Minnesota 29, Arkansas 14
NASHVILLE — If Minnesota coach Glen Mason had his way, Dan Nystrom would not have been named the Most Valuable Player of the Music City Bowl. Nystrom tied an NCAA record by kicking five field goals as Minnesota upset No. 25 Arkansas 29-14 Monday for the Golden Gophers' first bowl victory since 1985.
"I wish he was standing next to me and we were scoring touchdowns. I've got a lot of respect for this guy. He's had some slumps, and he's had periods where he kicked well," Mason said of the senior kicker. "He had a great day today."
The Gophers (8-5) had lost three straight bowls since beating Clemson in the 1985 Independence Bowl. They came into the game having blown their best start since 1961 by losing their final four games of the regular season and finishing seventh in the Big Ten.
Arkansas (9-5), the SEC's Western Division champ, was seeking its first 10-win season since going 10-2 in 1989. But Minnesota, with only two senior starters, dominated the Razorbacks. Arkansas is now 1-10 in its last 11 bowl games.
The Gophers controlled the ball and forced four turnovers, including two interceptions by senior cornerback Michael Lehan. Asad Abdul-Khaliq threw for a touchdown in the third quarter and Thomas Tapeh added a 33-yard run in the fourth.
"If Danny wasn't on the top of his game, then it would've been a lot tougher to win," said Abdul-Khaliq, who was 16-of-31 for 216 yards passing.
Nystrom bailed the Gophers out in the first half, when they repeatedly stalled near the goal line. He had kicks of 24, 45, 21 and 22 yards in the first half for a 12-7 halftime lead and added a 29-yarder in the fourth. His first three kicks made him the Big Ten's career field-goal leader, passing Travis Dorsch, who had 68 at Purdue.
Told about Mason's comments, Nystrom quickly agreed that he'd rather stand beside the coach watching the Golden Gophers score touchdowns.
"I'm surprised to win the MVP. Kickers never win MVP," he said. "It's a great ending for my career."
The senior became the fifth kicker with five field goals in a bowl game and the first since Dec. 28, 1995 when Texas A&M's Kyle Bryant did it in the Alamo Bowl against Michigan.
Nystrom might have had six field goals, but Minnesota chose to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the Arkansas 25 and turned the ball over on downs with 2:46 left.
Minnesota's failure to score touchdowns allowed the Razorbacks to stay close, despite the Gophers holding the ball for more than 38 minutes and having 434 total yards of offense compared to the Razorbacks' 288.
"We're better than that," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "We didn't perform like we should have. We didn't know where we were on the field defensively. We're usually so aggressive."
The Razorbacks started strong, putting together a 74-yard scoring drive on their first possession. The SEC's best rushing team went to the air as Matt Jones started with a 29-yard pass to Richard Smith and capped the drive with a 2-yard TD pass to George Wilson.
That turned out to be their best possession of the game, however, as they rushed for only 80 yards, well below their average of 226.9 per game.
Nutt pulled Jones in the fourth quarter, putting in Ryan Sorahan. It was too late, and his first drive ended when Fred Talley fumbled at midfield.
Minnesota had no trouble moving the ball against an Arkansas defense ranked 40th in the nation. The Golden Gophers had drives of 10, 13 and 10 plays, but were stopped three times inside the Arkansas 7 before halftime.
Arkansas had a chance to take the lead just before halftime when Jones found Smith in the end zone for what would have been a 31-yard TD catch, but Smith was ruled out of bounds.