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Tide misses late chances, ends season on sour note

By Gentry Estes
DAILY Sports Writer 340-2462

NASHVILLE — The setting fit the mood perfectly, just like the ending had summed up everything this season was supposed to be and never became.

Alabama's Tyrone Prothro (4) fumbles as he is hit by Minnesota's Justin Fraley (12) during first-quarter action of the Music City Bowl in Nashville on Friday. Minnesota won 20-16.
AP Photo by Mary Ann Chastain
Alabama's Tyrone Prothro (4) fumbles as he is hit by Minnesota's Justin Fraley (12) during first-quarter action of the Music City Bowl in Nashville on Friday. Minnesota won 20-16.
So in the cold, dark underbelly of The Coliseum, the bright white Nikes of Alabama head coach Mike Shula walked slowly toward an uncertain future.

For Shula's tenure at his alma mater, past is prologue and once again, the memories won't sit well with the Crimson Tide faithful who turned out in droves to watch another gutsy effort, followed by the same sting of narrow defeat.

"That's going to leave a sour taste in my mouth and I would think in a lot of our players'," Shula said. "And it does take away from some of the good things that we have done this year. I had a great week, but now it doesn't feel too good and it won't from here on out."

Minnesota claimed the Music City Bowl title 20-16 in a game the Golden Gophers seemed to control throughout but nearly let slip away at the end.

In the waning moments, Alabama reached Minnesota's 15-yard line before misfiring on the same play twice.

On third-and-six, quarterback Spencer Pennington overthrew an open Tyrone Prothro in the end zone.

On fourth-and-six, Pennington missed DJ Hall on the sideline to put a bitter finish on a bitter season for the Tide."It's frustrating, man," said Pennington, who threw for a season-high 243 yards on 22-of-36 passing. "We've been close on a lot of plays this year. ... We've got to get better at eliminating 'close.' We've been saying that all year and we really haven't been able to do it."

Alabama (6-6) scored early and had a chance to swipe it late.

Thanks to three early turnovers and a key missed field goal in the fourth quarter, Minnesota (7-5) kept the Tide in the game despite controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides.

The Gophers rushed for 276 yards and won time of possession by nearly 16 minutes. Offensively, the Tide was forced out of its comfort zone, rushing for 21 yards while throwing 36 times.

Alabama season-leading rusher Ken Darby was limited to pass protection duty because of what was revealed after the game to be a fractured pelvic bone — not a pulled stomach muscle as he had said in November.

That left Alabama with true freshman Aaron Johns — fourth-string when the season began — as the only healthy tailback on a team that had already lost starter Ray Hudson and backup Tim Castille to knee injuries.

"It limited us for sure," said Shula of Darby. "He's a good player, just like Ray Hudson is a good player."

Johns finished with 15 yards on six carries. Receiver Keith Brown was Alabama's leading rusher in the contest, courtesy of a 17-yard end-around.

It made a strange dilemma for a Tide team that has relied so much on its own rushing attack. This time, the Gophers backs were the ones taking over the game. Against the nation's second-rated defense, Minnesota wasn't afraid to repeatedly pound the ball right at Tide — and for most of the day, it worked.

The Gophers did what no one had done against the Tide's vaunted defense all season — produce a 100-yard rusher. Not just one, but two.

Music City Bowl most valuable player Marion Barber III shook off a costly early fumble, had 100 yards at halftime and finished with 187 on 37 carries. Laurence Maroney, the Gophers' leading rusher this season, added 105 yards on 29 carries.

"We did the same thing all year long," Gophers coach Glen Mason said. "We're not real fancy."

From the start, it became clear Alabama didn't have an answer for the rushing surge Minnesota kept mounting. The Gophers' team total of 276 rushing yards was 65 more than Alabama had allowed an opponent all year.

"It wasn't a matter of they were fooling anybody," Tide defensive coordinator Joe Kines said. "Everybody sitting in the stands knew where the ball was going."

Alabama linebacker Cornelius Wortham went so far as to put Minnesota's tandem ahead of Auburn's fearsome duo of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.

"It's hard to slow them down," said Wortham of the Gophers. "You try to contain them, but they're going to get their yards. What people don't see is that those backs understand the blocking schemes. They're very smart."

Behind the legs of Barber and Maroney, the Gophers reached Tide territory on seven straight possessions spanning the first three periods. Two interceptions deep in its own territory and several missed passes near the goal line kept the lead within reach and Alabama in the game.

But there were too many missed opportunities for Alabama.

After Barber handed Alabama a touchdown by fumbling on the game's second play, Pennington handed it back moments later. Minnesota's Keith Lipka fell on a fumble at the goal line, making the score 7-7.

"When we got that score, everybody was about three feet off the ground," Mason said. "As far as I'm concerned, that was the play of the game."

Several times, the Gophers looked on the verge of running the Tide out of Nashville. Each time, Alabama managed to hang around.

When Minnesota place-kicker Rhys Lloyd shanked a 32-yard field goal attempt with 6:46 remaining, Alabama trailed 20-14 and had two shots to win with the majority of a crimson-shaded record crowd of 66,082 smelling a victory.

The first possession ended without a first down.

After Minnesota took a safety to avoid punting from its own end zone, the second Tide try ended when Pennington misfired on two passes from the 15.

It was a tough finish for Pennington, who turned in his best effort of the season against the nation's No. 112 pass defense. Despite several nice completions, Pennington won't forget costly misses like the next-to-last pass that sailed barely out of Prothro's reach.

"If I could have it back, I'd throw it lower," Pennington said. "That's on me."

While Mason was on the field accepting the bowl's trophy for his club, Shula sat in a news conference, being asked where the road leads for his team.

What will it take to get over the hump? The coach's answer was recruiting.

"The biggest thing, I think, is we all would have felt a lot better going into the offseason," Shula said. "It's a big learning process for all of us, including myself. ... This team hasn't been in a bowl game in a couple of year, and its coach hasn't been in a bowl game as a coach. I think all of us learned a little something this week."

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