The most talked about miscue of Saturday’s loss came on Minnesota’s final drive when the Michigan defense was caught out of position and Gophers tailback Gary Russell broke a 61-yard run to the outside to set up the game-winning field goal.
But it certainly wasn’t the first mistake of the day for the Wolverines.
After making it to halftime without a single penalty, Michigan committed four for 51 yards in the second half, three of which were on Minnesota scoring drives. All four penalties were called against the defense.
On the Gophers’ first possession of the third quarter, Michigan defensive end Alan Branch sacked quarterback Bryan Cupito, but Branch grabbed his facemask while bringing him to the ground and Michigan was penalized 15 yards. Minnesota placekicker Jason Giannini connected on a 26-yard field goal at the end of that drive to tie the game at 13.
With Michigan leading 20-13, cornerback Leon Hall was called for pass interference while defending Minnesota receiver Logan Payne on the first play of the drive. Four plays later, Mason was covering receiver Ernie Wheelwright on a deep route down the left sideline when he was whistled for interference. The drive ended with Gophers running back Laurence Maroney scoring on a pitch from Cupito.
Mason was charged with a second pass interference penalty on Wheelwright early in the fourth quarter.
“The call is on the official,” Mason said. “On the deep ball, I hit (Wheelwright), and I guess the ball was in the air – On the short play, I got there a little early. I was trying to get to the ball, and I guess I went through him to get to the ball.”
Heading into the game, Michigan was the Big Ten’s second-least penalized team in terms of yardage, having committed 23 penalties for 154 yards in five games.
But too often, those mistakes have come at inopportune moments for the Wolverines.
“I think that’s been our issue,” defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. “Critical downs we have not performed, whether it’s offense, defense or in the kicking game.”
Return man: One of the few bright spots in Michigan’s loss was the return of wide receiver Steve Breaston. In his first two seasons, Breaston scored three touchdowns off punt returns and averaged more than 24 yards per kickoff return.
But the redshirt junior has struggled for much of this season and missed the Michigan State game due to injury. He looked to recapture some of last year’s form on Saturday. Breaston caught three passes for 45 yards – doubling the total number of receiving yards he has gained this season.
But his 95-yard kickoff return put an exclamation point on his comeback.
Following Giannini’s 26-yard field goal that tied the game at 13 early in the third quarter, Breaston took the kickoff at the five and sliced through Minnesota defenders up the middle of the field. Near midfield, Breaston cut to the right and tiptoed along the sideline before cutting back into the middle and running into the end zone.
Breaston’s touchdown gave Michigan a 20-13 lead with more than 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter. But the Wolverines were unable to capitalize on Breaston’s spark and failed to score for the rest of the contest.
“It came right after Minnesota tied the game up,” coach Lloyd Carr said of the return. “A play like that would normally give you some momentum and get the crowd into it. We just weren’t able to do that.”
It was Michigan’s first kickoff return for a touchdown since 1994, when Seth Smith ran a kickoff back 100 yards against Wisconsin on Oct. 29. Breaston also tied Desmond Howard for the fourth-longest return in Michigan history. In all, Breaston returned five kickoffs for 185 yards in the losing effort.
Injury update: Michigan lost one of its top defenders when safety Willis Barringer suffered an apparent knee injury on the first series of the third quarter. He was later carted off the field just more than two minutes into the fourth quarter and did not return.
Before suffering the injury, the senior had recorded five tackles and had forced a fumble. Freshman safety Brandon Harrison replaced Barringer and notched three tackles in the game.
“It always hurts to lose a player like Willis because he brings so much energy and experience to the position,” Mason said. “But we’ve got some guys that can come in and make plays, and I think Brandon did a good job.”
Barringer was seen leaving the stadium with a brace on his left knee. Carr didn’t comment on Barringer’s status, but Mason said he believes Barringer is “just banged up a little bit.”
Junior safety Brandent Englemon also left the game in the fourth quarter with an injury.
The injury news was more positive for the offense. In addition to Breaston, right tackle Mike Kolodziej and wide receiver Doug Dutch returned to action after missing time with undisclosed injuries. Neither Kolodziej nor Dutch had played since Notre Dame on Sept. 10.