Commentary

Gophers lay ground work vs. Cal

Originally Published: September 22, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- The man in the golf cart is as relaxed as he's been all week, despite the flurry of action around him.

Minnesota's game plan has been installed. The staff meetings are over. So are the full-pads practices. The scouting is essentially complete. The injury report is finalized.

With kickoff less than 20 hours away, it isn't a time for information overload. It isn't a time for surprises.

It's a time to maintain focus, and that's what Minnesota tries to do during its weekly walk-through.

"Just looking for execution, refining the plan," coach Tim Brewster says, his cart parked in the middle of the team's indoor practice facility. "The hay's in the barn. But we need to continue to sharpen the knife, mentally.

"That part," Brewster says, "never stops."

The 24-hour period before each game is critical to a team's preparation, and Minnesota follows a precise regimen of meetings, film review, walk-throughs and other activities.

As the Gophers geared up for their showdown with No. 8 California this past Saturday at the new TCF Bank Stadium, they let ESPN.com tag along for the final stages of game week. Here's what happened.

FRIDAY

Offense/Defense Meetings, Gibson Nagurski Football Complex, 1:30-2 p.m.

Before the entire offense assembles, coordinator Jedd Fisch reviews the opening script with his quarterbacks. Fisch sits at a computer, punching up images on a projection screen, which doubles as a Telestrator.

To their left, a huge color-coded board displays plays and categories: zone runs, gap runs, quick passes, screens, second-and-1 pass, third-and-2/3 pass.

Fisch asks third-stringer Adam Lueck to hit the lights, and the Denver Broncos-Cleveland Browns game from 2008 appears on the screen.

[+] EnlargeVictory Walk
Minnesota Athletic Communications Coach Tim Brewster leads Minnesota in a new tradition called Victory Walk.

Fisch served as the Broncos' wide receivers coach for the 2008 season and brought much of the Denver offense to Minnesota. He is planning to call a particular play against Cal, but since the Gophers haven't used it in a game yet, he uses Broncos footage instead.

Jay Cutler goes play-action and hits tight end Tony Scheffler for a 39-yard gain. Gophers starting quarterback Adam Weber looks on, picturing himself finding tight end Nick Tow-Arnett the next day.

Fisch tells the quarterbacks that the play worked three times against the Browns in Denver's 34-30 win. He intends to use it during the first five plays against Cal.

"This should be an all-day sucker," he says.

The players watch a clip of themselves running the play in practice, but Weber overshoots Tow-Arnett. Weber asks Fisch to include the play in the team's walk-through. Done.

The wide receivers and tight ends walk in, and Fisch pulls up practice tape from the previous day. They review the first play Fisch intends to call against Cal.

The play had been labeled "Bear Trap," alluding to Cal's nickname, but Fisch and Weber decided to call it "Cali Bear" instead. Fisch jokingly asks star wide receiver Eric Decker whether he can remember the new call.

"You've changed it like five times this week," Decker fires back.

"High maintenance," a smiling Fisch says to Weber, nodding toward the wideouts.

Fisch shuffles through plays from practice, making comments as he goes.

"Head around, expect the ball," he says after a Da'Jon McKnight reception. "That's a helluva catch."

Players whisper to each other, confirming their assignments on each play. Fisch tells them where he'll call certain plays on the field.

They watch several reverse passes in which Decker takes the ball and throws back to one of the quarterbacks. Fisch says he hopes to call one around the 10-yard line against Cal.

"OK, guys," he concludes, "we're on the field in five minutes."

Team Walk-Through, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex, 2:05-3 p.m.

Before the coaches file into the indoor facility, senior linebacker Simoni Lawrence puts on a little show.

"I'm going to throw it 50 yards for you," Lawrence says, motioning for his fellow defenders to back up.

We're going to win this game because we outexecuted, outperformed, outpoised, outhit, out-everythinged Cal. We expect to win.

-- Minnesota coach Tim Brewster

He heaves the ball from the end zone across the midfield stripe and into a teammate's arms.

"Right on the money!" he says. "That's an NFL arm right there."

The walk-through begins with individual position work. Lawrence and the other linebackers work on the tip drill, while Weber, backup MarQueis Gray and Lueck loosen up their arms.

The offense runs through its openers for the game. Weber doesn't even throw the ball on some plays, just getting the feel for what it should look like.

Brewster briefly assembles the players.

"Listen up," he says. "You've got exactly an hour -- 3:45 the buses go out. Once again, it's about mental details. Mental details. So we can turn that sucker loose tomorrow. We're going to take it to their ass, and we'll see. Let's play 60 minutes, and we'll worry about the deal at the end of it.

"Are you with me?"

"Yeah!" the players respond.

Offense/Defense Meetings, Team Hotel, 8-8:30 p.m.

The team leaves campus for a hotel in suburban Minneapolis, the pregame headquarters. After chapel and dinner, players have some down time before the offense and defense assemble in adjacent ballrooms.

Co-defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove sits near a video projector, going over his calls for the game. Co-coordinator Ron Lee and the other defensive coaches linger in the back of the room, along with Brewster.

Several high school recruits taking official visits to Minnesota also watch from the back.

"We've got to do a great job with our substitution patterns," Cosgrove says. "Base, backer, goal line, got to have them all. Got to be in tune.

[+] EnlargeKevin Cosgrove
Minnesota Athletic CommunicationsKevin Cosgrove knew one of the keys to beating Cal was stopping Jahvid Best.

"Any questions on these things? We good to roll?"

Cosgrove punches up film from Cal's first two games, wins against Maryland and Eastern Washington.

"This is a big screen team," Cosgrove says. "They'll screen on any down. We've got to be sound in our screen rules."

Cosgrove shows a slip screen to Cal star running back Jahvid Best.

"We should have no problems with screens," he says. "Smell a rat and react to it."

"Four is the rabbit," linebackers coach John Butler says, referring to Best. "He's the guy you need to identify each play."

As each Cal play comes on the screen, Gophers defenders shout out the calls they would make in a game. Best breaks off another big run, and several of the coaches shake their heads, clearly impressed with the Heisman Trophy candidate.

"Tighten up there, corners, be ready to come," Lee says. "Where do they want 4 to run the ball?"

"Outside," the players answer.

The coaches fire off comments and instructions as the session continues.

"Let's get our crowd cranked up tomorrow," Cosgrove says. "Big hits!"

In the next ballroom over, the offense is getting amped as well.

"It'll be 28 [bleeping] nothing!" Fisch can be heard screaming. "At the end of the first half!"

Team Meeting, Team Hotel, 8:30-8:45 p.m.

The entire team crams into one ballroom, and Brewster begins by telling the players they should relax and study the game plan before their 9:30 p.m. curfew.

He then plays a highlight video from the previous week's 20-13 win against Air Force. Cosgrove bobs his head to the music, and roars fill the room as players acknowledge big hits and explosive plays.

The team is shown singing the fight song in the locker room after its victory.

The video ends with a scene from the movie "The Edge," in which Anthony Hopkins kills a giant Kodiak bear with a spear. More howls from the room.

"Bear Trap. The Time is Now!" appears on the screen.

The lights come on.

"This is the stage that we want to be on," Brewster tells the players. "We called Cal into our house. They're here. At 11 o'clock tomorrow, we've got an opportunity to do something special, for our football team, for our school.

"As we said all week long, play your best. Remember, your best is good enough! You hear me! Less than your best is not! I need no excuses. There's no, 'My bad.' There's no nothing. Sign your name!"

A large white board is displayed in the back of the room, with a picture of TCF Bank Stadium and a question: When you cross the white line, are you willing to sign your name?

"Every coach and every player signs his name on this effort, and we'll get exactly what we want tomorrow," Brewster says. "Everybody is going to sign that board back there."

The team lines up to sign the board, while Brewster briefly visits with recruits. Players grab snacks and head back to their rooms.

SATURDAY

Special Teams Meeting, Team Hotel, 8:10-8:20 a.m.

It's game day, and after breakfast, Gophers players and coaches file in to the area outside the two ballrooms before their final meetings.

Two players read the newspaper to see how their high school teams performed the night before.

[+] EnlargeVictory Walk
Minnesota Athletic Communications There were never this many fans waiting for the Gophers at the Metrodome.

"Twinkies in the hunt," Decker, a two-sport star who was selected by his hometown Minnesota Twins in the 27th round of the June baseball draft, says to Fisch while reading the paper. "Only three games back."

The players head into one of the ballrooms, and Butler, who serves as special teams coordinator, leads the meeting. He asks each group to stand up -- bomb squad, onside team, hands team, block party. He then reviews the subs for each team.

Butler confirms with Hayo Carpenter and Troy Stoudermire that they'll run a reverse on the first kickoff return against Cal.

"Work together," Butler says. "Nice and soft, look it in."

He leaves the players with one final thought.

"We know they have speed," he says. "That's fine. But watching tape, they don't have great attention to detail. We have opportunities in our return game."

Team Meeting, Team Hotel, 8:30-8:35 a.m.

Before boarding the buses to the stadium, Brewster addresses the team one more time.

"This is the stage that we're supposed to be on," he says. "National TV, top-10 opponent, in our house. We're going to win this game because we outexecuted, outperformed, outpoised, outhit, out-everythinged Cal. We expect to win."

Brewster paces back and forth.

"Be relentless on how you attack Cal in all three phases for 60 minutes!" he barks. "After that game, you know what they're going to say? 'God damn, Coach, they just kept coming.'

"We crossed the white line; you signed your name. Go get a great win today, guys."

Team Bus, En Route To Stadium, 8:40-9 a.m.

Led by a police escort, two buses carrying players, coaches and support staff pull out of the hotel parking lot.

As the buses zoom down I-394 East, no one says a word. McKnight rests his head on his backpack. The classical music playing in the background gets drowned out by the hip-hop and R&B beats emanating from the players' iPods.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota
Minnesota Athletic Communications Eric Decker, who's jersey is already hung in the Gophers locker room, caught a TD against Cal.

The buses weave through downtown Minneapolis and cross the Mississippi River before exiting at University Avenue. A small truck carrying Minnesota's mascot, Goldy Gopher, is waiting and leads the buses toward campus.

Fans heading toward the stadium wave as the buses pass, and a group of people at the Sigma Nu fraternity raise their beer cups. The buses stop several hundred yards from the stadium, as a crowd waits.

Players and coaches begin the Gophers Victory Walk, a new tradition in which fans line a path leading to the stadium and greet the team as it arrives. The marching band plays the fight song, and players pass by cheerleaders and fans holding signs. One fan rings a cowbell.

As the crowd gets larger closer to the stadium, a student manager remarks how last season at the Metrodome, only 150 people would show up to greet the team. There are thousands today.

Wearing maroon sweats, the players enter the stadium, and Brewster greets each man as he reaches the field. A song called "My Squad," written for the Gophers' team by local rapper St. Paul Slim, plays in the background.

"Minnesota Gophers is rock hard!" Slim raps as players walk across the field.

At 60 yards by 25 yards and shaped like a football, Minnesota's home locker room is the largest in college or pro football. It features 120 lockers, 10 LCD televisions and a huge, glowing block "M" on the ceiling in the middle of the room. Another "M" on the carpet is roped off.

Video screens show the message: "Slay the Bears."

A recruit, taking his official visit to Minnesota, whistles in awe as he enters the locker room.

A blank copy of the sign the team endorsed the night before greets players as they enter, and each man once again writes his name. After dressing, players pass by a sign reading "Pound the Rock. Time is now!" and take the field.

Kickoff, Cal at Minnesota, TCF Bank Stadium, 11:02 a.m.

As is the case with any game plan, some things work, and others don't.

Cal marches downfield on the game's opening drive. Although Minnesota expected Best to head outside whenever possible, the Bears junior busts one up the middle, cuts to the sideline and leaps over the pylon for a highlight-reel touchdown run.

[+] EnlargeAdam Weber
AP Photo/Paul BattagliaAdam Weber threw two touchdowns but was intercepted three times versus Cal.

As designed, Stoudermire and Carpenter run a reverse on the ensuing kickoff, and as Butler predicted, Cal is sloppy in coverage. If Carpenter doesn't run into his own blocker, he probably scores a touchdown. He still winds up with a 41-yard runback into Bears territory.

Fisch's hope to call the play-action post to the tight end is foiled when tackle Jeff Wills false starts on the first play from scrimmage. Another penalty on the Gophers' next possession puts the offense well behind the chains and changes the strategy.

After a rough first quarter, things eventually turn around for both units. Trailing 21-14 in the third quarter, Minnesota drives to Cal's 7-yard line, giving Fisch a chance to call one of his reverse passes.

Decker takes the ball from Weber and throws to Gray in the end zone, just like they had worked on in practice and reviewed Friday with Fisch.

Minnesota capitalizes on another Cal special teams blunder, recovering a fumble shortly after halftime. Cosgrove's defense holds Cal in check during the third quarter, snuffing out screens and preventing any big gains.

The Gophers and Bears enter the fourth quarter deadlocked at 21-21. But a 35-yard pass on third-and-16 gives Cal momentum, and Best, who surprisingly does much of his damage between the tackles, rushes for his fourth and fifth touchdowns.

Decker has the game of his life, but Minnesota's run game once again struggles, and the team falls 35-21.

"Jog it up! Jog it up!" Brewster tells his downtrodden players as they head through the tunnel.

"We've got what it takes in our gut and in our heart to win football games and be a champion," Brewster later tells reporters. "Which is what we want to do, which is what we're trying like hell to create here at Minnesota -- a championship football team. I think we took positive steps toward that today."

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.