MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ Minnesota kicked off a challenging home schedule with the one game it just couldn’t lose.
The Golden Gophers simply couldn’t catch Dante Warren and South Dakota.
Warren passed for 352 yards and three touchdowns for the Coyotes and scampered for a 25-yard score on fourth-and-1 midway through the fourth quarter, sealing a 41-38 victory Saturday.
“You could just see how giddy our fans are. It’s ridiculous,” Coyotes coach Ed Meierkort said. “This thing’s going to go on for awhile, too, it looks like.”
Warren, a junior from Arlington Heights, Ill., in his first year as a starter, spurred the Coyotes (1-1) to a program-defining stunner over the Gophers (1-1) who – (gulp) – host No. 16 Southern Cal next week.
“The depth of my disappointment right now, you cannot measure it,” said coach Tim Brewster, whose job could be jeopardized by this defeat. “I don’t want to discredit South Dakota in any way … but it certainly is an unacceptable loss on our part.”
Warren finished with 81 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries and completed 21 of 30 passes, mystifying a Minnesota team that couldn’t tackle or cover much at all in this nightmare home opener against a neighbor school in its third year at the FCS level.
“Just a surreal feeling,” Warren said. “You go into a game like this just hoping everything works out perfectly, and it did.”
Duane Bennett, who rushed 18 times for 104 yards, kept the Gophers close with two 1-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter, the last with 3:21 left to cut the lead to three. But the Coyotes got one first down after the kickoff, all they needed to drain the clock.
“I knew we had a chance at it. Nobody else really did,” said South Dakota safety Shane Potter, who started his career with the Gophers and one of eight Minnesota natives on the team.
Not even a missed extra point or two interceptions thrown by Warren were enough to slow these wily Coyotes, who took a 7-3 lead in the first quarter and never trailed after that. Will Powell caught eight passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns for South Dakota, which lost 38-7 at Central Florida last week in its first game against an FBS foe while passing for only 104 yards.
Warren, listed generously at 6-foot-1, ran around in the pocket and fired the ball fearlessly upfield like a 2010 version of Doug Flutie. Bad tackling by the Gophers helped, too, like the three whiffs during a 26-yard screen pass to Chris Ganious for a touchdown that gave the Coyotes a 21-10 lead. Boos followed the Gophers into the locker room at halftime a few minutes later.
“We realized that we could score when we wanted,” said Warren, whose running success helped create soft coverages for his receivers down the field.
The Coyotes clearly had fun _ this was their Super Bowl after all, as Meierkort put it this week _ from start to finish. After Powell’s 61-yard catch and run early in the third quarter gave them a 28-10 lead, he jogged through the end zone and leaped toward the seats Lambeau-style for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that shortened the field for the ensuing touchdown by the Gophers.
The Gophers returned only two starters on defense this season, and neither of them, safeties Kim Royston and Kyle Theret, have played yet due to a leg injury and a suspension. Brewster said he expects both players to be back next week.
“We have inexperienced guys, but there is no excuse to have a defensive performance like we did today,” said Brewster, who blamed himself for not properly preparing the team. He also didn’t shy from criticizing his defensive backs: “Tackling’s tackling. Tackling’s something that you’ve done since the first time you put pads on.”
Every time the Gophers have played one of their upstart neighbors to the west, they’ve had trouble. North Dakota State came within one point in 2006 and won at the Metrodome in 2007. Minnesota had to scrap for a 16-13 victory over South Dakota State last November.
“We knew we were going to get their best shot, but we just didn’t play all four quarters like they did,” said MarQueis Gray, who had nine catches for 91 yards for the Gophers.
These teams moving up from Division II always bring their best, but the struggles are also a sign of the state of Minnesota’s once-proud program. On an idyllic afternoon for football, with a blue sky, a breeze and 64 degrees, Troy Stoudermire took the opening kickoff 44 yards across midfield and the Gophers reached the 9. But Bennett was tackled for a loss on third-and-3, and Eric Ellestad had to kick a short field goal.
The Gophers turned the ball over twice in the first half, on a failed fourth down at the South Dakota 30 and a fumble by Adam Weber at the Coyotes 30 in the closing seconds. Ellestad, who missed from 39 and 40 yards in the opening win at Middle Tennessee, also hooked a 48-yard field goal left. And Weber lost another fumble in the fourth quarter, refusing to take the safe route by sliding.
“That’s how I know to play football. That will be a big emphasis for me for the rest of the season, to be smart in critical situations,” Weber said.
Weber went often to Gray _ the ultra-athletic, 6-foot-4 sophomore who is also his backup _ and finished 21 for 31 for 258 yards and three touchdowns, plus 47 yards on six rushes.
“This one hurts. Being a senior, you picture your last season, you want to go out at home undefeated,” Weber said.