Sunday, September 2, 2007

First game now history

Your first game comes only once. There never will be another one.

The first day of September was Tim Brewster's. He was on the sidelines for the first time as a college football head coach at the University of Minnesota.

In less than three minutes of his first game, Brewster was down 14 points. "They jumped on us early," he later says during his first post-game press conference.

Another score in the second quarter, and Brewster's Gophers left the Metrodome field at the half down 21-0. Most of the 49,253 who didn't go to the annual State Fair or left town for Labor Day weekend, sent them off with boos.

Was it first game jitters? Perhaps. But to the point, it was more Bowling Green.

"They caught us in some blitzes," Brewster points out. "We missed some tackles in the first two possessions of the game."

The Gopher coach is being awfully kind. His defense missed a lot of tackles, including one that allowed the Bee Gees to score in overtime.

"We didn't make a play when we needed to," adds the first-year Gopher coach. "Bowling Green did a heck of a job. We didn't cover the quarterback."

You can use all types of blitzes, as Minnesota did. You can use a three-man rush, as they did as well. But if you can't tackle, it's all for nought.

"We needed to make one play on defense, and we would win the game," notes Brewster.

Especially in the final minutes of regulation. A Jason Giannini 33-yard field goal with a little over two minutes left gave his team their first lead of the night, 24-21. Seventeen Minnesota points in the fourth quarter had erased a 21-point deficit.

However, there was just too much time left for BG, who converted on fourth down as quarterback Tyler Sheehan hit Fred Barnes for 10 yards to get to their own 43 yard line, then hit him again, a 21-yarder, at the Minnesota 36. Two incomplete passes later, Sheehan again found Barnes for a first down, and put the ball on the Gophers 18. This was good enough for a tying field goal by Sinisa Vrvilo for 35 yards with three ticks left to lock the score at 24.

Just to show you it was all Bowling Green, they won the coin flip and elected to defend. Some reporters in the press box questioned this decision but I thought it was a good move. If the Gophers don't score, your team has the ball and the game. If they do, which the Gophers did, then your offense, which proved all night long to be better, could find a way to win.

The Gophers' Amir Pennix ran twice for 25 yards and scored his second TD to give Minnesota a 31-24 lead. Then Bowling Green and Sheehan took over: the sophomore quarterback completed his last three passes (Sheehan finished 34-for-51, 388 yards and two TDs), including the winning two-point conversion, to leave the home crowd stunned.

I later ask Brewster about what BG did. He would've have done the very same thing if his team had won the coin flip. "I would put our defense on the field and get a stop, then see what we got on offense," the coach surmises.

What did we learn from Minnesota's first game of the 2007 season:

One: Instead of three-man fronts, and fancy cover-2 packages, the Gophers must go back to defensive basics. See the man, tackle the man. "We're committed to play great defense, and we will," pledges Brewster. "We got to help these kids. That's what real coaching is."

Two: The Gophers' young secondary is awfully young, and against BG, were just awful. If they can't cover BG's athletes, what will happen to them when they go up against better athletes that play at the other school in Ohio, the Buckeyes, later this fall. They also must learn not to reach at the receiver but go for the strip. Make the simple play. "We didn't make a play when we needed to," adds the coach.

Three: In his first start, redshirt freshman QB Adam Weber has some moxie. True, he started slowly but soon picked it up. He didn't pile up big yards as Sheehan because of U-M's short passing game, but Weber can tuck and run (80 yards on 18 carries). "I feel really good at how Adam finished the game," notes Brewster.

Four: Minnesota found two return guys in Jay Thomas (64 kickoff yards, including a 36 yarder) and Harold Howell, who returned one of his eight punt returns for 22 yards -- the true freshman finished with 36 yards. "Harold is going to do some things that are exciting," says Brewster.

Five: Pinnix picked up where he left off last season: the senior workhorse had 28 carries and 168 yards, his seventh 100-plus game of his career. U-M is wiser to get away from the dink-and-dunk offense and just give Pinnix the ball.

Brewster is one of 24 new head coaches this season. He wasn't alone in losing his first game this Saturday. He did fared better than Mario Cristobal, whose Florida International went scoreless and gave 59 points to Penn State.

"Overall it was great -- I was competing along with these kids," says Brewster of his first head coaching game. "There are a lot of things to build on."

It is, after all, one game in a long season. "Each week we are going to work and get better," the coach points out. "We are going to make big improvements."

All-time, Minnesota's coaches are now 17-8-1 in debut games. John Gutekunst is the last Gopher coach to win his first game, ironically a 31-7 victory over Bowling Green in 1986.

It took 21 years for the Falcons to file a payback. But Brewster can't pay BG back any time in the future.

You only get one chance to have your first game.

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