”
The Wolverines were able to muster just 94 total yards on the ground and 155 through the air, including a mere 95 total yards in the second half. Michigan’s next opponent, Penn State, garnered 539 offensive yards while crushing Minnesota 44-14 last week. The Wolverines didn’t put together a single touchdown drive of longer than 23 yards in the entire game. Minnesota, meanwhile, rolled up 403 total yards of offense. Gophers running backs Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell carried the ball for 129 yards and 128 yards, respectively, to fuel Minnesota’s impressive rushing attack. It was Russell’s 61-yard sprint with 1:27 remaining that sealed the game for the Gophers. Michigan running back Mike Hart came up with 109 yards and a touchdown, but the effort proved futile in the face of the Gophers’ stifling defense.
“We struggled in a lot of areas,” quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler said. “We didn’t run the ball, we didn’t pass the ball, and overall it was a tough day.”
Left guard Leo Henige watched as a group of Minnesota players ran to midfield and waved a maroon and gold flag after the clock wound down to zero.
“It’s sickening,” Henige said of the result. “I’m almost at a loss for words right now. It’s just frustrating right now, really frustrating. – It’s the first time they’ve had the Jug in a while, so they’re excited.”
The teams had entered the fourth quarter with the score tied at 20. After Minnesota’s opening drive stalled near midfield, the Wolverines took over and began to move. Henne made an 11-yard completion to fullback Brian Thompson midway through the series, although it appeared that wide receiver Mario Manningham was wide open downfield. Still, Hart carried the ball six times for 35 yards on the possession. But Garrett Rivas’s 34-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. It was the junior placekicker’s second miss of the day, as his 42-yard try late in the third quarter had also gone astray. All this after Rivas played the hero’s role last week against Michigan State. His overtime field goal defeated the Spartans in East Lansing.
“Personally, for me, (the loss) hurts a little more knowing that I had two chances to make that kick,” Rivas said.
Minnesota took over from its own 20-yard line. On the fourth play of the drive, rush end LaMarr Woodley beat the Gophers’ offensive line around the edge and hit Minnesota quarterback Bryan Cupito as he threw. Cupito was injured on the play and wouldn’t return. Tony Mortensen took over under center, but after just two plays, the Gophers were forced to punt once again.
After Michigan gave the ball back following an unsuccessful series, Minnesota found itself starting from its own 13-yard line with 2:49 left. Maroney and Russell took over as the Gophers relied exclusively on the running game, attempting to run the clock and head to overtime. The Wolverines burned their final timeout before a third-and-10 play from the Minnesota 26. Following the stoppage, Russell took the handoff and raced around the right end, beating linebacker Prescott Burgess and a slew of Michigan defenders to the outside en route to a 61-yard gain. Minnesota kicker Jason Giannini made a 30-yard field goal three plays later to give the Gophers a three-point lead with one second left.
“It was really frustrating,” defensive line coach Steve Stripling said of Russell’s scamper. “To not hold up and probably give up the biggest run of the day on a critical down, I think that’s been our issue. – Keeping the ball inside is something we’re stressing, and evidently we’re not getting it done. You knew they weren’t going to put the pressure on (Mortensen) to throw the ball. That was a poor job by us.”
On the ensuing squib kickoff, the Wolverines pitched, lateraled and scurried around, but after five players touched the ball, Thompson was downed deep in Michigan territory after a 20-yard loss, and the game was over.
Linebacker David Harris contributed an impressive 18 tackles in the loss, and Steve Breaston made a triumphant return to the Michigan lineup after sitting out last weekend against Michigan State with an undisclosed injury. Breaston made three catches for 45 yards and returned an early third-quarter kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to give Michigan a 20-13 lead. But Breaston’s electrifying runback ultimately came in vain. Maroney scored on a one-yard toss to the left on Minnesota’s next possession.
“A play like that would normally give you some momentum and get the crowd into it,” Carr said of Breaston’s return. “We just weren’t able to do that. We just could not crack the Minnesota defense. I think when it comes right down to it – that was what happened. We moved the ball at times in the second half. We got down there and couldn’t make anything happen.”
The Wolverines’ lone first-half touchdown came after safety Willis Barringer forced Maroney to fumble in the second quarter. Barringer popped the ball loose with his helmet, and linebacker Chris Graham recovered the pigskin at Minnesota’s 23-yard line. Hart drove through the middle of the line six snaps later for the score.
Hart’s touchdown gave Michigan a 13-3 lead, but Cupito and the Gophers struck back quickly. The Minnesota quarterback threw a 20-yard fade to receiver Ernie Wheelwright in the left corner of the end zone. The teams would head into halftime with the subsequent 13-10 score favoring Michigan.
“There’s way too much talent on this team – way too much talent for us to go out and perform the way we did,” fifth-year senior cornerback Grant Mason said. “This hurts. This hurts a lot. We go in and we fight and we fight and we fight. And when we don’t perform and we end up losing like this, it hurts. It hurts deep. But we’ve got to move on. The game’s over with.”
The loss broke the Wolverines’ 16-game winning streak in the teams’ all-time series. Michigan had won every game from 1987 until last year before the defeat. The teams didn’t play in 1999 or 2000.
The Wolverines have lost two home games this year, marking the first time since 1994 that Michigan has dropped multiple contests in Ann Arbor.
Wide receiver Carl Tabb won’t soon forget what Saturday’s result felt like.
“That’s the worst feeling I’ve ever had since I’ve been in a Michigan uniform,” the redshirt junior said afterward. “The worst feeling I’ve ever had. I didn’t even bear to watch (Minnesota celebrate with the Jug). I just walked across the field, got off the field as quickly as possible.”
Woodley recognized exactly what the Wolverines gave up with the loss. The junior knew it was about a lot more than an old water vessel fetched at the behest of Fielding Yost.
“This wasn’t just for the Jug; it was for the Big Ten Championship. (Minnesota) came across and took all of that away.”